Boris Johnson in stand-off with unionists over N Ireland protocol3 min read

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Boris Johnson was locked in a stand-off with Northern Irelands biggest pro-UK unionist party on Monday, as a row over post-Brexit trading rules left the region in political paralysis.

The Democratic Unionist party warned Johnson that only the enacting of legislation to scrap a post-Brexit customs border in the Irish Sea — not just the threat of a new law — would be enough to end the political deadlock.

Liz Truss, the UK foreign secretary, will on Tuesday set out plans for British legislation to override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, a key element of Johnson’s 2019 Brexit deal, if talks with the EU on reforming the pact fail.

But while that plan has enraged politicians in the EU — who argue that Johnson’s government is threatening to unilaterally rip up an international treaty — it is still not deemed hardline enough by the DUP.

Speaking after talks with Johnson in Northern Ireland on Monday, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he wanted the legislation enacted if he is to lead his party back into the power-sharing executive in the region.

“Tabling legislation is words,” Donaldson told reporters outside Hillsborough Castle, the official UK government residence outside Belfast. “What I need is decisive action and that means I want to see the government enacting legislation that will bring the solution that we need.”

Johnson, who was booed by anti-Brexit protesters on his arrival, has been desperate in recent days to dial down tensions with Brussels, amid fears the EU could retaliate with a trade war. His allies said he had “zero appetite” for a political fight with the EU.

Speaking after talks with the five main parties in the region, he said that all had agreed that the Northern Ireland protocol — which creates checks on trade travelling across the Irish Sea from Great Britain to the region — could be improved.

“We don’t want to scrap it, but we think it can be fixed,” Johnson said. He added that he wanted a deal with the EU to soften border checks: “We would like this done in a consensual way with our friends and partners.”

The British legislation, to be outlined by Truss on Tuesday after being signed off by the cabinet, would be part of a “parallel process”, according to Johnson aides, and would only be passed into law if EU talks collapsed.

But the DUP’s hardline stance suggests, according to one senior Tory MP, that Johnson is risking a fight with Brussels but is getting nothing in return. “It’s a strategic disaster — why are they going to compromise?” the MP said.

Truss and Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, had been convinced that the DUP would re-enter the executive if legislation was brought forward, according to government officials.

Under the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, Northern Ireland’s main unionist and nationalist parties have been forced into fractious power-sharing. The protocol row has stymied its resumption in the wake of the May 5 election, jba ol gur angvbanyvfg cnegl Fvaa Séva.

The DUP on Friday scuppered the election of a speaker to the Stormont assembly and has vetoed the formation of a power-sharing government until Brexit demands it says would restore Northern Ireland’s place as part of the UK are met.

Johnson’s allies said the EU needed to be more flexible because it would be a “kick in the teeth” to deny nationalist party Sinn Féin its election victory.

Northern Ireland now faces the prospect of months of limbo and potentially even new elections this winter, while the region confronts a cost of living crisis and serious problems in its health service.

Sinn Féin emerged furious from what party president Mary Lou McDonald called “tough” talks with Johnson, whom she accused of acting “shamefully”.

She demanded a return to local institutions with “no ifs, no buts, no conditionality, no unionist veto” and slammed the prospect of unilateral UK legislation to undo parts of the protocol.

Additional reporting by Sam Fleming in Brussels

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