‘Alarm bells’: Tánaiste expresses concern ahead of publication of law-breaking Brexit bill

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The government says the bill is intended to ensure Northern Ireland can trade freely with Britain.

Updated Wed 8:55 AM

CONTROVERSIAL LEGISLATION THAT would override elements of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal with Brussels and breach international law will be published later today.

Downing Street had insisted changes in the Internal Market Bill were simply “limited clarifications” to protect the Northern Ireland peace process if they failed to secure a free trade deal with the EU.

But Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis provoked a furious reaction when he confirmed to MPs yesterday that the legislation would breach international law in a “very specific and limited way”.

The bill, which will be tabled this afternoon, is intended to ensure Northern Ireland can continue to enjoy unfettered access to markets in the rest of the UK.

Speaking on Newstalk and RTE’s Morning Ireland today, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that the comments were “extraordinary”. 

He said that the remarks set off “alarm bells” in Dublin, and believes that the comments have backfired.

Governments around the world are scratching their heads wondering if they should enter contracts with the UK if this is their attitude, Varadkar said.

“You either adhere to the rule of law or you don’t, and you respect international treaties or you don’t. There’s no middle way.”

“To me, Britain is a country that’s always been an honorable country, and is inhabited by very honest people – it’s not a rogue state. It’s pretty extraordinary, the most benign interpretation I can put on it is that it’s gamesmanship,” Varadkar added. 

Varadkar said that the “government in Britain a year ago showed its ability to play hardball, threatened to go Kamikaze in order to help secure the withdrawal agreement which is part of negotiation, it might just be another manifestation of that”.

“I hope that’s what it is,” he said. 

Lewis said the powers the government was taking would enable ministers to “dis-apply” the EU legal concept of “direct effect” – which requires the enforcement of EU law – in “certain, very tightly defined circumstances”.

His admission led to Conservative former prime minister Theresa May warning the government was in danger of losing the trust of other countries that it would honour its international agreements, while Labour described the admission as “absolutely astonishing”.

Labour leader Keir Starmer urged Johnson not to “reopen old wounds” and to instead “get a deal, move on and concentrate on defeating [coronavirus]”.

The row erupted as the pound plummeted against the US dollar amid fears that Johnson’s chances of securing a post-Brexit free trade deal with the EU were diminishing.

It followed the shock announcement that the head of the UK government’s Legal Department Sir Jonathan Jones had become the latest senior civil servant to quit his post.

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No reason was given for his resignation, but the Financial Times reported that he was “very unhappy” with the proposed changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “I can confirm that he is stepping down and we would thank him for his years of hard service and wish him well for the future.”

Meanwhile, the latest round of talks on a post-Brexit trade deal continue in London between the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and the UK’s David Frost.

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha and Dominic McGrath

Boris Johnson's government has faced anger and dismay over the acknowledgement that the bill will breach international law.

Boris Johnson’s government has faced anger and dismay over the acknowledgement that the bill will breach international law.

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