The government will set out its proposals for post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland on Wednesday, the Brexit minister has told MPs.
Appearing before the European Scrutiny Committee, Lord Frost reiterated the UK’s position that the Northern Ireland Protocol is “not sustainable” in its current form and “all options” remain on the table to solve the impasse.
The Protocol is a key part of the Brexit deal struck between London and Brussels and is designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
As part of the arrangement, Northern Ireland remains under some EU rules and there are checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
Some opponents of the protocol, including Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, want it scrapped altogether.
Others argue that the issues can be fixed without ditching the Protocol.
“I think the only way it can be made sustainable is if we could find a way to hugely reduce or eliminate the barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, goods moving in that direction, and we need to – as we go forward – try and find a way of achieving that,” Lord Frost told MPs.
“It remains the core of the problem that the boundary between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is too dissuasive, too complicated, too chilling of identity in various ways.
“And that’s what’s got to be solved, I think, in terms of direction of travel.
“So we’re keeping, obviously, all options on the table.”
Lord Frost said he was “constrained” in what he could say ahead of the UK’s proposals being set out later this week, but he said: “I think what I can say at the moment is that it must work in a different way if we’re to find the stable route going forward.”
He said it is not clear yet if a fundamental rebalancing of the Protocol is possible, telling MPs: “You know if that sort of negotiation isn’t possible then obviously, we have considered that situation, but given the delicacy of the situation in Northern Ireland in all kinds of ways, we think it is right for us to proceed in the most sort of responsible and predictable way that we can.”
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald acknowledged that “issues and challenges” had arisen from the Protocol and need to be addressed, but said it was “the answer, not the problem”.
“The protocol isn’t going anywhere, it has been negotiated, it has also been signed off not just by the European side but also by the British government, so I think, with respect, any assertion that the protocol can be abolished are fanciful, that’s not going to happen,” she said.
One of the flashpoints regarding the Protocol in recent weeks has been the so-called “sausage war”.
A deal to avoid a ban on sausages and other chilled meats moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland was agreed at the last minute last month.
The UK and EU have announced a three-month extension to a grace period allowing their transit across the Irish Sea, hours before a ban would have come into force.
London had at one stage threatened to unilaterally extend the grace period, a move which would have triggered retaliation from Brussels.
Lord Frost said the EU resorting to “legal weapons” has not been helpful, a reference to the bloc launching legal action earlier this year over what it alleged were multiple UK breaches of the Protocol.
“It’s a delicate situation and we need to find…we need to focus on the politics and the reality of what’s happening here and that’s what we intend to try and do,” he told the committee.