Brandon Lewis: EU must agree to renegotiate Northern Ireland Protocol or cause indefinite chaos

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Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, spoke exclusively to The Telegraph - Andrew Crowley
Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, spoke exclusively to The Telegraph - Andrew Crowley

It is now ten months since Boris Johnson first published proposals to rewrite sections of the Northern Ireland Protocol in order to resolve the problems ministers believe are harming businesses and threatening the Good Friday Agreement.

Now, amid the stalemate prompted by last month's Stormont election, Brandon Lewis believes that the EU will be responsible for indefinite chaos in Northern Ireland unless it agrees to renegotiate the Protocol - or the Government pushes ahead with a plan to override the document with domestic legislation.

Asked in an interview with The Telegraph whether he was concerned that the absence of an executive in Northern Ireland could be indefinite if Brussels fails to give ground, the Northern Ireland Secretary responds plainly: "Yes."

Sitting in his office in the Northern Ireland Office's corner of the Treasury building in Whitehall, Mr Lewis adds: "I made this point to the EU myself before the elections. My view was, it was much easier to get a deal before the elections than afterwards. The idea that it was going to be easier after the elections was a crazy one from the EU.

"When Stormont wasn't there for three years, the Government had to spend three years trying to negotiate the parties with each other to agree a programme of government and also with both the Irish and the UK Government."

Now, though, the key to restoring the executive is out of the Government's hands, Mr Lewis suggests, after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) insisted it would refuse to re-enter a power sharing arrangement until the problems with the Protocol are resolved.

"The DUP are refusing to nominate because they've got a mandate through the election, as the largest party in unionism, not to nominate until the Protocol is resolved. And at the moment, the Protocol, which the EU claims is about protecting the Good Friday Agreement, is the very document putting the Good Friday Agreement most at risk."

The EU insists that it has put forward "far-reaching and impactful bespoke arrangements" to smooth the flow of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. But Mr Lewis and Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, are adamant that the Protocol itself must be changed in order to lift the burdens on businesses that have stemmed from the agreement.

If the EU fails to renegotiate the document, the UK's plan to unilaterally override the Protocol will be the only way to restore power-sharing, says Mr Lewis - given that the DUP's objections are the only hurdle preventing the formation of a new executive.

"Restoring power sharing is about all the parties in Northern Ireland being happy to nominate and Sinn Féin are keen to do that and get on with that," he says.

Mr Lewis has become a lightning rod for attacks from ex-soldiers on the Conservative benches becoming increasingly furious at repeated delays to the fulfilment of the Government's pledge to give veterans of the Troubles "the protections they deserve".

In one particularly heated exchange, Mark Francois, a former defence minister, shouted across the Commons chamber: "Where's your bill, Brandon?"

Minister praised for Troubles Bill

Now, after years of wrangling over how to end the hounding of British veterans, the Northern Ireland Secretary will stand at the Commons despatch box on Tuesday to present the Bill he is convinced will solve the problem.

Details of the legislation published last week were sufficient for Johnny Mercer, one of Mr Lewis's fiercest critics over the issue, to praise the "good legislation", for which the minister deserved "huge credit".

Speaking ahead of the first debate on the Bill this week, Mr Lewis says: "I understand their frustration. They want to deliver for those who served with honour for their country. I do as well. And I have felt strongly about that from the beginning of this.

"Equally as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as somebody who has met these victims and victims' groups, we want to deliver for the victims and survivors in Northern Ireland as well.

"The legal complexity of delivering both those things was worth taking a bit of time to get it right. And I think we have now, and we can deliver, something that we as a Government can be proud of."

An outline of Mr Lewis's proposals was first published last summer, when it prompted widespread criticism over his intention to introduce an effective statute of limitations that would end all prosecutions for incidents up to April 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

Brandon Lewis - Andrew Crowley +44 7973254493
Brandon Lewis - Andrew Crowley +44 7973254493

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill would apply to both military veterans and terrorists.

It will entail every death during the Troubles being investigated by a new truth and reconciliation-style commission. But in a change to the original proposals published last summer, immunity awarded by the body will have to be earned by military veterans and terrorists. Only by cooperating with the body, or having a track record of previously cooperating with the authorities over the Troubles, will individuals be able to earn immunity from future prosecution.

The Bill will also stop civil legal cases being brought against terrorists and veterans, as well as any historical inquests, on the basis that the commission would instead take over the inquiries.

Mr Lewis reveals that, once the Bill receives royal assent, the moratorium on civil cases will apply retrospectively, from the Bill's formal introduction last Wednesday. He warns that issuing new proceedings now would be pointless.

"Anybody who thought they were putting in a civil case after introduction is already too late... The 'stop point' of that was Wednesday."

Separately, on Tuesday, Mr Lewis is expected to declare that former IRA members have no protection from the On the Run letters sent to republicans under Tony Blair's administration.

"One of things I'm going to make very clear next week [is] they have no basis in law," he says. "If you've got an On the Run letter, it means nothing.

"If you don't engage with this body, and this body gets the evidence, we're going to come after you and we're going to prosecute you. So if you've been sitting in comfort for the last 20 years, you can forget that."

‘Narrative battle’ dominated by dissident Republicans

It is estimated that 3,500 people were killed in the conflict and the new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery will document all those deaths. Killings will be selected for a full investigation where families of victims demand it or else the deaths were deemed not to have been properly looked at at the time.

The focus on documenting all deaths is partly based on Mr Lewis's concern that the disproportionate hounding of British veterans in recent years has "re-written history" to create a false narrative about the balance of wrongdoing in the conflict.

"The focus has been disproportionately focused on a very small number of cases, which means there's been effectively a rewriting of history and we need to put a stop to that as well.

"The problem is after the Good Friday Agreement, the narrative battle... has been dominated by what was effectively dissident Republicans and you've got this kind of narrative that's completely false about the actions of the Armed Forces.

"In any big organisation, there might be a bad egg or two but the reality is that British forces were there to protect people, whereas the terrorists were going out to harm people. There's a big difference and that's why there can never be a moral equivalence."

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