UK Government plans to override parts of the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland amount to “agitator legislation”, the Ulster Unionist Party leader has told a House of Lords committee.
Doug Beattie told the Lords sub-committee on the Northern Ireland Protocol that while the UK Government plan would have a “detrimental” impact on relations with the European Union in the short-term, it might drive both sides back to the negotiating table.
The UK Government has said it intends to use domestic law to override parts of the protocol.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss announced plans to legislate last month and the Bill is expected to be published in the coming days.
Mr Beattie is in Westminster this week for a series of meetings to discuss the political stalemate in Northern Ireland.
The DUP is refusing to enter the powersharing institutions until issues with the post-Brexit settlement for Northern Ireland are addressed.
Mr Beattie, who appeared before the committee on Wednesday afternoon, called it “agitator legislation”.
He said: “It will really have a detrimental effect on our relationship between Great Britain and the European Union.
“And we will get a response from the EU in regards to our legislation and then they will back off, and they will back off for two or three months, maybe until after the summer and there will be no negotiations.
“But what it will do is it will bring people back to the table after the summer, I would imagine.
“Because of the legislation that is coming forward, things are likely to get worse before they get better, but we believe they will get better if we keep engaging.”
He said negotiations should not have been allowed to pause ahead of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections.
The Ulster Unionist leader, who has been among the voices urging the DUP to return to powersharing, offered his backing for a more risk-based approach to goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Quizzed by Lord Hain on hypothetical concerns over chlorinated chicken entering the EU single market through the permeable border on the island of Ireland, Mr Beattie said that was among a number of issues that could be dealt with on the basis of “risk”.
He added: “You start to run registers about what the risk items are, so that we take action in regards to it.”
He also suggested a greater role for politicians in Northern Ireland in scrutinising EU rules that apply to the region, offering the possibility of a statutory committee at Stormont.
“They start looking at this and seeing how these EU directives that are going to affect Northern Ireland affect us and how we can mitigate that effect if there is a negative effect.”
He rejected the suggested of a direct link between Stormont ministers and Brussels on changes to EU rules.
“I see it coming through a conduit as opposed to direct to the ministers,” he said. “I think it would be very difficult for Northern Irish ministers, as part of the United Kingdom, to have a direct link to Brussels.
“I just think if we do that in Northern Ireland, then there is a chance we would have that in all the devolved nations and it could become quite chaotic.”
Mr Beattie, who told committee members that his party largely opposed Brexit, offered a stark warning of societal instability in the region if unionist concerns over the protocol are not resolved.
He acknowledged some businesses are benefitting from the protocol, but he stressed not all are.
“What we have in Northern is feast or famine,” he said. “We have people doing very well, we have people on their knees. And you will know that in Northern Ireland society, that does not bode well – the haves have and ones who don’t don’t. It doesn’t work well.
“We don’t want to cut off the noses of those who are doing well because of the protocol. But we can’t let those who are suffering because of it go to the wall.”
He told Lord Empey that “societal division” is getting worse in Northern Ireland.
“Communities have been coming together but they are slowly being driven apart,” he said. “There is a small wedge being pushed between them, which is expanding each time because of the protocol.
“There is a large swathe of unionism where the protocol is deeply damaging for them and they feel their identity is under threat.”
He warned of potential unrest in the summer months in Northern Ireland if frustrations are left unaddressed.
He warned: “It doesn’t take much to go from a brick to a stone, and from a stone to a petrol bomb, and from a petrol bomb to a bullet, and from a bullet to a coffin. It doesn’t take long in Northern Ireland.
“I am not trying to scare anybody to say that is going to happen. All I’m saying is that frustrations could boil over, if we don’t do something in regards to fixing the protocol.”
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