The Northern Ireland Protocol will not be scrapped, Boris Johnson has indicated to unionists, but it must be fundamentally altered, regardless of whether the EU agrees.
n a lengthy article for the Belfast Telegraph ahead of flying in for talks with Stormont’s leaders on Monday, the Prime Minister set out his policy on Northern Ireland in more detail than ever before — urging the DUP to restore devolution, making clear he is not going to alter the first minister title, and committing to legislate within weeks for abortion, an Irish language act and a Troubles amnesty.
But on the protocol, Mr Johnson has been less clear. His central message is that it is not going to be ditched entirely but needs massively changed beyond what the EU is prepared to accept.
Those comments partially align with what has been briefed from within the Cabinet over recent days, although on Sunday the Sunday Times suggested that Downing Street was accusing Foreign Secretary Liz Truss of going too far in those briefings, with Mr Johnson less hardline.
However, there is nothing in Mr Johnson’s article to accept his own role in crafting the agreement he now denounces. The Prime Minister once said that the protocol would mean “there will be no checks on goods going from GB to NI, or NI to GB” — something his government’s documentation made clear was at variance with the facts.
In an implicit rejection of claims by his former key aide Dominic Cummings that the plan was always to ditch the protocol, Mr Johnson insisted: “The protocol was agreed in good faith. And it is why those who want to scrap the protocol, rather than seeking changes, are focusing on the wrong thing.”
Mr Johnson attempted to frame the current problems with the Irish Sea border as the result of other events, rather than the protocol itself.
He said that “many things have changed since the protocol was agreed”, highlighting the trade deal with the EU, the pandemic and the Ukraine war.
Briefings from people close to Cabinet ministers indicate that legislation to give the Government the power to override parts of the protocol — but not automatically do so at this stage — is to be revealed this week, perhaps as early as Tuesday.
In his examples of how the protocol is unacceptable, Mr Johnson appears to hint at how he will seek to change it if that legislation is passed.
Mr Johnson highlighted the unacceptability of the fact there has been “even a question about the fast availability of medicines or medical testing in Northern Ireland”, and said it was “a serious issue” for the protocol to restrict the Chancellor in setting the same VAT rates in Northern Ireland as in Great Britain.
Mr Johnson said he would be open to “genuine dialogue” but implied that no such dialogue was possible without the EU softening its stance to give a broader remit to its negotiators.
The Prime Minister also hinted at a desire for changes which would fundamentally alter how the protocol operates, saying that it was not acceptable “that EU custom codes — designed for vast container ships coming from Shanghai to Rotterdam, not supermarket lorries from Liverpool to Belfast — somehow trump everything else”.
Mr Johnson said that “our shared objective must be to the create the broadest possible cross-community support for a reformed protocol in 2024”, when MLAs first get to vote on the deal.
Although a majority of MLAs returned in the recent Assembly election are firmly pro-protocol, Mr Johnson highlighted that even those parties want to see it changed, saying that no parties “support a zealous, zero-risk approach to its implementation. None wants to see grace periods terminated, as the EU insist they must be in return for limited mitigations elsewhere”.
If the EU does not change its stance, “there will be a necessity to act… we will set out a more detailed assessment and next steps to Parliament in the coming days, once I return from discussions with the local parties”.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson on Sunday night reiterated that his party would not return to the Executive until the problems with the protocol were “addressed”. He said: “We will not make judgments based on words. It is decisive action that must be taken.”
Sinn Fein first minister-in-waiting Michelle O’Neill said: “Unilateral action by the British Government to denounce the withdrawal agreement, or disapply the protocol is reckless. Only through joint agreement with the EU can solutions to problems be found.”
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said that any unilateral UK move on the protocol would be “deeply harmful” to UK-Ireland relations.
Mr Johnson also urged DUP MLAs to “get back to work” by electing an Assembly Speaker and re-entering the Executive.
He set out a pragmatic version of liberal unionism, lauding how in modern Northern Ireland “people look any way they want (north-south, east-west, or both) – depending on their identity, and their family, and their economic interests”.
There is, he said, “a large majority for making Northern Ireland work”.