Opposition parties have asked ministers to release all their legal advice on a bill to unilaterally change the Northern Ireland Protocol which is due in the Commons shortly, saying refusing to do so risked facing charges of concealment.
The bill, which puts the UK on a potential collision course with the EU and which critics see as Boris Johnson’s latest attempt to appease rebel backbenchers and reassert his authority, is expected to be released Monday afternoon.
Downing Street officials said the government had received comprehensive advice on whether a unilateral attempt to change the deal would breach international law, but only planned to publish a summary.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said the bill was intended to protect the integrity of the Good Friday Peace Agreement and that when people saw the legislation they would understand it did not contravene to international law.
When asked if the full notice would be published, he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge program on Sunday that the government would “outline our legal position”.
Asked three times whether Sir James Eadie, the senior barrister whose role as the Treasury’s chief solicitor is to give ministers independent legal advice, had been asked about the bill, Lewis declined to say.
“I’m not going to go into the details of government advice,” he said. Pressed further, he said: “Government lawyers are very clear that we are working within the law. The Attorney General will outline the government’s position on this tomorrow.
Northern Ireland shadow secretary Peter Kyle said the bill had “the potential for malicious and rogue governments to interpret it as a green light for unilateral action against international treaties to which they are bound “.
He added: ‘Given this, it is incumbent on ministers to publish as much legal advice as possible from the outset, so that the legal basis on which they present their case to Parliament can be judged.’
Lib Dems spokesman on Northern Ireland, Alistair Carmichael, said: ‘The refusal to publish this legal opinion looks like another attempt to cover up Boris Johnson’s repeated lies and breaking of the law.
“The government must be clear and publish the legal advice received and from whom in full.
“The public deserves full transparency on the legality of plans to tear up Northern Ireland Protocol and risk a trade war with our closest neighbours. If the Conservative ministers have nothing to fear, they have nothing to hide.
The bill will unilaterally replace elements of the post-Brexit protocol with the EU to try to facilitate trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which Brussels has said could trigger retaliation.
The hardline eurosceptic right in the Conservative Party has put pressure on ministers to take strong action as MPs held meetings with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
Johnson is seen as more receptive to their message as he tries to woo backbench MPs after last Monday’s confidence vote in which 41% of his MPs tried to oust him.
Lewis said: “What we’re looking to do is fix the issues that we’ve seen with the protocol. It’s about the way the protocol has been implemented, the lack of flexibility we’ve seen from the EU over the last year and a half.
But Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said a significant majority of Northern Ireland Assembly members elected in May backed the protocol and it was clear Westminster ministers intended to break the law.
“The protocol works,” she told Ridge’s show. “The protocol is the mechanism that uniquely gives the north unfettered access to the European market. That’s why we see in the north of Ireland, unlike Britain, with the exception of the City of London, the economy is strong.
“What the Conservative government proposes to do by breaching international law is to create huge, huge damage to the economy of the North, to the economy of Ireland.”
Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves told Ridge she feared the plan would violate international law.
“We haven’t seen the legislation yet, but it looks like the government is planning to break international law,” she said. “This Government appears to be developing a record of breaking the law, and it is not one that Labor can support.
“We helped put in place the Good Friday Agreement. We are deeply, passionately committed to it.