Northern Ireland Protocol: is there hope for a ‘landing zone’?

Boris Johnson visits Belfast in a bid to end political deadlock

Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill speaks to the media after the DUP blocked the formation of a new assembly
(Image credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney have spoken of a possible “landing zone” to address unionist concerns about the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The UK prime minister is heading to Belfast today as tensions over the political deadlock in Stormont – and between London and the EU – have intensified.

He is expected to “sign off plans for a law to unilaterally scrap parts of the UK’s Brexit deal, in spite of warnings it could collapse talks with Brussels and spark a trade war with the EU”, said the Financial Times.

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Unilateral action

The Northern Ireland Protocol, which was agreed as part of the Brexit deal, works by keeping Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market for goods. Therefore, in Northern Ireland there are new checks and paperwork for goods that are imported into the country from the rest of the UK.

The DUP is unhappy with the resulting “border” in the Irish Sea and has blocked the formation of a new devolved administration in protest. Although Sinn Féin became the largest party in the Stormont elections earlier this month, its vice-president, Michelle O’Neill, cannot become first minister without a Unionist agreeing to become deputy first minister.

Johnson will hold talks with party leaders and attempt to persuade the Democratic Unionists to enter the power-sharing government. The FT said he hopes his promise to “fix” the protocol will “persuade pro-UK unionist politicians to join the executive”, but his threats to the EU have led to “fears in the Treasury that it could ultimately lead to EU trade retaliation and worsen the cost of living crisis”.

In a bid to “calm tensions” yesterday, the PM’s allies claimed that the plan to rewrite parts of the protocol “was only ‘an insurance policy’ in case talks with the EU on improving its operation failed”, added the paper.

Landing zone

Speaking to the BBC, Ireland’s Foreign Minister Coveney said comments by the UK government about taking unilateral action on the Northern Ireland Protocol had gone down “really badly” across the EU.

However, he hinted at a potential way forward, saying there is a “landing zone” for progress that could come through partnership “as opposed to grandstanding, threats and unilateral action which doesn’t help anybody”.

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Johnson said he would “keep the door open to genuine dialogue” and also referred to a potential “landing zone”.

The Ulster Unionist leader, Doug Beattie, used the same term last week. He said the executive needed to get “up and running again” so it could deal with the cost-of-living crisis for the people of Northern Ireland. “If the obstacle to doing that is the protocol then we need to deal with the protocol,” he was quoted as saying in the News Letter.

Beattie, whose party holds 10% of the seats in Stormont, said the “landing zone” must amount to “no checks on goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland if they are staying in Northern Ireland”.

Stormont or the EU

Johnson “may be forced to choose between a government in Belfast or the treaty he agreed with the EU”, said Sky News.

He has said that “there will be a necessity to act” if the EU refuses to change its stance on the protocol. The UK government has “a responsibility to provide assurance that the consumers, citizens and businesses of Northern Ireland are protected in the long term”, he said, adding that “he will set out a more detailed assessment and next steps to parliament in the coming days”.

Although the government is preparing to publish legislation to override the protocol, Sky News understands there are still concerns among cabinet ministers about the legal position.

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