- Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government said it planned to break international law.
- Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis on Tuesday said the government’s plans for the province would break international law “in a very specific and limited way.”
- The acknowledgment came in response to a question from a Conservative MP who expressed concern with Johnson’s plans to make “minor clarifications” to the Brexit withdrawal agreement with the EU.
- The answer prompted visible shock on opposition benches.
- It followed the resignation of the head of the government’s legal department.
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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has admitted that its plan to make changes to the Brexit protocol for Northern Ireland is a breach of international law.
In an extraordinary exchange in the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon, Brandon Lewis, the UK’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said the plan “does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”
A Financial Times report on Sunday that said the UK government was seeking to overwrite the protocol for Northern Ireland agreed upon with the European Union sent shockwaves throughout Westminster and Brussels.
Johnson’s government will on Wednesday table legislation that, if implemented, would give UK minsters the power to unilaterally determine several issues relating to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain which are being negotiated by UK and EU officials.
UK government officials said the changes were minor and would not supplant the withdrawal agreement struck last year. In practice, they would give UK ministers the power to decide which goods are “at risk” of entering the EU, waive export declarations on goods heading from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, and pick and choose when to inform Brussels of state aid decisions that affect the Northern Ireland goods market.
The government has faced accusations across the political spectrum of seeking to wriggle out of commitments it signed up for as part of the Brexit withdrawal treaty. On Tuesday, the Financial Times reported that Jonathan Jones, the head of the UK government’s legal department, had quit his position in an apparent protest against the government’s plans.
On Tuesday, Lewis confirmed claims that the UK government was planning to break international law.
In a question to Lewis, Conservative Member of Parliament Bob Neill said, “Adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable.” He then asked: “Against that background, will he assure us that nothing that is proposed in this legislation does or potentially might breach international legal obligations or international legal arrangements that we have entered into?”
To the visible shock of MPs on the opposition benches, including Labour shadow ministers Louise Haigh and Lisa Nandy, Lewis said: “Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”
He said: “We are taking the power to disapply the EU law concept of direct effect, required by Article 4 in certain, very tightly defined circumstances. There are precedents for the UK, and indeed other countries, needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change.”
Lewis added that legislation called the Finance Act 2013 “contains the example of treaty override, it contains provisions that expressly disapply international tax treaties to the extent that these conflict with the general anti-abuse rule.”
Watch Lewis say the UK plans to break international law:
???? Brandon Lewis confirms the Government will break international law on EU Withdrawal Deal:
"Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way". pic.twitter.com/6B8pU5M2cH
— Adam Schwarz (@AdamJSchwarz) September 8, 2020
Neill later tweeted that “any breach” of international law was “unacceptable.”
Several other Conservative MPs have publicly expressed their opposition to the plan. Simon Hoare said the UK was at risk of no longer being a “country that keeps its word and abides by international obligations.” Sir Roger Gale said that the government’s plan to change the protocol would be “regarded world-wide as an act of bad faith.”
Earlier in the debate, former UK prime minister Theresa May suggested that her replacement Johnson was seeking to abandon promises he signed up to in international law. She asked Lewis: “How can the government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?”
Another senior Conservative MP, George Freeman, tweeted: “That sound you hear? It’s the sound of the Supreme Court preparing to remind Ministers that intentionally breaking the law – even in a very specific and limited way â€” is, well, unlawful.”
Any breach, or potential breach, of the international legal obligations we have entered into is unacceptable, regardless of whether it’s in a ‘specific’ or ‘limited way’.
Adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable. pic.twitter.com/VQhhA5w6lJ
— Sir Bob Neill MP (@neill_bob) September 8, 2020
Stephen Farry, the Alliance MP for North Down in Northern Ireland, said it was a “truly extraordinary state of affairs,” adding, “It is hard to see how this situation is tenable or sustainable, or at least how it would be in a normal democracy.”
Haigh, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said it was “absolutely astonishing that the secretary of state for Northern Ireland has confirmed the government will be in breach of international law by undermining the Northern Ireland Protocol. This seriously undermines our authority on the international stage.”
Matthew O’Toole, the Northern Irish assembly member for Belfast South, said Lewis’ acknowledgment was “chilling.”
He told Business Insider: “People in Northern Ireland already knew Johnson’s government had little more than contempt for them, but for a Northern Ireland secretary to brazenly state on the floor of the House of Commons that the UK will break international legal obligations designed to protect Northern Ireland society is a new low.
“A dark populism has gripped this government, which now seems indifferent not only to the solemn pledges made to people of Northern Ireland but to its international reputation.”