LONDON â€” The British government faced fresh domestic criticism over its â€œunilateralâ€ move to waive post-Brexit checks on goods entering Northern Ireland.
Simon Hoare, the Conservative chair of the Northern Ireland select committee, on Wednesday called on ministers to recognize the â€œvery destabilizing effect on trustâ€ of Britainâ€™s decision to unilaterally extend a number of grace periods designed to stagger the introduction of checks at the border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Brussels says the move breaches the Brexit Withdrawal Agreementâ€™s Northern Ireland protocol, a crucial part of the deal aimed to preserve the Good Friday peace agreement. The European Commission is preparing to take legal action as a result.
Hoare urged Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis to resume discussions with the EU at the Joint Committee, created to oversee the protocol.
Speaking during an urgent question in the House of Commons, Hoare called on Lewis â€œto desist from a narrative of unilateral action and debate, get back around the Joint Committee table and make sure that the protocol works, that everybody understands that it is here to stay and that it can benefit very significantly the people, the economy and communities in Northern Ireland.â€
Labourâ€™s Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh said the governmentâ€™s unilateral response meant its â€œwords cannot be trusted.â€
â€œProvocation is not a strategy and a stop gap is not a solution,â€ she told MPs. â€œThis is an extraordinary position for a government to be in â€” having to break the law and trash Britainâ€™s international reputation to remove checks they claimed never existed.â€
That was echoed by Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, who pleaded with Lewis to focus on negotiating longer-term solutions, including agreeing a veterinary protocol with the EU.
â€œItâ€™s far from clear to me just exactly what the government is trying to achieve in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol at the moment, but whatever it is you have to think that it can only have been damaged by what we saw happening and the continuous insistence on unilateral action here,â€ he said.
The Scottish National Party also criticized the move, with MP Richard Thomson attacking the â€œprovocative and belligerent mannerâ€ of the U.K. governmentâ€™s actions.
But Lewis defended the U.K. governmentâ€™s â€œlawfulâ€ decision, which he said had been backed by a â€œrange of businesses and the communitiesâ€ in Northern Ireland.
He said ministers had wanted to agree a solution with Brussels, but argued it had been impossible to reach consensus with Brussels before the deadline the government had set itself for making a decision. The U.K. remains committed to trying to find â€œpermanent solutionsâ€ through the Joint Committee, he added.
â€œMy view is having spoken to businesses, if we hadnâ€™t have taken the action that we took last week, we would have had empty shelves in supermarkets in Northern Ireland imminently now and I think that would have raised tensions further and it may well have undermined the protocol fatally, in a way that is not actually in the best interests of either the EU, the U.K. or the people of Northern Ireland,â€ Lewis said.