By David Young, PA
Boris Johnson cannot envisage a referendum on the reunification of Ireland for “a very, very long time to come”.
The British prime minister also vowed to take action on the Northern Ireland Protocol if the European Union refuses to ditch “absurd” aspects of the post-Brexit trading arrangements.
In an interview with BBC NI’s Spotlight programme for a special show on the centenary of the foundation of Northern Ireland, Mr Johnson was questioned on the potential of a future Border poll on the region’s constitutional status.
He told the show, which airs on Tuesday evening, that rather than Irish reunification, he would prefer the UK to think collectively about what it can do together.
Describing himself as “a proud unionist”, he said he will be celebrating the centenary this year, although he acknowledges nationalists have felt excluded for much of the time.
The programme also interviewed Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who will denounce an early Border poll as “explosive and divisive”.
On Brexit, Mr Johnson said his government was currently working on “sandpapering” rather than scrapping the Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs Irish Sea trade post-Brexit, to address some of the concerns about trade disruption.
Mr Martin insisted in his interview that the Protocol was not tearing the UK apart.
The new trading arrangements have been cited as a factor behind the recent upsurge of violence in loyalist areas in Northern Ireland.
Loyalists believe the new economic barriers between the region and Britain have weakened their place in the UK.
The Protocol requires a range of new regulatory checks on agri-food goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. Some British goods are banned under the arrangements.
Commercial goods also need to undergo various customs processes.
The Protocol has yet to be fully implemented with various exemptions on checks currently in place.
The EU has taken legal action against the UK for its decision to unilaterally extend some of those grace periods amid continuing talks between the two sides on ways to ease the red tape burden.
Mr Johnson has repeatedly warned that he will trigger a mechanism to suspend the Protocol – Article 16 – if changes to the arrangements cannot be agreed.
“If we can’t make enough progress and if it looks as though the EU is going to be very, very dogmatic about it and we continue to have absurd situations so you can’t bring in rose bushes with British soil into Northern Ireland, you can’t bring British sausages into Northern Ireland, then frankly I’m going to, we’ll have to take further steps,” he told the BBC.
“What we’re doing is removing what I think of as the unnecessary protuberances and barriers that have grown up and we’re getting the barnacles off the thing and sandpapering it into shape.”
Mr Martin said the Protocol posed no threat to the integrity of the UK.
“The Protocol is not tearing the United Kingdom apart, that’s just an overly dramatic presentation of it in our view,” he said.
“It explicitly affirms the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent.
“So it’s not a danger to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland at all, and was never intended to be.”