The UK government has “absolutely the right” to tear up parts of post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland, Kwarsi Kwarteng has insisted.
Speaking to Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, the business secretary also accused Brussels of being “unreasonable” in its approach towards renegotiating the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney said “saber rattling” and “grandstanding” at Westminster was not how issues would be resolved and the UK making changes unilaterally would be a breach of international law.
He pointed out his country was also “frustrated” dealing with the fallout of Brexitwhich he said had cost it hundreds of millions of euros and threatened the peace process.
It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to travel to Belfast on Monday for crisis talks after the DUP blocked the formation of a new power-sharing government at Stormont in protest at the protocol.
Unionists are bitterly opposed to the agreement as it requires checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, in order to keep the Irish border open in line with the Good Friday peace deal.
But Sinn Fein – which is now the biggest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly following the elections on 5 May – has accused the prime minister of being “in cahoots” with the DUP and supporting its “blocking tactics”.
UK ministers have repeatedly said they are ready to invoke Article 16 of the protocol and unilaterally suspend some of the arrangements if a compromise cannot be found to reduce the impact of the red tape, which has been blamed for hitting businesses and fueling community tensions.
Mr Kwarteng told Ridge: “As far as I am concerned, we have absolutely the right to invoke Article 16 and reopen or re-examine the protocol.”
He said: “The protocol itself says it can be abrogated unilaterally if it’s shown not to be working.
“And clearly, if political stability is our number one priority, and people are saying that they won’t go into power-sharing if it isn’t changed, we have to consider very carefully how we can change it.”
Mr Kwarteng went on: “I think the EU are unreasonable, frankly.
“They won’t show much flexibility and that’s why we are in the position we are in.”
Playing down the likelihood of a trade war, he added: “Any tariff situation would have to go to arbitrators. It is not something they can do willy-nilly, arbitrarily.
But Mr Coveney told Ridge: “The EU wants to continue to negotiate, wants to show flexibility, wants to compromise.”
He said: “Ireland is also frustrated. We are dealing with the consequences now of a decision by the British people on our own country that has cost us hundreds of millions of euros, that is risking the peace process and its institutions on the island of Ireland.
“When we focus on frustrations we need to think beyond Westminster.”
He added: “There’s no way the EU can compromise if the UK is threatening unilateral action to pass domestic legislation to set aside international obligations under an international treaty that, don’t forget, the UK was the primary designer of along with the EU. “
Mr Coveney went on: “And we can get there to a landing zone if we work in partnership.
“But, you know, saber rattling and grandstanding in Westminster ratcheting up tension is not the way to do it.
“At a time when the world needs the western world to be united, to be acting in concert to solve problems together. This is a problem we need to solve together. The last thing Ireland wants, the last thing the EU needs, is tension with a country the size and influence of the United Kingdom.
“So, let’s work together through the summer get these issues resolved, get the institutions back up and running in Northern Ireland.”
Criticizing the UK government’s stance, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said: “It is very dangerous, it’s reckless, it’s a game of brinkmanship, very cynically carried out by a Tory government in London that has no care for the island of Ireland, north or south.”
Tory former health secretary and party leadership challenger Jeremy Hunt, referring to the EU, told the BBC: “I think we can understand why they’re annoyed that we’re asking to change this protocol so soon, but the protocol itself foresaw the possibility that you might have to change it in a situation where there was a risk to peace and stability, and we don’t have a functioning government in Northern Ireland.”