Liz Truss – 2022 Statement on the Northern Ireland Protocol

The statement made by Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, in the House of Commons on 17 May 2022.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the Northern Ireland protocol and to lay out the next steps. Our first priority is to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. That agreement put in place a new arrangement for the governance of Northern Ireland and these islands composed of three interlocking strands: a power-sharing Government at Stormont on the basis of consent and parity of esteem for all communities; intensified north-south co-operation on the island of Ireland; and enhanced arrangements for east-west co-operation. So much of the progress we have seen in Northern Ireland rests on this agreement, and for the agreement to continue to operate successfully, all three strands must function successfully. These arrangements are the foundation on which the modern, thriving Northern Ireland is built. It commands the support of parties across this House, and we will continue to work with all communities in Northern Ireland to protect it.

As a Government, we want to see a First Minister and Deputy First Minister in place, and we want to work with them to make further progress. The basis for successful power sharing remains strong, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister laid out yesterday. However, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is under strain, and, regrettably, the Northern Ireland Executive has not been fully functioning since early February. This is because the Northern Ireland protocol does not have the support necessary in one part of the community in Northern Ireland. I also note that all Northern Ireland’s political parties agree on the need for changes to the protocol.

The practical problems are clear to see. As the House will know, the protocol has not yet been implemented in full, due to the operation of grace periods and easements. However, EU customs procedures for moving goods within the UK have already meant that companies are facing significant costs and paperwork. Some businesses have stopped this trade altogether. These challenges have been sharpened by the post-covid economic recovery. Rules on taxation mean that citizens in Northern Ireland are unable to benefit fully from the same advantages as the rest of the UK, such as the reduction in VAT on solar panels. Sanitary and phytosanitary rules mean that producers face onerous restrictions, including veterinary certification, in order to sell foodstuffs in shops in Northern Ireland.

These practical problems have contributed to the sense that the east-west relationship has been undermined. Without resolving these and other issues, we will not be able to re-establish the Executive and preserve the hard-won progress sustained by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We need to restore the balance in the agreement.

Our preference is to reach a negotiated outcome with the EU; we have worked tirelessly to that end and will continue to do so. I have had six months of negotiations with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, which follow a year of discussions undertaken by my predecessor. The UK has proposed what we believe to be a comprehensive and reasonable solution to deliver on the objectives of the protocol. This includes a trusted trader scheme to provide the EU with real-time commercial data, giving it confidence that goods intended for Northern Ireland are not entering the EU single market. We are already sharing over 1 million rows of goods movement data with the EU every week.

Our proposed solution would meet both our and the EU’s original objectives for the protocol. It would address the frictions in east-west trade while protecting the EU single market and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The challenge is that this solution requires a change in the protocol itself, as its current drafting prevents it from being implemented, but the EU’s mandate does not allow the protocol to be changed. That is why its current proposals are unable to address the fundamental concerns. In fact, it is our assessment that they would go backward from the situation we have today with the standstill.

As the Prime Minister said, our shared objective must be to find a solution that can command the broadest possible cross-community support for years to come and protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. That is why I am announcing our intention to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to make changes in the protocol.

Our preference remains a negotiated solution with the EU. In parallel with the legislation being introduced, we remain open to further talks if we can achieve the same outcome through a negotiated settlement. I have invited Vice-President Šefčovič to a meeting of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee in London to discuss that as soon as possible.

However, to respond to the very grave and serious situation in Northern Ireland, we are clear that there is a necessity to act to ensure that the institutions can be restored as soon as possible. The Government are clear that proceeding with the Bill is consistent with our obligations in international law and in support of our prior obligations in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Before any changes are made, we will consult businesses and people in Northern Ireland as our proposals are put forward.

I want to be clear to the House that this is not about scrapping the protocol; our aim is to deliver on the protocol’s objectives. We will cement the provisions in the protocol that are working, including the common travel area, the single electricity market and north-south co-operation, while fixing those elements that are not, such as the movement of goods, goods regulation, VAT, subsidy control and governance.

The Bill will put in place the necessary measures to lessen the burden on east-west trade and to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are able to access the same benefits as the people of Great Britain. It will ensure that goods moving and staying within the UK are freed of unnecessary bureaucracy through our new green channel.

That respects Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s customs territory and protects the UK internal market. At the same time, it ensures that goods destined for the EU undergo the full checks and controls applied under EU law. That will be underpinned by the data-sharing arrangements that I have already set out. It will allow both east-west trade and the EU single market to be protected while removing customs paperwork for goods remaining in the United Kingdom.

The Bill will remove regulatory barriers to goods made to UK standards being sold in Northern Ireland. Businesses will be able to choose between meeting UK or EU standards in a new dual regulatory regime. It will provide the Government with the ability to decide on tax and spend policies across the whole United Kingdom. It will address issues related to governance, bringing the protocol in line with international norms. At the same time, it will take new measures to protect the EU single market by implementing robust penalties for those who seek to abuse the new system, and it will continue to ensure that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland.

I will publish more detail on these solutions in the coming weeks, and let me be crystal clear that, even as we do so, we will continue to engage with the EU. The Bill will contain an explicit power to give effect to a new, revised protocol if we can reach an accommodation that meets our goal of protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We remain open to a negotiated solution, but the urgency of the situation means we cannot afford to delay any longer. The UK has clear responsibilities as the sovereign Government of Northern Ireland to ensure parity of esteem and the protection of economic rights. We are clear that the EU will not be negatively impacted in any way, just as we have ensured the protection of the EU single market since the existence of the protocol.

We must restore the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all of its dimensions as the basis for the restoration of the Executive, and we will do so through technical measures designed to achieve the stated objectives of the protocol, tailored to the reality of Northern Ireland. We will do so in a way that fundamentally respects both Unions—that of the United Kingdom and that of the EU—and we will live up to our commitments to all communities of Northern Ireland. As co-signatory and co-guarantor of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, we will take the necessary decisions to preserve peace and stability. I commend this statement to the House.