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The Government is giving “100% attention” to its legislation on the Northern Ireland Protocol despite the Tory leadership race, the region’s Secretary of State has insisted.
Shailesh Vara was commenting as the contentious Bill that would empower ministers to override aspects of the post-Brexit trading arrangements was again debated at Westminster.
Day one of the committee stage of the Bill’s progression through Parliament was heard as Conservative MPs cast their votes in the first round of the contest to replace Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Mr Vara, speaking to reporters outside, insisted the Bill was not being forgotten about.
“It is receiving 100% attention,” he said.
“Yes, the Conservative Party is in the process of electing a new leader but that is not to say that legislation is not continuing, as it rightly does both for Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.”
Powersharing in Northern Ireland is in limbo after the DUP blocked the formation of a devolved executive following May’s election in protest at the protocol.
Unionists and loyalists are enraged at trade arrangements that have resulted in new checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement but the Government’s controversial legislative move would effectively scrap the bulk of the arrangements.
Mr Vara, who replaced Brandon Lewis as secretary of state last week, insisted triggering the legislation remained a “last resort” and the Government’s preferred option was to find a negotiated solution with the EU that would cut red tape on Irish Sea trade.
He said “communication and engagement” would be key to finding a resolution.
“I think most political parties and many of the business community and individuals in Northern Ireland recognise that the system that we have at the moment is not working correctly and they all recognise that there ought to be some change,” he said.
“And what we are prepared to do and very happy to do, and indeed have been trying to do, is to engage and the UK Government has been engaging with the EU to try and take a common sense approach and move forward.
“Sadly, however, whilst people are saying they want to engage in dialogue and conversation and this should be a negotiated settlement, sadly when you sit at the table, the response is sometimes ‘well, sorry, but you know, you’ve signed up to this, so we’re going to have to get on with it’.
“So, if that attitude prevails, then I’m afraid the people of Northern Ireland will not get the common sense approach that I want.
“So, what I want to do is for everyone to recognise that what is there at the moment is not working, and we need to talk and make it work and this (the Bill) is a last resort, but you know we are determined that if it’s necessary we will pass that legislation, because it’s in the interest of the nearly 1.9 million people in Northern Ireland.”
Speaking during the first day of the Bill’s committee stage, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the legislation would lead to the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland.
He added: “I’m absolutely convinced of that and my party has stated clearly that if this Bill becomes law, we believe that provides the basis for restoring the political institutions in Northern Ireland, including the executive, and I’ve already committed to leave this place and to return to Stormont as the deputy first minister as part of that executive.
“Therefore I have a personal commitment to the restoration of the political institutions, as does my party.”
Senior Conservative MPs also called on ministers to allow the Commons to consider any reasons for disapplying parts of the agreement in future.
Former attorney general Sir Geoffrey Cox said: “It is no unserious or light matter for this House to take a step that is in contravention of its international obligations. The dignity of this nation rests upon its word being seen to be implemented once it is given.”
None of the amendments pushed to a vote were approved, including Liberal Democrat demands for the publication of the legal justification for altering parts of the protocol and Labour’s bid to prevent the UK making changes unilaterally unless they have followed the proper procedures.