Johnson: Get back to Stormont and let me fix protocol

Boris Johnson has said his plan to draw up legislation to override the Northern Ireland Protocol is “an insurance policy” in case further negotiations with the EU break down.

But on the protocol he stressed that the UK government “don’t want to scrap it but we think it can be fixed”.

With Foreign Secretary Liz Truss expected to make a statement later today setting out the broad outlines of a new law on the post-Brexit trade deal, DUP sources said last night that her expected announcement won’t be enough for the party to help form another Executive.

The DUP would “sit tight and wait” to let any proposed bill altering the protocol proceed through Parliament even up perhaps to Royal Assent, which is a process that could take several months, the party sources said.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (centre), speaks to the media alongside Gavin Robinson (left), and Edwin Poots (right), after their meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Hillsborough Castle, during the Prime Minister's visit by to Northern Ireland for talks with Stormont parties. Picture: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

On any unilateral UK changes to the protocol during his visit to Northern Ireland yesterday, the prime minister 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.

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

Speaking later at the Thales arms manufacturing factory in east Belfast, the prime minister said he personally didn’t believe MLAs should receive their full salaries if the Assembly and the Executive were not functioning.

“I want members of the Assembly to get back to work. I see no case for them being paid full rations if they are not back there. I think it’s time to work for our constituents,” he said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Thales weapons manufacturer in Belfast during a visit to Northern Ireland for talks with Stormont parties. Picture: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

He denied the UK government were poised to tear up a major international agreement he had signed less than two years ago that could trigger a trade war with Europe.

“No, what we’re doing is sticking up for the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. And what we’re doing is trying to protect and preserve the government of Northern Ireland,” he said.

Mr Johnson said the five parties he met earlier yesterday at Hillsborough Castle agreed that the protocol needs fixing.

“There is a general understanding that the east-west dimension of the protocol is not working. I think it can be fixed but what needs to happen is that people need to get back in. My message to politicians here is – let’s work together on behalf of our constituents. We will do what we can to fix the protocol working with the EU plus a legislative process in parallel, but I want people back in the Assembly and the Executive.”

Asked how the DUP and the wider unionist community could trust him given that he introduced the protocol, Mr Johnson said: “My priority is to get the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement’s institutions up and running. I want the Executive to meet, I want the Assembly to meet, I want a speaker nominated. I think that’s crucial for good government in Northern Ireland.

“Look at what is going on. We have economic problems caused by the global spike in energy prices and people need focus from their political leaders on health care and education. You can’t do that when you don’t have an Assembly or an Executive operational.

“So, let’s get it done, let’s get people back in, that’s what I said to everyone I met including Jeffrey and the DUP.

“But of course I’ve got to do what I can to fix things, to make things work for people, that’s my job as prime minister of the UK. We did it before when Sinn Fein had problems with (the Irish) language. We worked very hard to sort things out and got them back into the Executive.

“There’s a problem now with the protocol. It’s not operating the way I wanted or in the way I thought it would operate. The problem is there are far too many checks on stuff coming from GB into NI. It doesn’t need to be that way. We can protect the EU single market without having this great panoply of checks. Let’s come together to fix it. We will work with the EU to fix it.”

Pressed on whether or not he personally appealed to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and his DUP delegation to return to elect a new Assembly speaker and re-enter the Executive, the prime minister said: “You bet. And I think everybody should be rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck into the government of Northern Ireland. Look at this place, it’s an amazing place. Here we are in the Thales factory, where they’re absolutely crucial to what the Ukrainians are able to do to protect themselves.

“Northern Ireland business is going so well in so many ways. The Province has got so much going for it. But you need leadership and you need government. So you bet I said to the DUP, in particular, we want to see you back in the Executive.”

Mr Johnson said that the cost-of-living crisis was being made worse by “extra barriers to trade, extra burdens on business that are being caused by the protocol”.

He added: “And it certainly won’t be helped if we have a situation where the Executive isn’t up and running in Northern Ireland. You need the Executive, you need the Assembly.

“That is what the people of Northern Ireland want us politicians to focus on.”

During his tour of the Thales factory, the prime minister was shown the anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles built at the east Belfast plant being used by the Ukrainian military against Russian armour and aircraft.

He was also introduced to a number of trainee apprentices.