Boris Johnson to hold talks to break Stormont deadlock

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Oris Johnson will hold emergency talks with Northern Ireland political leaders later in a bid to break a Stormont standoff caused by post-Brexit trade deals.

Power-sharing institutions have been plunged into crisis following recent Assembly elections, with the DUP refusing to reinstate a devolved government in protest at the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol, which has created economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK. .

The Prime Minister’s visit comes amid heightened tensions between the UK and the EU over the prospect of it overriding elements of the protocol through national legislation at Westminster.

Brussels has made it clear that such unilateral action to withdraw from a key part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement would represent a clear breach of international law.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Oli Scarff/PA) / PA wire

Ahead of his trip to Northern Ireland, Mr Johnson said the UK would have a “need to act” if the EU was unwilling to reach a compromise in the growing row over the protocol.

However, he stressed that the government remained open to a “genuine dialogue” with the European Commission.

He also clarified that he was not in favor of removing the protocol and instead wanted to see changes.

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Johnson said the government would give more details of its planned next steps to Parliament in the coming days. He said the protocol was negotiated in “good faith”, adding that “those who want to abandon the protocol, rather than seeking change, are focusing on the wrong thing.”

The Prime Minister added: “The EU has told us that it is impossible to make the changes to the text of the protocol to really resolve these issues in the negotiations, because there is no mandate to do so.

“We will always keep the door wide open for true dialogue.

“And we will continue to protect the single market, as it has been throughout the existence of the protocol so far, and the open border with the Republic of Ireland which will always be of paramount importance.

“There is definitely a sensible landing place in which everyone’s interests are protected.

“Our common goal must be to create the broadest possible cross-community support for a reformed protocol in 2024 (when the Assembly votes on continuing the arrangements).

“I hope that the position of the EU will change.

“If this is not the case, we will have to act.

“The government has a responsibility to ensure that consumers, citizens and businesses in Northern Ireland are protected over the long term.

“We will present a more detailed assessment and next steps to Parliament in the coming days.”

Discord over protocol will not be Mr Johnson’s only focus on Monday, as he will also use his visit to promise the delivery of three pre-existing pledges, a stalled linguistic and cultural package; ensure that women and girls have full access to abortion services; and the introduction of new measures to deal with the legacy of the past.

Narrow Water Point and Warrenpoint Port seen from Flagstaff Viewpoint on the hills outside Newry where the River Newry flows to Carlingford Lough, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland share a border across the lake (Liam McBurney/PA) / PA Archives

The protocol, agreed by the UK and EU to maintain a smooth Irish land border, requires customs and regulatory checks on the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland.

This has been the source of resentment and anger among many trade unionists and loyalists who believe the arrangements have weakened the union.

However, a majority of MPs in the newly elected Stormont Assembly represent parties that support keeping the protocol, saying it offers Northern Ireland some protection from the negative economic consequences of Brexit.

They point out that unhindered access for traders from Northern Ireland to sell in the EU single market is a key benefit of the protocol.

The new Assembly was unable to convene due to the DUP’s refusal to commit to the institutions until major changes to protocol were achieved.

The Stormont election saw Sinn Fein displace the DUP to become Northern Ireland’s largest party for the first time.

The DUP remains the largest unionist party in the region and, under Stormont rules, a new executive can only be formed if they agree to nominate for the post of Deputy Prime Minister.

The DUP has also blocked the appointment of a new Speaker of the Assembly, meaning the Parliament Buildings legislature cannot meet while the deadlock continues.

On Sunday, party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson made it clear he needed action rather than words on Mr Johnson’s protocol before a return to power-sharing could be authorised.

Sinn Fein, now entitled to the premiership, has accused the DUP of holding the people of Northern Ireland to ransom by not allowing Stormont to operate amid a cost of living crisis.

Sinn Fein deputy chair Michelle O’Neill is set to become prime minister (Liam McBurney/PA) / PA wire

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, who is set to become Prime Minister, is due to speak with Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin in Dublin on Monday morning ahead of his meeting with Mr Johnson north of the border.

Over the weekend, UK government sources said Mr Johnson would use a series of private meetings with party leaders to deliver a ‘hard message’ that parties must come together to form an executive and assembly if problems with the protocol need to be resolved.

He is expected to say that while the UK Government will ‘play its part to ensure political stability’, politicians need to ‘get back to work’ so that they can answer the ‘bread and butter questions’ for the voters.

One of Northern Ireland’s leading daily newspapers, The Irish News, published an editorial in the form of an open letter to Mr Johnson on Monday morning urging him to consider whether a majority in Stormont approves the protocol .

The newspaper, which reportedly takes a nationalist editorial line, described the trade deals as a “logical and carefully constructed initiative with massive international support which recognizes all the complexities surrounding the only land border between the EU and the UK”.

He added: “We implore you not to take any action in the next crucial days that will have a hugely negative impact on the lives of all our citizens.”


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Edward L. Robinett