Boris Johnson in Belfast tomorrow will urge politicians to restore Stormont but also say he’ll act on Irish Sea border if need be

Boris Johnson will urge Northern Ireland’s politicians to get powersharing back up and running as the government seeks to resolve the deadlock with Brussels over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

By Staff Reporter
Sunday, 15th May 2022, 8:19 am
Updated Sunday, 15th May 2022, 8:39 am

The prime minister will travel to Belfast tomorrow for a series of crisis talks after the DUP blocked the election of a speaker at the Stormont Assembly, preventing it from sitting.

He is expected to say the “delicate balance” of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) has been upset by the Northern Ireland Protocol, eroding the historic economic bonds linking Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, leaving the unionist community feeling like its aspirations and identity are threatened.

Government sources said Mr Johnson will also use a series of private meetings to deliver a “tough message” that parties must come together to form an executive and assembly if the problems with the protocol are to be fixed.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson, see outside 10 Downing Street on Friday, will fly into Belfast on Monday. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

He is expected to say that while the UK government will “play its part to ensure political stability”, politicians must “get back to work” so they can deliver on “bread and butter issues” for the voters.

UK ministers have repeatedly said they will act unilaterally on the protocol if an agreement cannot be found to reduce the impact of the checks, which have been blamed for hitting businesses and fuelling community tensions.

In his talks, Mr Johnson is expected to say that while the government “will always keep the door open to genuine dialogue”, there will be “a necessity to act” to protect the GFA if there is no change in the EU position.

He will insist the government has never suggested scrapping the protocol and will acknowledge there will always have to be a treaty governing the UK’s relationship with the EU in respect of Northern Ireland in order to prevent the return of a hard border with the Republic.

The prime minister will argue that the UK and EU’s “shared objective” should be to agree a reformed protocol which can command “the broadest possible cross-community support” when it faces a consent vote in 2024.

The DUP move not to nominate a speaker was bitterly condemned by Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill — whose party is now the biggest in the assembly following elections earlier this month — and other party leaders.

The DUP is opposed to the protocol as it requires checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, in order to keep the border with Republic open in line with the Good Friday Agreement.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson on Friday night defended the DUP’s decision to block the election of a new assembly speaker claiming that if a trade border was at Aughnacloy, rather than Larne, Sinn Fein would walk from Stormont.

In a statement after day one of the new assembly ended with no speaker elected and no prospect of an executive, the DUP leader said the move demonstrated that his party was “serious” about changing the Northern Ireland Protocol. He said he was sending out a “clear message” to the EU and the UK government about the post-Brexit trade deal.

It emerged late on Friday that Boris Johnson will fly to Belfast on Monday as pressure mounts on the prime minister to sanction unilateral UK changes to the protocol, including removing the European Court of Justice’s powers over Northern Ireland.

Recalling the three years Stormont was in cold storage between 2017 and 2020, Sir Jeffrey said: “Sinn Fein should win an Oscar for their faux outrage from a party that walked out of government for three years because it suited them, supported by the SDLP and the Alliance Party.”

On the protocol, he said: “If the checks that have been imposed on Larne and Belfast were taking place at the Aughnacloy/Monaghan border, Sinn Fein would be singing a different tune.”

Sir Jeffrey continued: “We want devolution to work and to be respected across all communities in Northern Ireland. But for it to work, unionists as well as nationalists must be respected. Not one unionist MLA elected last week supports the NI Protocol. That makes it impossible for powersharing to operate.

“Unionism will not be walked over. The DUP has a mandate to remove the Protocol. Our mandate will be respected.”

The DUP leader was not in the assembly chamber when the attempt was made to elect a new speaker as he had handed over the Lagan Valley seat he won last week to former MP Emma Little Pengelly. Sir Jeffrey told the House of Commons earlier this week he intends to stay on

Mr Johnson will also use his visit to guarantee the delivery of three pre-existing commitments on a language and culture package, ensuring women and girls have access to abortion services, and introducing new measures to deal with the legacy of the past.