BELFAST – Britain will introduce “a legislative solution” to post-Brexit trade tensions in Northern Ireland, Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed Monday during a visit to a part of the U.K. where he is widely distrusted.
Johnson spent the afternoon talking behind closed doors with separate delegations from all five parties in Northern Ireland’s crumbling government, a cross-community coalition at the heart of the region’s 1998 peace accord.
He received a public welcome from only one party: the Democratic Unionists, who campaigned for Brexit – and now are blocking any revival of power-sharing unless Johnson meets their demands.
The DUP insists it won’t resume cooperation with the Irish nationalist side of the community unless Johnson scraps the trade protocol agreed only two years ago with the EU. Most unionists despise how the protocol requires EU checks on British goods arriving in Northern Ireland ports from the rest of the U.K., a condition they say treats Britain as a foreign country.
After his talks at Hillsborough Castle southwest of Belfast, Johnson claimed to have found common ground between the DUP and the other parties.
“Not one of them likes the way it’s operating,” Johnson said of the protocol, a part of the U.K.-EU Withdrawal Agreement that keeps Northern Ireland inside the EU single market for goods to maintain barrier-free trade with the neighboring Republic of Ireland, an EU member. “They all think it can be reformed and improved. … The question is how do you do that.”
Following a week of briefings to London media, Johnson confirmed that his Foreign Secretary Liz Truss indeed would announce the government’s intent to publish a bill that would act “as insurance” against an EU refusal to concede changes to protocol rules.
While Johnson declined to be specific on timings, British officials told POLITICO that Truss would make the announcement Tuesday in the House of Commons, although no bill text was expected to be published.
“We would love for this to be done in a consensual way with our friends and partners, ironing out the problems, stopping some of these barriers east-west,” Johnson said, referring to the EU’s requirement for customs and sanitary checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Britain.
“But to get that done, to have the insurance, we need to proceed with a legislative solution at the same time,” Johnson said in reply to questions posed by Channel 4, the only broadcaster allowed by Downing Street to question him during his visit.
“We don’t want to scrap [the protocol], but we think it can be fixed. Actually, five of the five parties I talked to today also thinks it needs reform,” he said, adding that changing the protocol rules – with or without EU acceptance – would “protect and preserve the government of Northern Ireland.”
The leaders of all other parties besides the DUP, as well as protesters outside the castle screaming at his passing motorcade, accused Johnson of failing to take their views seriously. They said the British government must confront and overrule DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, not coddle or collude with him.
Donaldson, who since winning election as DUP leader last year has made scrapping the protocol his party’s top priority, said he welcomed what Johnson told him.
“We’ve waited a long time on this moment. We’ve waited a long time to see the government bring forward proposals that represent action to deal with the problems created by the Irish Sea border,” Donaldson said, adding: “We cannot have power-sharing unless there is a consensus. That consensus doesn’t exist.”
Sinn Féin – the Irish nationalist party that overtook the DUP for the first time in last week’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections – accused Johnson of working behind the scenes with Donaldson to block a strengthened Sinn Féin from power at Stormont and prevent coherent enforcement of EU standards at the ports of Belfast and Larne.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said Johnson “is quite willing to act in coordination with the DUP, with very unacceptable obstructionist tactics.”
“It seems to us absolutely extraordinary that the British government would propose to legislate to break the law,” McDonald said of the expected Truss announcement. “It’s an extraordinary proposal and one that would amplify the bad faith with which the Tory government has conducted itself from the beginning of the entire Brexit debacle.”
While Donaldson accused Sinn Féin of speaking “puerile nonsense,” center-ground parties agreed with the Irish republicans, accusing Johnson of pro-DUP bias that was making a revival of local government in Northern Ireland less likely.
Moderates appealed for the U.K. to redraft the rules of power-sharing, not the protocol, to make it impossible for any single party to block government formation. Those rules require the two largest British unionist and Irish nationalist parties to form a mandatory coalition, while other parties are optional extras.
“The prime minister has to indicate that he’s open to reform of the institutions, to remove the ability of any party at the top to veto the establishment of the assembly and the executive and to hold the people of Northern Ireland hostage,” said Stephen Farry from Alliance, the only party actively organized in both sides of the community. It made the biggest election gains, more than doubling its assembly seats, but remains almost irrelevant under existing power-sharing rules.
Farry called Alliance’s meeting with the prime minister “very frustrating” because he “left a lot of questions hanging in the air.”
“We gave him a very clear warning that if he plays fast and loose with the protocol, and indeed the Good Friday Agreement, then he’s going to be adding more and more instability to Northern Ireland,” Farry said.
He said Alliance expects Truss to tease details of a bill that would “give the U.K. government the powers to set aside aspects of the protocol. It may well be a threat put on the table and something that may not be used down the line. But it will make agreement more difficult with the EU, because it will build up belligerence, not trust.”