Boris Johnson has said his plan to legislate to tear up Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade deals is an “insurance” policy if a new deal cannot be struck with the European Union.
The row over the Northern Ireland protocol has created a stalemate in efforts to form a new executive in Stormont, with the Democratic Unionist Party refusing to join a new administration unless its concerns over the arrangements are resolved.
The PM traveled to Belfast to meet Stormont party leaders in a bid to secure progress – but Mr Johnson also used the trip to warn Brussels that the UK is ready to unilaterally rewrite the terms of the Brexit deal he signed.
Read more: ‘Boris visits NI to see Brexit mess of his own making’
The move could risk a trade war with the European Union, but Mr Johnson is frustrated that talks with Brussels to resolve protocol issues have not progressed far enough.
“None of the parties – I spoke to all five parties just now – none of them like the way it works, they all think it can be reformed and improved,” the PM said. to reporters in Belfast.
Mr Johnson said ‘we would like to see this done in a consensual way with our friends and partners’ in Brussels, ‘resolving the issues, stopping some of these barriers’ to goods crossing the Irish Sea from Britain.
“But to achieve that, to have the assurance, we need to proceed with a legislative solution at the same time.”
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is expected to present plans for legislation to rewrite the protocol when she addresses MPs in Westminster on Tuesday.
The row over protocol has prevented the formation of a new executive, with the Sinn Fein chairman accusing Mr Johnson of ‘placating’ the DUP on the issue.
Mr Johnson insisted he was encouraging the DUP to join a new administration, saying: ‘I think everyone should roll up their sleeves and get stuck in the government of Northern Ireland.’
He added: “The problem they have is that they object to the way the protocol works. We don’t want to remove it, but we think it can be fixed.
Sinn Fein chairwoman Mary Lou McDonald described a ‘quite difficult’ meeting with Mr Johnson at Hillsborough Castle.
“It’s very clear to us that despite all the rhetoric from the UK government about getting the executive back here in the north, their priority is actually appeasing the DUP,” she said.
She added: ‘We told him directly that the proposed unilateral act to legislate at Westminster is wrong.
“It seems absolutely extraordinary to us that the UK government is proposing to legislate to break the law. It is an extraordinary proposition and one that would amplify the bad faith with which the Conservative government has conducted itself since the start of the whole Brexit debacle.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson ‘set out in very clear terms’ to Mr Johnson what he believed was necessary.
“We can’t go on like this,” the DUP leader said after meeting Mr Johnson.
“Obviously we want a fully functioning executive and we want that to happen as soon as possible, and therefore we are now looking to the government.
“This is what we expect from our government, from our Prime Minister, it is decisive action on the protocol.
“We have heard the words, now we have to see the action,” he added.
Mr Johnson was jeered and jeered at by around 200 people who gathered at the gates of Hillsborough Castle as his cavalcade arrived.
Demonstrators, including Irish language campaigners, victims campaigners and anti-Brexit campaigners, were among the crowd waving banners.
Sir Jeffrey dismissed the suggestion that Mr Johnson was choosing sides over protocol.
He said: “It’s the same Sinn Fein who were in Dublin this morning asking the Irish government to take their side.
“Sinn Fein do double standards very well.”
Taoiseach Micheal Martin said the standoff between the UK and EU could only be resolved through “substantive talks” between the two sides.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who was in Brussels on Monday for talks with his EU counterparts, warned that the whole trade and cooperation agreement between the UK and the EU – the ATT – could be jeopardized if Mr Johnson takes unilateral action on the protocol.
Acting unilaterally “means tension, rancor, stalemates, legal challenges and of course calls into question the functioning of the ACT itself, because the ACT and the Withdrawal Agreement are linked, they depend on the each other,” he said.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland contains provisions to protect and develop relations both on a north/south basis within the island of Ireland and on an east/west basis between the island and Great Britain.
Mr Johnson says the protocol has upset this “delicate balance” of unionist and nationalist aspirations by undermining the East/West dynamic.
The Stormont election saw Sinn Fein displace the DUP to become Northern Ireland’s largest party for the first time.
The DUP remains the largest unionist party in the region and, under Stormont rules, a new executive can only be formed if they agree to nominate for the post of Deputy Prime Minister.
The DUP has also blocked the appointment of a new Speaker of the Assembly, meaning the Parliament Buildings legislature cannot meet while the deadlock continues.
Discord over protocol was not Mr Johnson’s only focus on Monday, as he used his visit to promise the delivery of three pre-existing pledges: a stalled language and cultural package; ensure that women and girls have full access to abortion services; and the introduction of new measures to deal with the legacy of the past.
Read more: Unilateral UK decision on protocol could undermine peace process, Coveney warns
Read more: RECAP as Boris Johnson holds emergency talks
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