London (AFP) -
Britain's government on Tuesday admitted that it may break international law by not applying parts of its Brexit divorce deal relating to Northern Ireland, as a top legal adviser quit, reportedly over the plans.
The developments clouded the resumption of already tense talks with the European Union on a future trade agreement after Britain left the bloc earlier this year.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said Britain will cope with the economic dislocation of crashing out of a transition period at the end of the year if there is no deal.
But the prospect has caused the pound to slump on currency markets and made UK businesses increasingly anxious, despite the government's bullish optimism.
London has urged Brussels to show 'more realism' about dealing with a heavyweight economic power on its newly shrunk borders, and indicated it will not compromise on its demands.
The government intends Wednesday to present legislation that could undercut its obligations in the Withdrawal Agreement it signed with the EU last year.
It insists the changes are technical and needed to ensure businesses in Northern Ireland can enjoy friction-free trade with both the EU and the rest of the UK from next year.
To a question in parliament, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis conceded: 'Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.'
Since the plans first emerged on Monday, the EU and others have urged the UK to uphold its international treaty obligations, and warned a failure to do so could erode trust.
But Lewis said there were 'clear precedents' for such a move as circumstances change.
- 'Very unhappy' -
Lewis' admission came after the government confirmed that Jonathan Jones, the head of its legal department, had resigned.
The Financial Times reported he was 'very unhappy' about the decision to rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol -- a vital part of the EU withdrawal pact designed to avoid a return to the decades of unrest caused by British rule in the province.
Johnson's spokesman refused to divulge whether the lawyer had refused to sign off the planned revisions.
'We are fully committed to implementing the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol,' he told reporters.
But he stressed 'we cannot allow damaging default provisions to kick in' for Northern Ireland if London and Brussels fail to negotiate a deal this year.
The government's claim that it has only now found problems with the protocol prompted disbelief from opposition political parties.
They seized on Jones' exit to level new charges of incompetence against Johnson after months of policy U-turns in his government's coronavirus response.
Irish prime minister Micheal Martin said he was 'concerned about the lateness' of London's proposed changes and the prospect of it failing to implement an international treaty.
'We trust them to do so or they would render the talks process null and void,' he told the Irish Examiner newspaper.
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has also insisted signed agreements 'must be respected'.
Martin ruled out the return of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, a key part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to 30 years of violence in the British-ruled province.
Northern Ireland will have Britain's only land border with the EU, and the Brexit protocol means the territory will continue to follow some of the bloc's rules to ensure the frontier remains open.
- Shock in Washington -
Britain also faced warnings from across the Atlantic of consequences for a separate US-UK trade deal if it backtracked on the EU Withdrawal Agreement.
Democratic congressman Brendan Boyle echoed House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said last year no deal would be signed if it affected the Good Friday Agreement.
It would be 'very difficult to enter into a trade negotiation with a party that would have just ripped up a very important agreement to us', he told BBC radio.
Britain and the EU agree a deal must be struck by an EU summit in mid-October. But divisions remain on totemic issues such as state subsidies for industry and fishing rights.
Tim Bale, deputy director of the UK In A Changing Europe research group, told AFP the British government's move could be a 'negotiating ploy' to put pressure on Brussels.
But he cautioned that Johnson is also close to Brexiteer 'ultras' in his party, who would prefer to walk away entirely from the EU negotiations.