Britain will set out steps to tackle post-Brexit trade issues in Northern Ireland on Tuesday but will not introduce a new law this week, Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis said, offering time for a solution to be agreed with the EU.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday the government needed an “insurance” option to be able to unilaterally override some post-Brexit trade rules for the province, a move that could trigger a trade war with the European Union.
The two sides have been trying for months to overcome a deadlock over the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the trading rules for the British region that London agreed before it left the EU but now says are unworkable.
Lewis said Britain still wanted to find a negotiated solution with the EU, but it would not rule anything out after it was mooted that the government could introduce a law which would “disapply” parts of the protocol.
“We’ve always said we take nothing off the table. If we do need to legislate, we will not shy away from doing that,” he told BBC Television.
Senior ministers will meet to decide on Britain’s next steps early on Tuesday following Johnson’s discussions with political parties in Northern Ireland on Monday, Lewis said, before Foreign Secretary Liz Truss makes a statement to parliament.
But asked whether Britain would introduce new legislation as soon as this week, Lewis told Sky News: “Something like that this week was never on the cards.”
He said parliament was still busy debating and voting on the government’s legislative agenda for the coming year.
The EU has repeatedly said any trade difficulties must be resolved within the parameters of the protocol. Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said last week the EU would launch legal action and possibly impose countermeasures if London took unilateral action.
Johnson agreed to the protocol in 2019 to allow Britain to leave the EU’s single market and customs union without controls being re-imposed on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, a vital part of the 1998 Good Friday peace deal that ended three decades of violence.
But the plan effectively introduced a customs border between Britain and Northern Ireland, incensing many pro-British unionists.
The outcome of regional elections in Northern Ireland increased pressure on Johnson to introduce changes to the protocol after unionists refused to join a new administration unless there were changes to the trading rules.
Lewis said Britain wants products which are moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland not to be subject to the same checks as those which are destined for the EU.
“We think there is a way of doing that, as I say, effectively providing that green lane for products that are staying within the UK internal market,” he said.