Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald has described a meeting with British prime minister Boris Johnson as "fairly tough" – and accused the UK government of "placating the DUP".
Speaking to reporters outside the gates of Hillsborough Castle on Monday afternoon, a visibly angry Ms McDonald said she received “no straight answers” from Mr Johnson on either the Northern Ireland Protocol or restoration of the Stormont Assembly.
The North is without a functioning Assembly or Executive after the DUP blocked the appointment of a Speaker on Friday as part of its continuing protest over the protocol.
Flanked by Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill and Conor Murphy, Ms McDonald warned any attempts by the British government to take unilateral action against the protocol is “wrong”.
There is speculation the UK government is poised to introduce legislation that would allow ministers in London to unilaterally disapply parts of protocol, the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement which avoided a hard border on the island of Ireland by placing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea.
British foreign Secretary Liz Truss is expected to make a statement on Tuesday.
Ms McDonald told media on Monday: “It’s very clear to us that despite all of the rhetoric from the British government about re-establishing the Executive here in the north, that in fact their priority is placating the DUP.
“We’ve had what we would describe as a fairly tough meeting with the prime minister.
“We have said directly to him that proposed unilateral act of legislating at Westminster is wrong. It seems to us absolutely extraordinary that the British Government would propose to legislate to break the law. It’s an extraordinary proposal and one that would amplify the bad faith with which the Tory government has conducted itself from beginning of the entire Brexit debacle.”
Asked about the timescale for restoring the Assembly following a “future date” adjournment to elect a Speaker – which must have cross party support - Ms McDonald said Michelle O’Neill is the “first minister in waiting” and “we want to get on with things and get back to business”.
She added: “I’m sorry to report that we’ve had no straight answers really from the British prime minister except a confirmation of what we already knew, which is that in fact this impasse is entirely co-ordinated between themselves and the DUP, and if the DUP are acting shamefully in holding back government, well then the British government is behaving even more shamefully.”
Emerging from his meeting with Boris Johnson, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said he welcomed his visit to the North but added he would “suspend judgement” until he has sight of the British government’s proposals on the protocol - which he will judge by actions, not words.
Insisting he wanted a return to Stormont and a “fully functioning executive”, he said: “We cannot have power-sharing unless there is a consensus. That consensus doesn’t exist.”
Mr Johnson told a private meeting of the Conservative Party in Belfast on Monday evening that nobody was satisfied with the Northern Ireland protocol and that it had to be changed.
He told a gathering at the five-star Culloden Hotel that the chief rabbi of Belfast’s Jewish community had told him during the meeting on his visit to the North that the protocol had affected the supply of kosher food into Northern Ireland because of the checks on food products entering the country.
According to a source in attendance, Mr Johnson told the event that it was ridiculous that customers could not buy the same products in Tesco in Belfast as they could at a Tesco in England.
He also joked at the gathering that he was more popular on the high street of Kyiv than he was on the high street of Kensington in London, a reference to his recent trip to Ukraine.
Mr Johnson had earlier been booed and jeered by around 200 people as his cavalcade arrived at Hillsborough shortly after 1.30pm.
Protesters included campaigners for Irish language legislation, anti-Brexit activists and victims’ campaigners opposed to the British government’s proposed legislation for dealing with legacy cases.
Families of those killed in the Ballymurphy massacre in west Belfast in 1971, in which 11 civilians were shot by British soldiers, described the plan as a “made up amnesty”.
Campaigner John Teggart, whose father Danny was among those killed, said such a move will have a “big impact” on relatives after mounting a 50 year fight for justice.
“These proposals are not victim led … and are an attempt to try to close the door on what I believe are war crimes,” he told The Irish Times.
Earlier, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that it is “difficult to comprehend” why the Stormont Assembly was being prevented from meeting after people had had their say in elections.
“It’s very difficult to comprehend, where we’ve had an election, that the idea that a parliament is prevented from convening – it’s very difficult to comprehend,” Mr Martin said.
“The people have spoken, the people have elected their representatives, and at a minimum without any delay the assembly should be established and of course followed by the formation of an executive,” he said.
“It’s really unacceptable that efforts are made essentially to prevent the convening of a democratically elected parliament. There’s an urgent need to correct that and to enable the voice of the people to be heard,” Mr Martin said.
The Taoiseach was speaking at Government Buildings after a series of meetings today during which he had discussions with the Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill and European Commissioner Mairead McGuinness, as well as a phone call with the President of the European Council Charles Michel.
He stressed that there was a “landing ground” where the UK and the EU could achieve agreement on changes to the protocol – a message echoed by the British prime minister Boris Johnson during a visit to Belfast.
However, officials say that there is little trust between the two sides about how to get to a solution.
The Taoiseach again called for “substantive talks” between the EU and the UK, but was critical of the British Government, saying that the EU had already made concessions that there had been “little reciprocation” from the UK government.
However, Mr Martin said he noted from the prime minister’s article in Monday’s Belfast Telegraph that he accepted the need for some sort of protocol. He also said that industry and business groups in Northern Ireland accept and wish to preserve the advantages of access to the EU’s single market.
Referring to communications from the British government, Mr Martin said: “We’re getting different messages at different times.”
He said he had not yet received a reply to a letter he sent to Boris Johnson last week following a difficult phone call between the two men.
Also on Monday, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney warned a UK government move to unilaterally override the Northern Ireland protocol could endanger the wider Brexit trade deal.
Mr Coveney urged British prime minister Boris Johnson to commit to further engagement with the EU to resolve the Irish Sea trading dispute, rather than breaking international law by acting alone.
Tensions between London and Brussels are intensifying over the prospect of Mr Johnson using domestic legislation at Westminster to nullify parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement that require checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
British foreign secretary Liz Truss is expected to formally announce a plan to legislate on the protocol on Tuesday, although an actual parliamentary Bill is not expected to be published at that point.
Mr Coveney’s comments came ahead of Mr Johnson’s visit to Northern Ireland on Monday for emergency talks with Stormont’s political leaders in a bid to break a deadlock caused by the protocol.
The power-sharing institutions in Belfast have been plunged into crisis in the wake of the recent Assembly election, with the DUP refusing to re-enter a devolved government in protest at trading arrangements the party claims are undermining the union.
The EU has made clear that unilateral action from the UK to walk away from the protocol deal would represent a clear breach of international law.
Mr Coveney, who was in Brussels on Monday, warned that the entire UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement deal – the TCA – could be jeopardised if Mr Johnson takes unilateral action on the protocol.
“This is a time for calmness, it’s a time for dialogue, it’s a time for compromise and partnership between the EU and the UK to solve these outstanding issues,” he told reporters.
“If that is the approach taken by the British government then we can make significant progress and we can make progress quickly to respond to the concerns of both the business community and the unionist community in Northern Ireland.
“That alternative is unilateral action which means tension, rancour, stand-offs, legal challenges and of course calls into question the functioning of the TCA itself, because the TCA and the withdrawal agreement are interlinked, they rely on each other.
“That is the last thing Europe needs right now, when we are working so well together in the face of Russian aggression and responding to the support needed for Ukraine at this time.”