Britain will set out steps to tackle post-Brexit trade issues in Northern Ireland on Tuesday but will not introduce a new law this week, a minister said, dialling down a row with the European Union that could threaten a trade war.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday the government needed an "insurance" option to be able to unilaterally override some post-Brexit trade rules for the British-ruled province, warning that the dispute could undermine peace there.
Striking a deal that preserved peace in Northern Ireland and protected the EU's single market without imposing a hard land border between the British province and EU member state Ireland, or a border within the United Kingdom, was always the biggest challenge for London as it embarked on its exit from the bloc.
The two sides have been trying for months to overcome a deadlock over the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, which effectively created a customs border in the sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
London agreed the new checks before it left the EU but now says they are unworkable.
Britain's Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis said the government still wanted to find a negotiated solution with the EU, but it would not rule anything out after it was mooted that the government could introduce a law which would "disapply" parts of the protocol.
"We've always said we take nothing off the table. If we do need to legislate, we will not shy away from doing that," he told BBC television.
Senior ministers will meet to decide on Britain's next steps early on Tuesday following Johnson's discussions with political parties in Northern Ireland on Monday, Lewis said, before Foreign Secretary Liz Truss makes a statement to parliament.
But asked whether Britain would introduce new legislation as soon as this week, Lewis told Sky News: "Something like that this week was never on the cards."
'NOT BEEN PLEASANT'
The EU has repeatedly said any trade difficulties must be resolved within the parameters of the protocol.
Ireland's foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said last week the EU would launch legal action and possibly impose countermeasures if London took unilateral action.
The EU's financial services commissioner, Mairead McGuinness, Ireland's representative on the EU's executive, said the bloc was a little confused as to what to expect.
"Certainly the build up to this has not been pleasant at all. I think there is now a difficulty in the relationships, which were strained in any event," she told Irish broadcaster RTE.
"Any threats or veiled threats or unilateral action does very little to actually unlock the potential of the protocol. Political will is required, I hope today we will see some semblance of that, not some very hard unilateral action."
Britain has postponed bringing in many of the checks foreseen by the protocol, which has snarled some foodstuffs in red tape at a time when food and energy prices are rising, fuelling recession concerns.
Lewis said Britain wants products which are moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland not to be subject to the same checks as those which are destined for the EU.
"We think there is a way of doing that, as I say, effectively providing that green lane for products that are staying within the UK internal market," he said.
Archie Norman, chairman of retailer Marks & Spencer and a former Conservative Party lawmaker, said the British government's proposals were a "triumph of common sense".
"What the British government is proposing at the moment seems to me a triumph of common sense over a rules based mentality and will make sure at a time of inflation that the Northern Irish people can get the fresh foods that they're used to and are entitled to," Norman told BBC radio.
Johnson agreed to the protocol in 2019 to allow Britain to leave the EU's single market and customs union without controls being re-imposed on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, a vital part of the 1998 Good Friday peace deal that ended three decades of violence.
But the de facto customs border between Britain and Northern Ireland, incensing many pro-British unionists.
The outcome of regional elections in Northern Ireland increased pressure on Johnson to introduce changes to the protocol after unionists refused to join a new administration unless there were changes to the trading rules.