Patrick Daly, PA Political Correspondent
The Northern Ireland Protocol has become a “real problem” and must be “fixed” to ensure the country can agree a new powersharing administration, British prime minister Boris Johnson has said.
The EU and UK have come to fresh blows over the Brexit treaty after reports emerged that the British foreign secretary is drawing up emergency legislation to suspend elements of the protocol.
Mr Johnson, who negotiated the protocol when taking the UK out of the EU, would not be drawn on whether the wording of the divorce pact needed to be changed when questioned on Thursday.
He argued that without changes to the treaty, which is designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland, a new executive in the North could not be formed as per the rules set out in the Good Friday Agreement.
Sinn Féin made history during last week’s Stormont elections when it became the largest party in the Assembly for the first time.
But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has ruled out entering into a new powersharing administration without significant changes to the protocol.
The impasse has led to concerns in the British government that the protocol could spark sectarian violence in the North.
Mr Johnson told broadcasters that the “institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement aren’t functioning” and that political governance in the North has “collapsed”.
Speaking in Stoke-on-Trent, he said: “The people of Northern Ireland need leadership, they need a regional, a provincial government… they haven’t got that.
“That’s a real, real problem.
“And the reason they don’t have that is because there’s one community in Northern Ireland that won’t accept the way the protocol works at present – we’ve got to fix that.”
The latest row came as months of tensions over the working of the protocol – which forms part of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU – threatened to boil over.
Under its terms, the UK is required to impose checks on some goods crossing from Britain to Northern Ireland in order to maintain an open border with the Republic while protecting the EU single market.
However, the British government has complained that the way it is being implemented is imposing a burden on businesses in North and creating trade barriers within the UK.
British ministers have repeatedly warned that they could unilaterally suspend the arrangements unless the EU agrees to major changes to reduce the impact.
However, Brussels has raised the possibility of suspending the entire Brexit deal if the threat is carried out, in a move that could spark an all-out trade war.
British foreign secretary Liz Truss used a phone call with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic on Thursday to warn that if the EU does not show “flexibility” over the trading arrangements, then the UK would have “no choice but to act” alone.
British cabinet office minister Michael Ellis later drove that message home during a visit to Brussels, giving a speech in which he pressed for “significant changes”.
He said the EU’s approach in refusing to change the negotiation mandate had been “hugely disappointing”.
“We will continue to talk with the EU but we won’t let that stand in the way of protecting peace and political stability in Northern Ireland,” Mr Ellis told a press conference at the European Parliament.
“As both the prime minister and foreign secretary have made clear, we will take action to protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement if solutions cannot be found.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, speaking to reporters in Co Antrim, said British government figures had told him to expect “movement” on the protocol “fairly soon”.
According to The Times, the UK's attorney general Suella Braverman has issued legal advice that the UK could act because the EU’s implementation of the agreement was “disproportionate and unreasonable”.
British ministers have said they could trigger Article 16 of the protocol – the power allowing either side to suspend some of the arrangements – while reports have suggested Ms Truss is readying a domestic law designed to suspend parts of the terms.
Mr Sefcovic warned his counterparts in London that the EU could not “renegotiate” a form of Brexit that the UK freely signed up to.
Speaking in Brussels, Mr Sefcovic said: “The EU cannot solve all the problems created by Brexit and the type of Brexit that the UK chose.
“That is the reason why the EU’s position has been consistent: we will not renegotiate the protocol, and the EU is united in this position.
“Unilateral action, effectively disapplying the protocol, is not a solution for the way forward.”
He said the commission “stands ready” to carry on working for a joint solution to the frictions being caused by the accord, and urged the UK “to do the same”.
Speaking in the Dáil, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the UK pushing to use domestic legislation to overwrite the protocol was “deeply unhelpful” and had “ratcheted up tension”.
Unilateral action by the UK also risks provoking a row with the US, where US president Joe Biden has made clear his concern over any measure that could undermine the Good Friday Agreement.