Northern Ireland protocol has become a ‘real problem’ and must be ‘fixed’ - Boris Johnson

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss says UK will have ‘no choice but to act’ if EU not flexible

The Northern Ireland protocol has become a "real problem" and must be "fixed" to ensure that a power-sharing administration can be formed at Stormont, the British prime minister has said.

Boris Johnson was speaking after the EU and UK exchanged sharp words in the long-running dispute over the post-Brexit arrangement on Thursday.

Brussels pleaded with London to engage in further negotiations and avoid unilateral action after it emerged that foreign secretary Liz Truss was drawing up emergency legislation to suspend elements of the protocol.

Mr Johnson, who negotiated the protocol when taking Britain out of the EU, argued that without changes to the protocol, designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, a new Stormont executive could not be formed as per the rules set out in the 1998 Belfast Agreement.


"The people of Northern Ireland need leadership, they need a regional, a provincial government... they haven't got that. "That's a real, real problem," he said in Stoke-on-Trent.

“And the reason they don’t have that is because there’s one community in Northern Ireland that won’t accept the way the protocol works at present - we’ve got to fix that.”

Earlier, the two sides appeared to move further from finding a solution to the long-running row over trade rules for Northern Ireland.

Ms Truss warned the EU that if it did not show the “requisite flexibility” over the protocol, the UK would have “no choice” but to act alone.

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said the EU would not respond to threats or blackmail from the UK and warned that Britain's position towards the protocol left "a huge question mark" over Northern Ireland's access to the EU single market.

Mr Sefcovic said in an interview that it was “unacceptable” that a third country could jeopardise the Republic’s place in the EU single market or have a say on which countries are members of the EU.

“We will do our utmost to protect the place of Ireland in the single market,” he told Euronews.

‘Tetchy’ conversation

In a call between Ms Truss and Mr Sefcovic, described as “tetchy” and “difficult”, the British foreign secretary said the protocol was “the greatest obstacle” to restoring power-sharing in the North.

Following last week's Northern Ireland elections, the Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes the protocol, is refusing to enter into government unless there are changes to the protocol.

The party would not be drawn on whether it would vote to elect a speaker at Stormont on Friday when the new Assembly sits for the first time. The failure to nominate a speaker, which requires cross-community support from the DUP, would mean no business or ministerial appointments can proceed.

Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill is positioned to become first minster, the first time a nationalist will oversee the North’s government in 101 years.

The UK said Mr Sefcovic told Ms Truss on their call that there was “no room to expand the EU negotiating mandate or introduce new proposals to reduce the overall level of trade friction”.

A spokesman for the British foreign office said Ms Truss “noted this with regret” and that the situation in Northern Ireland was “a matter of internal peace and stability” for the UK.

Ms Truss said that “if the EU would not show the requisite flexibility to help solve those issues, then, as a responsible government, we would have no choice but to act,” according to the spokesman.

After their call, Mr Sefcovic said it remained “of serious concern” that the UK government intended to embark “on a path of unilateral action.” He ruled out any renegotiation of the protocol.

“I am convinced that only joint solutions will work. Unilateral action, effectively misapplying an international agreement such as the protocol, is simply not acceptable,” he said.


A visibly frustrated Mr Sefcovic told the European Parliament that whatever proposals the EU brought to the table, the UK rejected them without suggesting any alternatives to resolve the issue. He said that the EU could not "renegotiate" the form of Brexit that Britain had signed up to.

“We never work with threats; we never work with blackmail. We try to work with a constructive engagement and this is what we are appealing for,” he said.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that the UK’s position was “deeply unhelpful” when there was an appetite in Brussels and Dublin to look at “maximum flexibility” on how the protocol is implemented to respond to “genuine concerns” in Northern Ireland.

Mr Coveney said the British government had decided “to ratchet tension up” and “make demands that they now that the EU cannot respond positively on.”

“Unilateral action will actually make a difficult problem a lot worse and a lot more complicated, and I hope the British government rethinks their strategy on that,” he told Newstalk’s The Hard Shoulder. Additional reporting – PA

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times