British prime minister Boris Johnson said during a visit to the North on Friday that issues around the Northern Ireland protocol could be resolved with "common sense".
Speaking at a virtual press conference hosted from Belfast, Mr Johnson said "at the moment the protocol is operating in such a way as to cause irritation to one community, and I think that we need to address that; there's an imbalance in the way it's operating."
This imbalance could be “readily corrected, but it needs to be corrected”, he said.
Describing the UK government’s unilateral extension of grace periods as part of a common sense approach, he said what “some people in the EU have objected to is good sense, because it’s trying to put in some temporary technical easements that will try to address some of these immediate problems”.
Mr Johnson added he did not rule out invoking the controversial article 16 “if that’s necessary”.
The DUP leader and Northern Ireland's First Minister, Arlene Foster, said Mr Johnson had been in "listening mode", and she had made unionist opposition to the protocol clear to the prime minister during a "frank" discussion.
There were no talks with Sinn Féin. The party said it was refusing to meet Mr Johnson for a “PR opportunity” as party leader Mary Lou McDonald said he had not facilitated a long-standing request for a meeting to discuss “very substantial and important matters”.
Sinn Féin MP for North Belfast John Finucane told the BBC the party wanted to have a "grown-up political meeting with the prime minister", and did not want to provide cover for a "what was essentially a day out for unionism".
Downing Street said the Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill had been invited to join the prime minister on his visit to the North, with Mr Johnson telling reporters he was “very keen to meet Michelle [O’Neill] but she had some other engagement” .
Mr Johnson's visit to the North came as the UK government announced its plans to mark this year's centenary of the establishment of Northern Ireland.
Among his engagements was a tour of a vaccination centre established at the Lakeland Forum leisure centre in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, in the company of Ms Foster and the North's minister for health Robin Swann.
Ms Foster told the BBC she discussed vaccine supply with Mr Johnson, and her understanding was that the prime minister was “in that space, once our citizens are vaccinated, to share surplus vaccinations with the Republic of Ireland”.
Under the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol the North remained part of the EU single market post-Brexit, necessitating customs and regulatory checks on goods arriving from Great Britain.
Unionists are opposed to the protocol because it places an Irish Sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. They have called repeatedly for the protocol to be scrapped, saying it has also caused serious difficulties to trade and to the North’s economy.
Mr Johnson said on Friday there had to be East-West as well as North-South consent to the operation of the protocol, and that it should guarantee the Belfast Agreement and the peace process.
“We want to ensure that the protocol upholds the wishes of both communities and has the consent of both,” he said.
Mr Johnson said he had not read a letter sent to him last week by an umbrella body representing loyalist paramilitaries informing him that they were withdrawing support from the Belfast Agreement because of their opposition to the protocol.
However, he said he hoped they would not follow through, adding that the UK government’s objective was to “uphold the Good Friday Agreement and to restore the symmetry that that agreement relies on”.