Boris Johnson has said a legal decision to drop parts of the North Ireland The protocol is just an ‘insurance’ policy, as it emerged that the controversial legislation had been delayed for a few weeks.
Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, is expected to make a combative statement on Tuesday threatening to introduce the bill, after a cabinet discussion on Northern Ireland.
However, the timing of the bills has now slipped, with the text now only promised before the summer recess, sources in Whitehall say.
The Prime Minister came under heavy criticism from all quarters on Monday when he traveled to Belfast in a bid to revive the devolved government in Stormont, amid the continuing row over protocol.
One of the main sticking points is the protocol aligning Northern Ireland’s trade with the EU rather than the rest of the UK, with the DUP refusing to return to power sharing without major changes.
During his visit, Johnson said he was engaged in negotiations with the EU on the protocol, but would not drag his feet on potential legislation if the talks did not yield a solution.
He said: “We would like this to be done in a consensual way with our friends and partners, ironing out the issues, stopping some of these east-west barriers.
“But to achieve that, to have the assurance, we also need to adopt a legislative solution.”
Johnson said the UK did not want to ‘give up’ the Northern Ireland protocol but believed it could be ‘fixed’.
He told broadcasters on a trip to Belfast: ‘We don’t want to take it down. But we think it can be fixed. And in fact, five of the five parties I spoke to today also think it needs reform.
No 10 did not appear to be as keen as Truss on the option of legislation to undermine protocol in recent days.
A diplomatic source said one of the prime minister’s top aides had privately told people the government was very engaged in negotiations and no decision had been taken to move the legislation forward.
Delegations from the five main political parties have questioned the credibility of Downing Street and its post-Brexit strategy after meeting Johnson in separate back-to-back talks at Hillsborough Castle in County Down. Several hundred protesters outside the castle set the mood by mocking the Prime Minister’s cavalcade and holding up signs saying “Stand back Boris!”
Downing Street had expressed hope to ease tensions heightened by the DUP’s blocking of an assembly and executive in Stormont in protest at the Irish Sea border. Instead, the rhetoric intensified, with Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) and the Alliance accusing Johnson of failing to act in the interests of Northern Ireland. Several delegations wonder about the interest of the visit.
Downing Street had signaled hope that a move towards potentially overpowering parts of the protocol would encourage the DUP to quickly return to Stormont, but party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson insisted that only actions, not words, would revive the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. “The DUP has a mandate to see the protocol replaced with arrangements that restore our place within the UK internal market. Our mandate will be respected.
The tone reinforced signals from DUP sources who said the party will need more than an announcement of legislation to overturn the protocol – it will need legislation to remove barriers at Westminster and appear to be on the right track to become law.
While the DUP publicly doubted the value of Johnson’s word, Sinn Féin accused him of complicity with the DUP in obstructing devolved government. “The UK government is in a tightrope game with the European institutions, indulging in a section of political unionism that believes it can frustrate and hold society to ransom,” party leader Mary Lou McDonald said after having met the Prime Minister. She said he gave “no straight answers” in a “very difficult meeting”.
Most of the protesters outside Hillsborough were nationalists demanding that Johnson protect protocol. Others were campaigning for an Irish language law and for justice for relatives of those killed during the Troubles, two additional controversies facing Downing Street.
Johnson looked good after the meetings. “Everyone should roll up their sleeves and get stuck in the government of Northern Ireland,” he told reporters during a visit to Thales, an air defense manufacturer in east Belfast.
Naomi Long, leader of Alliance, the third-largest party, said most people and businesses in Northern Ireland favored pragmatic solutions to the protocol. “Despite this, the Minister of Foreign Affairs will make a statement tomorrow to set the stage for the unilateral modification of the protocol. This is not the way of business. Trust is the key ingredient and that involves keeping agreements, not breaking them. We talk about safe landing zones in this regard. But as a pilot, Boris Johnson and the British government is about to crash the plane tomorrow.
Colum Eastwood, the MP and leader of the SDLP, said he had a “solid” meeting with the Prime Minister. “Boris Johnson’s actions over the past two years and his words today are so significant that the Prime Minister cannot be trusted. He has recklessly used this place to serve his own narrow political interests and a again, he is about to override the interests of the majority of people here for his own ends.
Another UK source suggested there was an “a priori” problem with the protocol as it needed to be reopened over issues such as governance, but that was not the same as scrapping it.
The UK’s proposal to relax the role of the European Court of Justice and to make an EU-UK arbitration board the first port of call in the event of a dispute would require the reopening of a section of the protocol with a new formulation approved by everyone.