The official legal advice to ministers is that overriding key parts of the Brexit divorce deal would break international law, the Northern Ireland Secretary has said.
Brandon Lewis maintained to MPs that his assertion was “absolutely in line” with the views of top lawyers advising the Government.
He said he gave a “straight” and specific answer last week in response to a question on the UK Internal Market Bill – which gives ministers the power to overwrite provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement relating to Northern Ireland.
The minister said: “I gave a very straight answer to Parliament last week in line with the Attorney General’s position.
“My position is absolutely in line with the legal advice that the Attorney General put out.”
Mr Lewis has sparked a backlash after admitting steps being taken by the Government in relation to the Withdrawal Agreement would break international law in a “specific and limited way”.
He expanded on the circumstances of his comments as he appeared virtually before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs on Wednesday.
On Wednesday he said: “I read out something very specific because I wanted to ensure that what I said … to make sure that I was giving the House a straight answer.”
He told the MPs his assertions were consistent with advice from the Government’s main legal adviser, Attorney General Suella Braverman QC.
He said: “My answer was in line with the legal opinion given by the law officers.
“The position I took at the dispatch box is not a breach of the ministerial code but I am not the arbiter of that.”
The Internal Market Bill has an impact on the Northern Ireland Protocol – part of the EU withdrawal agreement intended to prevent a hard border returning to the island of Ireland after Brexit if no trade deal is reached.
The Bill is designed to ensure that keeping Northern Ireland in line with the EU’s customs rules does not hinder the country’s ability to trade with the rest of the UK.
Areas like what state aid is permissible for producers and the exact nature of paperwork or customs checks surrounding the exit have been under discussion during negotiations with Brussels.
Mr Lewis said the protocol was always subject to the joint committee of the UK and EU, which is hammering out details of the future relationship, and ensuring unfettered access to UK-wide trade for Northern Ireland.
A chief government legal officer has said the Northern Ireland Secretary “answered the wrong question” when he commented on international law.
The UK Internal Markets Bill does not “constitute a breach of international law or of the rule of law”, Lord Keen of Elie, the Advocate General for Scotland, recently told peers in the House of Lords.
Conservative Northern Ireland Affairs Committee chairman Simon Hoare said a lot of the “steam and anxiety” about the potential breach of an international treaty could have been avoided .
He added: “This does seem to have been a rather clumsy elephant trap they have created which could perhaps have been avoided.”
South Belfast SDLP MP Claire Hanna challenged Mr Lewis.
She said: “Do you understand why people cannot trust your government and do you have any handle on the anxiety and the unease and the instability that your government is creating every day in Northern Ireland?”
The MP for Great Yarmouth said he disagreed.
Conservative MP Robert Goodwill asked whether anyone from 10 Downing Street, name-checking top aide Dominic Cummings, had written the line about breaking international law.
Mr Lewis said he was not going to comment on who wrote advice.
“We all wanted to ensure that we gave the House a straight answer.”
Despite the heated rhetoric on both sides of the post-Brexit talks, Mr Lewis insisted he believed the EU was acting in “good faith” during the negotiations and did not believe the row over the UK Internal Market Bill would derail the talks.
He added: “I think the negotiators on both sides are very capable of being focused on negotiations.”
Sinn Fein deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill and Ms Hanna said their parties were not consulted on the Internal Market Bill after Mr Lewis said some parties had been spoken to.
Ms O’Neill said: “Brandon Lewis informed us of the Bill, but did not consult us, which implies consent.
“I made my strong opposition clear.”