UK prime minister Boris Johnson said a “sensible” solution to a dispute over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland with the EU is possible ahead of a trip to the region on Monday, but he reiterated that London would act unilaterally if Brussels did not budge.
At the start of a week in which he was expected to sign off plans for a law to unilaterally scrap parts of the UK’s Brexit deal, Johnson urged local parties to “get back to work” to elect a Speaker to the Stormont assembly and form a power-sharing executive in an article for the Belfast Telegraph.
The Democratic Unionist party, Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party, is boycotting local institutions until it succeeds in its demands to get rid of a post-Brexit customs border in the Irish Sea that it says undermines the region’s place in the UK.
Johnson, who will meet the region’s party leaders and visit the Belfast missile factory of French aerospace and defence group Thales, softened suggestions he would blow up the post-Brexit trading arrangements, known as the Northern Ireland protocol, that left the region inside the EU single market and put customs checks on goods entering from Britain.
“Those who want to scrap the protocol, rather than seeking changes, are focusing on the wrong thing,” Johnson wrote, ahead of his talks with leaders of the five biggest parties at Hillsborough Castle.
“We will always keep the door wide open to genuine dialogue . . . There is without question a sensible landing spot in which everyone’s interests are protected.”
London is demanding more flexibility over the terms of the protocol from Brussels. “I hope the EU’s position changes. If it does not, there will be a necessity to act . . . We will set out a more detailed assessment and next steps to Parliament in the coming days,” Johnson wrote.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, welcomed Johnson’s “more conciliatory” tone, telling reporters in Brussels “hopefully that will continue today”.
But Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, said the protocol was hurting the economy and political stability, and must go. “Words don’t cut it with me. I need action,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
Protesters fearing that any removal of the protocol would lead to a new hard border on the island of Ireland planned to hand a letter to Johnson outlining their concerns.
Mary Lou McDonald, president of Sinn Féin, which won the May 5 elections in Northern Ireland, described the DUP’s boycott as “unacceptable” and said it was also worrying Washington.
“It is very reckless of him [Johnson] to pursue again the threat of unilateral action to break international law and create a full-on collision with the European institutions, the government in Dublin and the US administration,” she told the BBC.
Additional reporting by Sam Fleming in Brussels