Proposed laws to override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol are not designed to prop up the UK Prime Minister or appease hardline Brexiteers, a British Government minister has insisted.
Northern Ireland Office minister Conor Burns denied there is a “sub agenda” behind the legislation and said it is about “fixing” issues with the post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Mr Burns told members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee he wants to take the politics out of the impasse over the protocol and instead refocus on the process issues with its implementation.
Committee chairman Simon Hoare praised Mr Burns’ approach but suggested he is in the minority within Government.
Mr Hoare said there is concern the protocol row would be used to create a “punch up with the EU” and as “red meat, dead cats, play-things, distractions either to salve the appetites of the European Research Group, shore up the robustness of the Prime Minister or get editorial red tops on side”.
Mr Hoare suggested other ministers would use the issue to show “a bit of leg and a bit of muscle” to further their own leadership ambitions.
Mr Burns insisted Boris Johnson is in “the space of wanting to fix this”.
He said the Government’s preferred resolution is an agreed settlement with the EU, but said that will not be achievable unless European leaders widened the negotiating mandate of European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic.
“We cannot just sit back and wait in the hope that the mandate will broaden,” he told MPs.
“So that is why we will get into the legislative space but it will be to fix it and it will not be about propping up or getting headlines or appeasing any particular element within Parliament, be that inside the Government or inside Northern Ireland political parties.”
On the suggestion the Government is trying to assuage DUP concerns, Mr Burns said:
“I’m an openly gay Catholic born in north Belfast who supports the Union, I don’t do things for the DUP.
“I do things because they are the right things to do for the United Kingdom. And fixing this will have the consequence hopefully of restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland.”
The NIO minister said he appreciates businesses in Northern Ireland need certainty on their trading environment.
“We want a negotiated solution to this with the Commission; we think that is by far the best means, the optimum means to do that,” he said.
“But, in the absence of that, in order to provide the level of certainty that we want to deliver to businesses in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the United Kingdom, we will bring forward legislation.
“We want a spirit of co-operation and partnership with our friends in the EU.
“One of my ambitions is to drag this protocol stuff maybe out of the politics and back into process, because that’s essentially what we’re talking about.
“We’re talking about how to create a system of checks and regulations that reflect different destinations of different goods and types within these islands. We have long maintained that with a degree of pragmatism and goodwill there should be a negotiated solution that can be found.
“Regrettably, it cannot be found within the strict mandate that vice president (of the European Commission for Interinstitutional Relations Maros) Sefcovic is currently operating under.”
While creating new checks and processes on the movement of goods between Great Britain and the Northern Ireland, the protocol also offers traders in the region unfettered access to sell both within the UK internal market and into the EU single market.
Alliance MP Stephen Farry asked Mr Burns if the Government acknowledges the economic opportunity presented by the dual market access.
The minister replied: “We’re absolutely of the view that this is an amazing opportunity for Northern Ireland.”
During his evidence session before the committee, Mr Burns was also asked about Government investment programmes in Northern Ireland.
There was a particular focus on programmes designed to replace lost EU financial support, such as the Levelling Up fund.
Stormont ministers have criticised the Government’s policy of directly funding projects in Northern Ireland, expressing concerns the approach could lead to duplication or conflict with the devolved executive’s funding plans.
Mr Burns rejected the criticism of the centralised funding approach.
“We see it as value added,” he said.
“We see it as adding to, not detracting from, the core responsibilities of the Executive.”
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