A no-deal Brexit will be back on the table if the UK triggers Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, members of the House of Lords have told a Dail committee.
The UK’s Brexit Minister, Lord Frost, said on Wednesday it is not “inevitable” that their government would take that action, but said it would be “our only option” if negotiations with the EU fail.
Such a move is likely to spark retaliation from the EU, with talk of a suspension of the EU-UK trade deal that could result in a trade war.
Lord Jay of Ewelme, chairman of the House of Lords sub-Committee on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, said a triggering of Article 16 risks resetting negotiations and could result in a no-deal Brexit.
He said: “I agree with you very much on what to say about the risks of Article 16 being imposed or being triggered, and the response to Article 16 by the European Union, potentially leading to all the complicated negotiations with the prospect of a no-deal as the last stage.
“That is one end of the spectrum.
“The other end of the spectrum, which I think we can’t rule it out, and I certainly wouldn’t want to rule out, although I must say that the prospects are not looking brilliant at the moment, is for a negotiated settlement to be reached between now and Christmas or over Christmas.
“I don’t think we can rule that out.”
The comments came at a joint meeting between the Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, with the House of Lords Committee and the Seanad Special Select Committee on Brexit, on Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, Irish deputy premier Leo Varadkar said EU retaliatory action should be expected if London unilaterally activates Article 16 of the protocol, to suspend post-Brexit checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
He said a suspension of the EU-UK trade deal would require a year’s notice, which would spark further uncertainty for businesses in Northern Ireland, the Republic and the UK.
He said: “I think that would be a big mistake. The uncertainty that was created by Brexit went on for years.
“I think it would be a big mistake for the British Government now to reopen that uncertainty.
“I’d hate us to be talking again about a no-deal Brexit or a cliff edge, or any of those terms that we’d forgotten and almost stopped using.
“Any attempt to trigger Article 16, I think, would be bad news for business in Northern Ireland, here in Ireland and indeed in Britain.”
He warned Prime Minister Boris Johnson that a move to suspend the protocol will not result in a better deal.
“We have an agreement in relation to Northern Ireland, we have an agreement in relation to trade with the European Union. Don’t jeopardise that agreement,” he said.
“You were part of negotiating us, you own it, it was hard-won.
“It’s a mistake to think that, by escalating tensions, by withdrawing from any part of it or trying to withdraw from any part of it, that you’ll end up with a better deal. You won’t.”
The Irish Government has begun reactivating no-deal contingency planning in preparation for a potential unravelling of the Brexit deal.
Talks between London and Brussels over the contentious protocol remain deadlocked and there is growing speculation that the UK is poised to trigger Article 16 in the coming weeks.
Lord Hain, a former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, told the committee that a move to trigger Article 16 by the UK Government would be “aggressive and bombastic”.
He said: “If Lord Frost does announce the triggering of Article 16, that is a very aggressive and bombastic move by the British Government, that I … fear has been coming for a while.
“We’re going to need to work together with you parliamentarians across the Irish Sea to try and cope with the fallout because I think it’ll be significant.
“It seems to me that his (Lord Frost’s) negotiating stance under the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has pointed to the triggering of Article 16 and a confrontation, which in my view is not designed to solve the problem.
“It is designed to appeal to the Conservative Party’s Brexit base, which is a total and radical departure from the close relationship of trust that was painstakingly built over decades between Dublin and London.
“And given the tangled history of the two countries and the two centres, to destroy that trust is very, very serious indeed.
“We’ve got to do our best, if this transpires, and it’s already badly damaged that trust.
“If this transpires we’ve got to do our best to rebuild trust and strengthen it between ourselves, as it were, in parallel to what’s going on from London.”
Lord Frost told the House of Lords on Wednesday that Europe should “stay calm and keep things in proportion”.
He said there was “a real opportunity to turn away from confrontation, to move beyond our current difficulties and put in place a new, and better, equilibrium” in the talks.
He added: “There is more to do and I will certainly not give up on this process unless and until it is abundantly clear that nothing more can be done. We are certainly not there yet.
“If, however, we do in due course reach that point, the Article 16 safeguards will be our only option.”