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Johnson says plan to unilaterally redraw NI protocol is 'insurance' while 'ironing out problems'

The powersharing institutions in Northern Ireland have been plunged into crisis.

A man dressed as a customs officer and another dressed as Boris Johnson with protesters from Border Communities Against Brexit outside Hillsborough Castle.
A man dressed as a customs officer and another dressed as Boris Johnson with protesters from Border Communities Against Brexit outside Hillsborough Castle.
Image: PA

BORIS JOHNSON SAID his plan to legislate to rip up Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements was an “insurance” policy if a fresh deal could not be reached with the European Union.

The row over the Northern Ireland Protocol has created an impasse 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 addressed.

The Prime Minister travelled to Belfast to meet leaders of the Stormont parties in an attempt to secure progress – but Johnson also used the trip to issue a warning to Brussels that the UK is prepared to rewrite unilaterally the terms of the Brexit deal he signed.

The move could risk a trade war with the European Union, but Johnson is frustrated that talks with Brussels to resolve the protocol problems have not made sufficient progress.

“None of the parties – I spoke to all five parties just now – not one of them likes the way it’s operating, they all think it can be reformed and improved,” the Prime Minister told reporters in Belfast.

Johnson said “we would love this to be done in a consensual way with our friends and partners” in Brussels, “ironing out the problems, stopping some of these barriers” to goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain.

“But to get that done, to have the insurance, we need to proceed with a legislative solution at the same time.”

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is expected to set out plans for legislation to rewrite the protocol when she addresses MPs at Westminster tomorrow. 

The row over the protocol has prevented the formation of a new executive, with Sinn Fein’s president accusing Johnson of “placating” the DUP over the issue.

Johnson insisted he encouraged the DUP to join a new administration, saying: “I think everybody should be rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in to the government of Northern Ireland.”

He added: “The issue they have is that they object to the operation of the protocol. We don’t want to scrap it, but we think it can be fixed.”

Sinn Fein’s president Mary Lou McDonald described a “fairly tough” meeting with Johnson at Hillsborough Castle.

“It’s very clear to us that despite all of the rhetoric from the British Government about re-establishing the Executive here in the north, that in fact their priority is placating the DUP,” she said.

She added: “We have said directly to him that proposed unilateral act of legislating at Westminster is wrong.

“It seems to us absolutely extraordinary that the British Government would propose to legislate to break the law. It’s an extraordinary proposal and one that would amplify the bad faith with which the Tory government has conducted itself from the beginning of the entire Brexit debacle.”

Johnson acknowledged that the meetings were “robust”.

Taking questions from reporters, the Prime Minister said: “We all see there is a problem that needs to be fixed.”

“I have got to find a way of getting the balance of the Good Friday Agreement respected and getting both traditions, both communities, coming together for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.

He continued: “I want people to come back and work in the Stormont Government. I want members of the Assembly to get back. I see no case for paying them full rations if they’re not back there.”

In an interview with Channel 4, Johnson also defended his own central role in the negotiation of the protocol, hitting out at the EU in the process.

“Yes, I agreed it,” he said.

“But I agreed it on the basis that it protected the Good Friday Agreement, it protected the east-west strand of the Good Friday Agreement. It explicitly, on the face of it, says that we’ve got to protect the UK internal market, and that was the reason I went for it – because it seemed to me like those were things that our friends in the EU would mean sincerely.”

He said that he believed checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland could be removed “without doing the slightest damage to the EU single market”.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson “set out in very clear terms” to Johnson what he believed is needed.

“We cannot go on like this,” the DUP leader said after meeting Mr Johnson.

“Clearly, we want a fully functioning executive and we want that to happen as soon as possible, and therefore, we’re looking now to the Government.

“That’s what we’re looking for from our Government, from our Prime Minister, it’s decisive action on the protocol.

“We’ve heard the words, now we need to see the action,” he added.

Johnson was booed and jeered by around 200 people who gathered at the gates of Hillsborough Castle as his cavalcade drove in today.

Protesters, including campaigners for the Irish language, victims campaigners and anti-Brexit activists, were among the crowds who held aloft banners.

Sinn Féin was the first party to meet the Prime Minister at Hillsborough Castle this afternoon.

Party president Mary Lou McDonald criticised the “very cynical antics of the Tory Government” as she arrived for the meeting and accused No 10 of “choreography” with the DUP over the latest Stormont crisis.

“People have voted for real change and that’s what people are going to get,” McDonald said as she arrived with her party’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill and caretaker finance minister Conor Murphy.

The Alliance Party described the meeting with Johnson as “robust and very frustrating”.

Deputy leader Stephen Farry said: “We were giving him a very clear warning that if he plays fast and loose with the protocol and indeed the Good Friday Agreement, then he is going to be adding more and more instability to Northern Ireland.

“On the one hand, he is coming here with a certain set of stated outcomes, but all his actions belie what he is notionally trying to achieve.”

Speaking after his party’s meeting, Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said: “If the UK Government takes steps tomorrow or this week to fix some of the issues that we see with the protocol, it is important that we then nominate a speaker and we get back to government and start doing the work.

“And if we do not get back into government, then we need to identify who is blocking it and we need to bypass them.”

Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Colum Eastwood had a similarly strong warning.

“If the British Government tomorrow signal their intent to break international law by legislating to rip up the protocol at Westminster, he [Johnson] will not have the support of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland,” he said.

Simon Coveney

Earlier Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney urged Johnson to commit to further engagement with the EU to resolve the Irish Sea trading dispute, rather than breaking international law by acting alone.

Tensions between London and Brussels are intensifying over the prospect of Johnson using domestic legislation at Westminster to nullify parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that require checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is expected to formally announce a plan to legislate on the protocol tomorrow, although an actual parliamentary Bill is not expected to be published at that point.

Johnson is conducting emergency talks with Stormont’s political leaders in a bid to break a deadlock linked to the protocol.

The power-sharing institutions in Belfast have been plunged into crisis in the wake of the recent Assembly election, with the DUP refusing to re-enter a devolved government in protest at trading arrangements the party claims are undermining the union.

The EU has made clear that unilateral action from the UK to walk away from the protocol deal would represent a clear breach of international law.

Coveney, who was in Brussels today, warned that the entire UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement deal – the TCA – could be jeopardised if Johnson takes unilateral action on the protocol.

“This is a time for calmness, it’s a time for dialogue, it’s a time for compromise and partnership between the EU and the UK to solve these outstanding issues,” he told reporters.

“If that is the approach taken by the British Government then we can make significant progress and we can make progress quickly to respond to the concerns of both the business community and the unionist community in Northern Ireland.

“That alternative is unilateral action which means tension, rancour, stand-offs, legal challenges and of course calls into question the functioning of the TCA itself, because the TCA and the Withdrawal Agreement are interlinked, they rely on each other.

“That is the last thing Europe needs right now, when we are working so well together in the face of Russian aggression and responding to the support needed for Ukraine at this time.”

View from Dublin

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the only way out of the current impasse on the Northern Ireland Protocol is for the UK to sit down and talk with the EU.

Martin met Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill in Dublin today.

Speaking after a call with European Council president Charles Michel, Martin said: “It seems to me to be very, very difficult to comprehend that in any jurisdiction in the modern world, where we have had an election, particularly in the European context, the idea that a parliament is prevented from convening is hard to comprehend,” he said.

“The people have spoken, the people have elected their representatives. At a minimum it seems, without any delay, the Assembly should be established, of course followed by the formation of the Executive.

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Screenshot 2022-05-16 5.38.55 PM The Sinn Féin leadership arriving at Hillsborough Castle. Source: PA

“Charles Michel and I both agreed that the only way to resolve this issue is through substantive talks between the European Union and the United Kingdom Government.”

Martin said that there had been an understanding that the Assembly election would be followed by a “renewed focus on talks” between the UK and the EU.

He also said that it was important the “landing zone” desired by the UK is “very clear”.

“The only way to flesh that out is really to re-engage and have substantive talks between the European Union and the United Kingdom.

“The UK Government has issues, but I can’t see any other way to resolve those issues other than through negotiations and substantive talks,” he said.

He did not rule out face-to-face talks between himself and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but he said that in the “first instance” substantive talks had to take place between London and Brussels.

“The UK Government has issues, but I can’t see any other way to resolve those issues other than through negotiations and substantive talks

Martin stressed the role the Irish Government can play as a facilitator in talks between the two sides.

He also spoke of “dismay” at the idea the UK could take unilateral action on the Northern Ireland Protocol, while adding that Johnson had made “important” points in an article written for the Belfast Telegraph.

In the article, Johnson said the UK will have a “necessity to act” if the EU is unwilling to reach a compromise in the deepening row over the protocol.

However, he stressed the Government remained open to “genuine dialogue” with the European Commission.

He said the protocol had been negotiated in “good faith”, adding that “those who want to scrap the protocol, rather than seeking changes, are focusing on the wrong thing”.

Martin said today: “He does accept that there’s a need for a protocol. He’s not talking about getting rid of the protocol.

“But really at the end of the day, the only way this can be resolved is through substantive discussions.”

 - With reporting by Rónán Duffy and Christina Finn 

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