UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will step into an increasingly bitter row on Monday when he visits Northern Ireland to urge the formation of a power-sharing executive, which is currently being blocked by a Brexit dispute.
In a historic development, the role of Northern Ireland’s first minister is set to be taken by the pro-Irish party Sinn Fein, after it triumphed in elections to the Stormont assembly earlier this month.
But the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), angered at the “Northern Ireland Protocol” agreed as part of Britain’s Brexit deal with the European Union, blocked the election of a speaker at Stormont.
Johnson will meet all parties involved and is expected to tell them that London will “play its part to ensure political stability”, but that Northern Ireland politicians must “get back to work” to deal with “bread and butter issues”, according to a statement from his office Sunday.
The DUP is refusing to help form an executive until the protocol is changed to get rid of trade checks between Northern Ireland and mainland Great Britain, which it believes are threatening the province’s status within the UK.
Johnson’s government also insists the protocol is threatening the delicate balance of peace in Northern Ireland between the pro-Irish nationalist community and those in favour of continued union with the UK.
It has warned it will trigger Article 16 of the Brexit deal to suspend the agreement, or legislate to eliminate its requirements from UK law, unless the EU agrees to change it.
Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill accused the DUP of holding the British-ruled territory to “ransom”.
“I’ve spoken with Boris Johnson himself. He will be here on Monday. I intend to put it to him directly that he needs to stop pandering to the DUP,” she told reporters last week.
The UK government was “playing a game of chicken with the (European) commission right now, and we’re caught in the middle”, the first minister-elect added.
The protocol mandates checks on goods coming to the province from England, Scotland and Wales, to ensure no return of a physical border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland to the south.
The elimination of the hard border was a key strand of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
Johnson’s visit is expected to coincide with a delegation from the US Congress. The United States was a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, and has expressed alarm at the UK’s threats over the protocol.
The situation has become “very serious” and the EU must show more flexibility, Johnson’s spokesman told reporters on Friday, but Brussels insists there can be no renegotiation.
Europe’s chief negotiator on the issue, Maros Sefcovic, on Thursday said unilateral action by London to suspend the protocol “is simply not acceptable”.
“Upholding the rule of law and living up to international obligations is a necessity,” he said, while other EU leaders have bemoaned the disunity as a gift to Russia as the West rallies behind Ukraine.
UK minister Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News on Sunday that it was “absolutely right” for the UK to consider triggering Article 16, and denied it would be a breach of international law.
“Political stability is our number one priority, and people are saying they won’t go into power sharing if it isn’t changed. We have to consider very carefully how we can change it,” he said.
“Article 16 is part of the protocol itself. It says quite clearly there is scope to change it unilaterally, without having to agreement with the EU.”