UK Prime Minister Liz Truss’s new government has hinted at rowing back from a fight with the EU over Brexit, with the new Northern Ireland minister stating that the government is seeking a negotiated agreement with Brussels on the controversial Northern Ireland protocol.
Addressing lawmakers in the House of Commons on Wednesday (7 September), the new Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris said that the government’s priority was for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to return to a power-sharing executive in Belfast. Northern Ireland has been without a government since May’s assembly elections, which saw Sinn Fein, which campaigns for a united Ireland, topping the polls.
“But in order to do that, we do need to fix the issues of the Northern Ireland protocol which has damaged the balance between the communities in Northern Ireland,” he added.
The DUP has said that it will not nominate an assembly speaker or re-enter the power-sharing executive until its concerns over the Northern Ireland protocol have been resolved.
Following further questions about whether the bill allowing UK ministers to override the protocol would be fast-tracked into law, he replied that the Truss government was “committed to resolving the problems in the protocol, ideally through a negotiation, but, if not, through legislation.”
Later, he added that “I am very keen we try and negotiate a solution with the European Union and sort out the issues of the protocol.”
Former foreign secretary Liz Truss was confirmed as the new Prime Minister on Monday after winning a ballot of the Conservative party’s 160,000 members.
Weeks before Johnson was forced to stand down following an internal coup by Conservative lawmakers, Truss tabled a bill that would unilaterally override the Northern Ireland protocol. The draft bill is currently making its way through parliament. During the election campaign over the summer, Truss’s aides hinted that one of her first acts as Prime Minister could be to suspend the protocol, potentially paving the way to another dispute between the UK and the EU.
Johnson's likely successor set to suspend NI protocol
Liz Truss, the frontrunner in the race to replace Boris Johnson as UK Prime Minister, is poised to trigger Article 16, suspending the Northern Ireland protocol, as one of her government’s first acts.
The protocol, which was negotiated and agreed upon by Truss’s predecessor Boris Johnson, has been a major point of contention throughout the Brexit process. Talks between EU and UK officials aimed at making changes to the implementation and scope of the protocol to assuage the concerns of Northern Ireland’s unionist community, which complains that the protocol separates them from the rest of the UK market by introducing customs checks on products arriving from Britain, were opened in mid-2021 but have made little progress.
A former MEP who acquired a reputation as a fierce eurosceptic before making the switch to Westminster in 2010, Heaton Harris served as chief whip and Minister for Europe in Boris Johnson’s government.
He is expected to meet with political leaders in Northern Ireland on Thursday.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]