The Sinn Fein president has accused Boris Johnson of “placating” the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) over powersharing and the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Mary Lou McDonald described a “fairly tough” meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as the impasse over the formation of the Northern Ireland Executive continues.
Mr Johnson visited the region to meet with the major Stormont parties amid a warning from Ireland against unilateral action to override the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Speaking after a meeting with Mr Johnson at Hillsborough Castle, Ms McDonald said it appears the UK Government’s priority is “placating the DUP”.
“It’s very clear to us that despite all of the rhetoric from the British Government about re-establishing the Executive here in the north, that in fact their priority is placating the DUP,” she said.
“We’ve had what we would describe as a fairly tough meeting with the Prime Minister.
“We have put it to him very directly that the absolute priority is getting government working here in the north.”
She continued: “We have said directly to him that proposed unilateral act of legislating at Westminster is wrong.
“It seems to us absolutely extraordinary that the British Government would propose to legislate to break the law. 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.
“I’m sorry to report that we’ve had no straight answers really from the British Prime Minister except a confirmation of what we already knew, which is that in fact this impasse is entirely co ordinated between themselves and the DUP, and if the DUP are acting shamefully in holding back government, well then the British Government is behaving even more shamefully.”
Mr Johnson was booed and jeered by around 200 people who gathered at the gates of Hillsborough Castle as his cavalcade drove in.
Protesters, including campaigners for the Irish language, victims campaigners and anti-Brexit activists, were among the crowds who held aloft banners.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, following his meeting with the prime minister, said that he “set out in very clear terms” what is needed from the British Government in relation to the protocol.
“We cannot go on like this,” the DUP leader said after meeting Mr Johnson.
Sir Jeffrey rejected the idea that Mr Johnson was picking sides in the row over the protocol.
He said: “This is the same Sinn Fein who were in Dublin this morning asking the Irish Government to take their side.
“Sinn Fein do double standards very well.
“The Prime Minister is here as the prime minister of the United Kingdom. He is here as our Prime Minister, the Prime Minister of the people of Northern Ireland
“The idea the Prime Minister is taking sides is for the fairies.”
He added: “The Prime Minister is here because it is his job to protect Northern Ireland and it is his job to ensure that we have the right to trade freely within our own country.”
Taoiseach Micheal Martin said on Monday afternoon that the only way the current impasse between the UK and the EU can be solved is through “substantive talks” between the two sides.
He added: “The only way to flesh that out is really to re-engage and have substantive talks between the European Union and the United Kingdom.”
Earlier, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney urged Mr Johnson to commit to further engagement with the EU to resolve the Irish Sea trading dispute, rather than breaking international law by acting alone.
Tensions between London and Brussels are intensifying over the prospect of Mr Johnson using domestic legislation at Westminster to nullify parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that require checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is expected to formally announce a plan to legislate on the protocol on Tuesday, although an actual parliamentary Bill is not expected to be published at that point.
The powersharing institutions in Belfast have been plunged into crisis in the wake of the recent Assembly election, with the DUP refusing to re-enter a devolved government in protest at trading arrangements the party claims are undermining the union.
The EU has made clear that unilateral action from the UK to walk away from the protocol deal would represent a clear breach of international law.
Mr Coveney, who was in Brussels on Monday, warned that the entire UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement deal – the TCA – could be jeopardised if Mr Johnson takes unilateral action on the protocol.
“This is a time for calmness, it’s a time for dialogue, it’s a time for compromise and partnership between the EU and the UK to solve these outstanding issues,” he told reporters.
“If that is the approach taken by the British Government then we can make significant progress and we can make progress quickly to respond to the concerns of both the business community and the unionist community in Northern Ireland.
“That alternative is unilateral action which means tension, rancour, stand-offs, legal challenges and of course calls into question the functioning of the TCA itself, because the TCA and the Withdrawal Agreement are interlinked, they rely on each other.”
Prior to his visit to Northern Ireland, Mr Johnson insisted he did not favour scrapping the protocol, rather amending it to reduce disruption on Irish Sea trade.
Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday/Belfast peace agreement contains provisions to protect and develop relations both on a north/south basis on the island of Ireland and on an east/west basis between the island and Great Britain.
Mr Johnson claims the protocol has upset this “delicate balance” of unionist and nationalist aspirations by undermining the east/west dynamic.
On Monday, a Foreign Office source told the PA news agency that Ms Truss’s priority was about upholding the Good Friday/Belfast agreement and restoring stability.
“We’re not after a fight with the EU,” the source insisted.
In an article in the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Johnson said the UK will have a “necessity to act” if the EU is unwilling to reach a compromise in the deepening row over the protocol.
However, he stressed the Government remained open to “genuine dialogue” with the European Commission.
He said the protocol had been negotiated in “good faith”, adding that “those who want to scrap the protocol, rather than seeking changes, are focusing on the wrong thing”.
The Prime Minister added: “We have been told by the EU that it is impossible to make the changes to the protocol text to actually solve these problems in negotiations because there is no mandate to do so.
“We will always keep the door wide open to genuine dialogue.
“And we will continue to protect the single market, as it has been protected 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 without question a sensible landing spot in which everyone’s interests are protected.
“Our shared objective must be to the create the broadest possible cross-community support for a reformed protocol in 2024 (when the Assembly will vote on the continuation of the arrangements).
“I hope the EU’s position changes.
“If it does not, there will be a necessity to act.
“The Government has a responsibility to provide assurance that the consumers, citizens and businesses of Northern Ireland are protected in the long term.”
Contention over the protocol will not be the sole focus of Mr Johnson on Monday as he will also use his visit to pledge delivery of three pre-existing commitments: a stalled language and culture package; ensuring women and girls have full access to abortion services; and introducing new measures to deal with the legacy of the past.
A majority of MLAs in Stormont’s newly elected Assembly represent parties that support retaining the protocol, claiming that it offers Northern Ireland some protection from the negative economic consequences of Brexit.
They point to the unfettered access Northern Ireland traders have to sell into the EU single market as a key benefit of the protocol.
The new Assembly has been unable to convene due to the DUP’s refusal to engage in the institutions until major changes to the protocol are secured.
The Stormont election saw Sinn Fein displace the DUP to become the overall largest party in Northern Ireland for the first time.
The DUP remains the largest unionist party in the region and, under Stormont rules, a new executive cannot be formed unless it agrees to nominate to the post of deputy first minister.
The DUP has also blocked the nomination of a new Assembly speaker, meaning the legislature at Parliament Buildings cannot meet while the impasse continues.
The party has made clear it needs action rather than words on the protocol from Mr Johnson before a return to powersharing can be countenanced.
Sinn Fein, which is now entitled to the first minister’s role, has accused the DUP of holding the people of Northern Ireland to ransom by not allowing Stormont to function in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis.