O’Neill to warn Johnson not to act unilaterally over protocol

Threats to withdrawal agreement or protocol ‘reckless’, says Sinn Féin northern leader

Sinn Féin’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill intends to warn British prime minister Boris Johnson against taking unilateral action over the Northern Ireland protocol when they meet later on Monday.

“I will be telling Boris Johnson that unilateral action deepens political instability and economic uncertainty and must not happen,” Ms O’Neill told The Irish Times.

Mr Johnson is due to meet the leaders of the North’s five main parties in an attempt to restore the power-sharing institutions at Stormont.

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British foreign secretary Liz Truss is expected to announce legislation on Tuesday that will unilaterally override central elements of the protocol, including those that govern customs checks, food safety and goods regulation.

Mr Johnson is to affirm his commitment to the Belfast Agreement and assert that he is not seeking to scrap the protocol. But Downing Street made clear in advance that he will not drop the threat to unilaterally disapply parts of the agreement he made with the EU in 2019.

He will tell party leaders “that we will always keep the door open to genuine dialogue” but that “there will be a necessity to act” and protect the Belfast Agreement if the EU does not change its position.

Post-Brexit arrangement

Mr Johnson will tell the DUP that “action to fix the protocol” must result in the formation of the Executive and the Assembly. The DUP last Friday refused to elect a speaker at Stormont, meaning the Assembly and Executive cannot function, until there is “decisive action” from London regarding the post-Brexit arrangement.

Friday was the first time the Assembly met since the May 5th election which returned Sinn Féin as the largest party, entitling Ms O’Neill to the position of first minister.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson last night re-emphasised his party's position and said until such action was taken "the consensus necessary for power sharing in Northern Ireland does not exist".

He said Mr Johnson’s visit was “a recognition that the protocol is not working and is harmful to Northern Ireland” and warned while he would wait to hear what the British prime minister had to say, “we will not make judgments on words”.

Ms O’Neill said “any threat of unilateral action by the British government to denounce the withdrawal agreement, or disapply the protocol, would be reckless” and “walking away from international obligations would also represent an appalling attack on the international rule of law”.

‘Pander to the DUP’

She added that “only through joint agreement with the EU can solutions to problems or concerns be resolved”.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said Mr Johnson "must recognise he is coming to a changed Northern Ireland" and the "vast majority" of people "voted for parties that wanted to return to government, that wanted to see the Assembly work" and the British government "cannot continue to pander to the DUP, allowing them to hold the rest of us to ransom".

She said she recognised the protocol – “a direct consequence of the hard Brexit the DUP wanted” – needed to be amended, but she would make clear to Mr Johnson “that the people of NI are best served by ongoing dialogue on this issue, alongside tackling waiting lists and the rising cost of living, in a functioning Assembly and with MLAs getting on with the job”.

The EU has warned that unilateral action on the protocol would be in breach of international law and would trigger retaliatory action. Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng on Sunday played down the risk of a trade war with Europe, although he acknowledged that Britain’s planned action might be illegal.

“Different lawyers have different opinions as to what the effect of our action will be . . . All I’m saying is that our number-one priority is to ensure political stability in Northern Ireland. And if that means relooking at the protocol, then so be it,” he said.