Johnson admits issues with NI Protocol must be fixed after meeting with five main parties
The Prime Minister has fired a missile across the bows of Northern Ireland’s MLAs by insisting he sees no reason why they should receive full wages as long as the Stormont stalemate continues.
Following talks at Hillsborough Castle, the Prime Minister toured Thales missile factory in east Belfast. And while admitting the meetings were “robust” he was adamant that all five parties knew there were problems with the protocol that needed to be fixed.
“It was certainly robust in the sense that all five parties I spoke to today acknowledge that there are problems. All five of them want to get the government of Northern Ireland up and running again,” the Prime Minister said.
“That’s my priority and it’s where I come in as I’m the Prime Minister of the whole of the UK. I’ve got to find a way of getting the balance of the Good Friday Agreement respected and getting both traditions, both communities here in Northern Ireland to come together for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. That’s what today is all about.”
Mr Johnson said his plan to legislate to rip up Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements was an “insurance” policy if a fresh deal could not be reached with the European Union although he remains frustrated that talks with Brussels to resolve the protocol problems have not made sufficient progress.
“None of the parties, not one of them, likes the way it’s operating. They all think it can be reformed and improved,” 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.
“But to get that done, to have the insurance, we need to proceed with a legislative solution at the same time.”
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is expected to outline the government’s plans on Tuesday. In the meantime, earning the trust of sceptical politicians in Northern Ireland is another major obstacle.
“My priority is to get the Belfast Agreement institutions up and running,” said Mr Johnson when asked about trust issues.
“I think that’s crucial to government in Northern Ireland. Look at what’s really going on. We’ve got economic problems caused by a global spike in energy prices, People need focus on health care and education, all the things that matter. You can’t do that when you don’t have an Assembly or an Executive operational. Let’s get it done. Let’s get people back in to the Assembly. I said this to Sir Jeffrey and the DUP.
“But of course, I’ve got to do what I can to fix this, to make things work for people. We did it before when Sinn Fein had problems over the Irish language. We worked very hard to sort that out, we got them back in to the Executive. There’s a problem now with the protocol. It’s not operating the way that I want it to or thought it would.
“There are far too many checks on stuff coming from GB to Northern Ireland. It doesn’t need to be that way.
“Let’s work together to fix it. Let’s work with the EU to fix it. I want members of the Assembly to be back. I see no case for paying them full rations if they’re not back there,” he warned.
“We have to recognise that one group of people here in Northern Ireland are particularly hostile to the operation of the protocol. There’s a general understanding that the east-west dimension of the protocol is not working.
“My message to politicians here is let’s do that and we will do what we can to fix the protocol.”
Following the Hillsborough talks DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson reiterated his view that the time for talking is over.
“I need action and that’s how I will judge what the Prime Minister does, not necessarily what he says,” the DUP leader said.
“In the past we have been reasonable, we have taken proportionate action, we have sought to give time for negotiations, to bring forward outcomes. That hasn’t happened and I think the time has come now for action.”
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald described her meeting with the Prime Minister as “fairly tough”, claiming the government’s priority is “placating the DUP”. She also accused the government of co-ordinating the current impasse alongside the unionist party.
Alliance leader Naomi Long told the PM the only way to avoid the constant cycle of collapse and crisis at Stormont is to reform the institutions.
“We need to find a work around or else the people of Northern Ireland will continue to be held hostage,” she said. “That is not an acceptable way to do government and needs to change.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood added: “While I welcome his call for the resumption of power-sharing, the gulf between his actions over the last two years and his words today is so great that it makes it impossible to trust the Prime Minister. He has recklessly used this place to serve his own narrow political interests.”