Boris Johnson talked out of triggering 'nuclear option' over Northern Ireland Brexit stalemate

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Boris Johnson - David Rose/Daily Telegraph/PA
Boris Johnson - David Rose/Daily Telegraph/PA

Boris Johnson was ready to overhaul the Northern Ireland Protocol this week but was talked down by his Brexit minister Lord Frost, The Telegraph has learnt.

With the UK now demanding a renegotiation of the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, The Telegraph has been told Mr Johnson is now convinced of the need to use the so-called “nuclear option” if Brussels refuses.

It is understood that the warning was issued to Dublin this week, with UK officials making clear that it is Mr Johnson, rather than Lord Frost, who is most in favour of triggering Article 16 should the EU fail to change course.

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, is also known to have relayed similar messages to Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, during recent discussions over post-Brexit arrangements in the province.

Known as the measure of last resort, Article 16 is the mechanism by which either side is able to suspend parts of the protocol if they believe it is causing serious economic or societal harm in Northern Ireland.

The DUP and a number of senior Tory MPs have already argued that the conditions for this have been met, as the protocol, set up to prevent a hard Irish border after Brexit, has caused significant trade disruption since the beginning of this year.

The requirement for Northern Ireland to continue applying EU rules and checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea from Britain has also sparked significant unrest among loyalists, culminating in days of rioting in April.

This week Lord Frost confirmed for the first time that the UK believed the conditions for triggering Article 16 had now been met and that the protocol in its current form is no longer sustainable.

However, in a bid to bring the European Commission back to the negotiating table, he made clear the Government hopes to avoid this and instead is calling for the protocol to be rewritten.

Norther Ireland - Brian Lawless/PA
Norther Ireland - Brian Lawless/PA

The European Union has said it will engage with the UK proposals but will not reopen the protocol, setting the two sides on a major collision course for September.

One source said that it was Lord Frost who pushed for the UK to take a more measured approach, as he still believes it is possible to resolve issues with the protocol through joint negotiation with the EU.

Approached for comment, senior UK government sources did not dispute the claim but stressed that Mr Johnson had fully accepted the strategy, which was also endorsed by the Brexit Cabinet subcommittee known as “XS”.

“He [the Prime Minister] is more fed up and takes a harder line,” a government source acknowledged. “His instincts are more robust.”

The EU has in recent months sought to blame deteriorating relations on Lord Frost’s aggressive negotiating tactics, which senior government sources believe is an attempt to drive a wedge between him and Mr Johnson.

But the disclosure suggests that Downing Street has now made clear to Brussels that it is Mr Johnson driving the UK’s stance on Northern Ireland.

The UK is now asking for a “standstill period” while the negotiations take place, during which grace periods covering the movement of supermarket goods, parcels and chilled meats from Britain would continue past their expiry date.

Lord Frost has also put forward a series of proposals requesting that Brussels agrees to remove checks and restrictions on British goods entering Northern Ireland that are not at risk of crossing into the Single Market, while removing the flow of medicines from the protocol altogether.

Another proposal would end the European Court of Justice’s role in disputes relating to Northern Ireland, which continues to follow EU rules under the agreement.

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