UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has announced a domestic law that, if passed, would overwrite elements of the Brexit treaty with the European Union.
It will give explicit powers to give effect to a new, revised Northern Ireland Protocol.
The announcement in Westminster came despite warnings from Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney that such a move would break an international treaty.
The way to address “outstanding issues linked to Brexit” such as the protocol on Northern Ireland was “through cooperation, dialogue, negotiation and partnership,” he said.
“The EU is up for that partnership,” he added, saying he believed there was a landing zone available in responding to some of the “legitimate concerns” that many in the Unionist community had.
“We can get that landing zone through cooperation and partnership -- if we have a partner in the British Government.”
Earlier today Ms Truss told the House of Commons the UK was proposing a “comprehensive and reasonable” solution to the problems – which required changes to the protocol itself.
“Our preference remains a negotiated solution with the EU and in parallel with the legislation being introduced, we remain open to talks,” she said – referencing an invitation to the EU’s Brexit negotiator Maroš Šefčovič to meet in London.
But the announcement is significant because it represents the UK acting unilaterally to ditch large parts of the post-Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland.
Ms Truss claimed that “this is not about scrapping the protocol - our aim is to deliver on the protocol's objectives," citing the common travel area, single electricity market and North-South cooperation.
Introducing the concept of the new legislation, Ms Truss warned: “The basis for power sharing remains strong... however the Belfast agreement remains under strain”.
She claimed that the Northern Ireland Protocol does not have the support of one part of the community in Northern Ireland, but that all parties in the North agreed that changes were needed to it.
She said that as the economy moved out of the Covid pandemic, people in the North were unable to enjoy the same benefits as other parts of the UK, due to rules on taxation for example.
Ms Truss is proposing a ’green channel’ for goods with checks only applying to those that may cross the border.
"It will continue to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland,” she said, adding that she would publish more details in the coming weeks.
She said the British Government would set out its legal basis “in due course” after being warned by shadow foreign affairs spokesman Stephen Doughty that the move would damage the UK’s reputation and that “the rest of the world is looking at us.” The move was “deeply troubling,” he said.
Ms Truss outlined how Britain would introduce a Trusted Trader scheme so that operators could move without checks, but there would be “robust penalties” for those who abused the system – without explaining how abuse would be detected without checks.
“We do need to see more flexibility from the EU. The protocol does need to be changed,” Ms Truss said.
Rules on taxation mean that citizens in Northern Ireland are unable to benefit fully from the same advantages as the rest of the UK, like the reduction in VAT on solar panels, Ms Truss said, while SPS rules mean that producers face onerous restrictions, including battery of certification in order to sell feedstuff in shops in Northern Ireland, she said.
“These practical problems have contributed to the sense that the East West relationship has been undermined.”
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the statement was welcome and “a significant move” which could restore power-sharing.
“We hope to see a Bill to deal with these matters in weeks and months,” he said. “We want to see the Irish Sea border removed, to protected Northern Ireland’s place in the UK single market.”
But Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney has said that unilateral action is not the way to address issues arising within international treaties.
The protocol, which was negotiated as part of the Withdrawal Agreement, is designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland after Britain left the EU.
The terms effectively keep Northern Ireland in the EU's single market for goods and create a hard border down the Irish Sea.
But since signing the deal, there have been complaints from the UK that Brussels has insisted on overly stringent checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland which is causing trade disruption and community tensions.
Marks & Spencer chairman Archie Norman said EU proposals for administering the protocol are "highly bureaucratic and pretty useless" given UK food standards are "equivalent or higher" than those set by Brussels.
The former Conservative MP told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the bloc is suggesting that the same background checks, including veterinary checks, required for the Republic of Ireland are also needed to send goods from other parts of the UK to Northern Ireland.
"Incidentally that means that every piece of butter in a sandwich has to have an EU vet certificate, so it's highly bureaucratic and pretty pointless," he said.
The UK Government is arguing for "green lanes" to be put in place whereby goods travelling between GB and NI and not destined to travel to the Republic of Ireland would not be subject to the same level of checks as those entering EU territory.
The row over the treaty has created an impasse in efforts to form a Stormont administration in Belfast, with the Democratic Unionist Party refusing to join an executive unless its concerns over the arrangements are addressed.
A majority of MLAs in Stormont's newly elected Assembly represent parties that support retaining the protocol, with many arguing that the arrangement offers the region protection from some of the negative economic consequences of Brexit.
They also point to the unfettered access Northern Ireland traders have to sell into the EU single market as a key benefit of the protocol.
A British Foreign Office source said Ms Truss' priority is to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and denied that she is trying to "pick a fight" with Brussels.
The European Commission has urged Britain to enter talks about the bloc's proposals on the protocol as a "much better course than engaging unilaterally".
Daniel Ferrie, a commission spokesman, told reporters in Brussels that the EU package offered during negations in October were "not a 'take it or leave it'" offer.
"The vice-president (Maros Sefcovic) said himself in his statement on Thursday that we made clear there is still potential to be explored in our proposals," he said.