Johnson is desperate. His illegal plan in Northern Ireland is just designed to save himself | David Lammy

The Guardian
The Guardian
Government threatens to scrap Northern Ireland protocol, Westminster, London, UK - 16 May 2022<br>Mandatory Credit: Photo by Amer Ghazzal/REX/Shutterstock (12942558b) Pro Europe protesters waving the Irish tricolor and European Union flag outside parliament to keep the Northern Ireland protocol. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has issued warnings that he would be prepared to override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, rather than jeopardising the Good Friday agreement Government threatens to scrap Northern Ireland protocol, Westminster, London, UK - 16 May 2022 Photograph: Amer Ghazzal/REX/Shutterstock

At 6am on 10 April 1998 at Stormont’s Castle Buildings, after round upon round of multiparty negotiations, the Good Friday agreement was signed. In 30 minutes, the violent conflict that had lasted 30 years was finally, for the most part, over.

It was one of the most significant moments of modern British history and one of the last Labour government’s greatest achievements. Twenty four years later, the relative peace and stability this act of international diplomacy secured must not be taken for granted.

But instead of acting responsibly to protect the Good Friday agreement and support the people of Northern Ireland, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are raising tensions with a reckless attempt to shred the protocol agreement his government negotiated just a couple of years ago.

It was Johnson’s deal that introduced barriers in the Irish Sea after promising that it would not. There is no getting around this. The Conservatives must take responsibility for problems in the protocol that now need to be fixed. In addition, as Labour has always said, the EU must listen to businesses and communities in Northern Ireland and be more flexible, so compromise can be found.

A solution is achievable. No one wants to see unnecessary checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. A sensible and serious Westminster government would work with all parties to solve these problems. Instead, Johnson has put his fingers in his ears and introduced legislation that would unilaterally override the protocol in UK law.

This legislation is not driven by the needs of Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK, our businesses or our wider economy. It is a lawbreaking and desperate attempt by Boris Johnson to distract from his leadership crisis that will make genuine solutions more difficult to reach, not less.

The consequences are stark. First, the prime minister is shredding Britain’s hard-won reputation as a dependable country that respects the rule of law. Not content with breaking the law at home, he appears to be insistent on breaking it internationally as well. The solemn promise of international law depends on countries acting in good faith and upholding their commitments to treaties they have agreed. How would we react if a country we negotiated with did the same thing and just disregarded the commitments we had mutually agreed upon?

Second, these reckless actions risk the creation of new trade barriers in a cost of living crisis. It is the government’s duty to ensure this is avoided, but the EU will almost certainly take some retaliatory action against the UK if the government breaks the agreement unilaterally. New barriers to trade are the last thing British businesses or the public need as inflation rockets and so many are struggling to pay their bills.

Related: The Guardian view on the Northern Ireland protocol bill: reckless provocation | Editorial

Third, it creates new divisions between the UK and Europe at the precise time we need to pull together against Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine. It shows a total lack of judgment for Johnson to be picking fights with the EU for domestic reasons while disregarding the need for western unity as war continues to rage on the edge of our continent.

Labour wants to make Brexit work for our country and the UK to flourish outside the EU. For this to be achieved, the government needs to stop the political posturing and engage seriously in finding a resolution.

We have been calling for months for the government to secure a veterinary standards agreement that will reduce the vast majority of barriers and checks and bring long-term stability and certainty to Northern Ireland. Business groups, from the CBI to the Ulster Farmers Union, and many of the political parties in Northern Ireland, have been pleading with the government to agree to one. Labour would also negotiate with the EU for more flexibility on VAT in Northern Ireland to fully align Northern Irish VAT rules with those of Great Britain, as well as securing a data-sharing deal which would ease the flow of goods from east to west.

If the government was serious about improving the lives of people across Northern Ireland and the whole UK, it would recognise the historical fact that progress is achieved through serious negotiations, statecraft and graft. Not reckless attempts to ignore the law to appeal to the European Research Group. The Good Friday agreement is a reminder that in the past we have overcome far greater challenges in Northern Ireland. Rediscovering the power of diplomacy should not be beyond the wit of serious leaders with a sense of duty and purpose.

  • David Lammy is the shadow foreign secretary

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