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Kwasi Kwarteng (Photo: Sky News)
The UK can rip up the Northern Ireland Protocol without breaking international law, a cabinet minister has insisted.
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the government was prepared to scrap the post-Brexit trade agreement - known as invoking Article 16 - in order to ensure “political stability” in Northern Ireland.
The Protocol, a key part of the withdrawal treaty struck between the UK and European Union after Brexit, has led to checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
This has angered the Democratic Unionist Party, who have said they will not enter into a power-sharing executive at Stormont at Sinn Fein unless the Protocol is radically redrawn.
Boris Johnson will fly to Belfast on Monday in an attempt to broker an agreement between the political parties to get the Northern Ireland Assembly back up and running.
Appearing on Sky News this morning, Kwarteng made it clear the government was prepared to ramp up tensions with Brussels by scrapping the Protocol.
Asked if ministers were prepared to do so unilaterally, Kwarteng said: “Absolutely right. Throughout this whole debate, even before the Protocol and the [withdrawal] treaty, we’ve had a number of people in this country whose presumption has been that the British government is always wrong and the EU is always right and that’s clearly too simplistic.
“We’ve tried to enter in good faith, we’ve tried to negotiate the withdrawal treaty, but we’ve always said, even Article 16 of the Protocol itself says, that it can be abrogated unilaterally if it’s shown not to be working, and clearly, if political stability is our priority and people are saying they won’t go into power-sharing if it doesn’t change, we have to consider very carefully how we can change it.
Pressed on whether that would break international law, the business ewcretary said: “I’m unclear as to this because clearly Article 16 is part of the Protocol itself, and when you read it, it says quite clearly there’s a scope to change it unilaterally - unilaterally means that we can do that ourselves without having to reach agreement with the EU.”
Kwarteng also rejected suggestions that unilateral UK action could lead to a damaging trade war, with the EU introducing tariffs which would further increase prices in the shops.
“Any tariff situation would have to go to arbitrators,” he said. “It is not something they can do willy nilly, arbitrarily. We got into a lot of problems because we simply ruled out the ability to walk away.
“Article 16 is enshrined (in the Withdrawal Agreement). It does allow people to act unilaterally and we have got ultimately to be prepared to invoke it.
“I don’t think they are necessarily going to be able to slap on tariffs arbitrarily. I think it will take a very long time for that process to work out. As far as I am concerned, we have absolutely the right to invoke Article 16 and reopen or re-examine the protocol.”
Appearing on the same programme, Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney accused the UK of “sabre rattling and grandstanding”, and said there was still a chance that a negotiated settlement can be reached.
He said: “At a time when the world needs the western world to be united, to be in concert solving problems together, this is a problem we need to solve together. The last thing Ireland wants, the last thing the EU needs, is tension with a country the size and influence of the United Kingdom.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.