Boris Johnson heads for Northern Ireland today as he steps up threats to tear up post-Brexit rules unless the EU backs down.
The PM is in Belfast for talks after a Sinn Fein victory in Stormont elections and DUP demands to scrap the protocol fueled political crisis.
With power-sharing stalled and sectarian tensions rising, the UK government is set to unveil legislation tomorrow that would axe swathes of the divorce deal with Brussels – despite fears of a trade war.
Mr Johnson has complained that the rules affect the availability of medicine in Northern Ireland, as well as restricting Covid recovery and efforts to tackle cost of living agony.
However, there is no sign that the EU is ready to give ground – with the bloc insisting the protocol cannot be renegotiated. Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney warned this morning that the entire Brexit trade deal would be ‘called into question’ if the UK acts unilaterally.
And the US has made clear that it will not support either side engaging in ‘theatre’ that could put peace at risk.
Boris Johnson is in Belfast for talks the DUP’s demands to scrap the protocol and after a Sinn Fein victory in Stormont elections fueled political crisis
Jeffrey Donaldson’s (left) DUP has refused to enter powersharing with Michell O’Neill of Sinn Fein unless the protocol issue is addressed
With power-sharing stalled and sectarian tensions rising, the UK government is set to unveil legislation tomorrow that would axe swathes of the divorce deal with Brussels – despite fears of a trade war
The DUP has refused to nominate a Deputy First Minister to serve alongside Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, meaning that under Good Friday Agreement rules the Stormont executive cannot function.
The unionists warned yesterday that actions rather than words are required on the protocol to break the deadlock.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said: ‘Until that action is taken, the consensus necessary for power-sharing in Northern Ireland does not exist.’
Mr Johnson is due to discuss the Protocol with the leaders of the five main Stormont parties as he seeks changes to the agreement.
Writing in the Belfast Telegraph today, Mr Johnson said: ‘We have been told by the EU that it is impossible to make the changes to the Protocol text to actually solve these problems in negotiations – because there is no mandate to do so.
‘We will keep the door open to genuine dialogue, and continue to protect the single market – as it has been throughout the existence of the Protocol – and the open border with the Republic of Ireland, which will always be of paramount importance. There is without question a sensible landing spot in which everyone’s interests are protected.
‘Our shared objective must be to create the broadest cross-community support for a reformed Protocol in 2024. I hope the EU’s position changes. If it does not, there will be a necessity to act.
‘The Government has a responsibility to provide assurance that consumers, citizens and businesses of Northern Ireland are protected in the long term.’
The Government has drawn up legislation that would unilaterally suspend all border checks on goods flowing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to end the stalemate.
The Attorney General has received advice that the Good Friday Agreement trumps the Protocol legally.
‘We would argue that it clearly trumps it politically and morally too,’ a source added.
However, the government is only expected to confirm plans for legislation tomorrow, with the text not anticipated until at least next week. It could take months to go through Parliament.
Mr Coveney told reporters in Brussels: ‘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.
‘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.’
Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns, a close ally of Mr Johnson, was sent to the US recently to make the UK’s case to Joe Biden’s administration.
But he returned with a cautious message, telling the Times: ‘The administration and those on the Hill who take a close interest in this want this to be resolved without any theatre around it. That’s our wish too.’
Mr Johnson’s priority us understood to be ‘restoring the democratic institutions’ in Northern Ireland, not to ‘pick a fight with the EU’.
It comes after Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was accused of being too ‘gung ho’ in her approach.
But a source hit back at the claims, and insisted she wants to ‘keep this calm, not blow things up’.
EU leaders have warned of retaliatory measures if the UK acts unilaterally to suspend or change the Protocol.
Yesterday, Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney insisted the EU did not want a trade war, but said there would be a ‘consequence’ if the UK abandoned its international treaty obligations.