The Foreign Secretary is expected to set out plans for legislation to rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol on Tuesday.
Speaking to broadcasters during a visit to Northern Ireland on Monday, Boris Johnson said the UK needs to “proceed with a legislative solution” to the protocol as an “insurance” in case a deal is not reached with Brussels.
But the prime minister said his government do not want to get rid of the protocol, adding: “We don’t want to scrap it. But we think it can be fixed.”
Mr Johnson said he would “love” for tensions over the arrangement to be ironed out “in a consensual way with our friends and partners” in the EU.
But he noted that the UK also needs the “insurance” of a “legislative solution at the same time”.
The row over the mechanism has created an impasse in efforts to form a new executive in Stormont, with the Democratic Unionist Party refusing to join a new administration unless its concerns over the arrangements are addressed.
The DUP want to see issues with the protocol resolved before they enter into a power-sharing administration – and the party’s leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said after his meeting with the PM that it needed to see decisive action.
Mr Johnson insisted he encouraged the DUP to join a new administration, saying: “I think everybody should be rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in to the government of Northern Ireland.”
Earlier today, Mr Johnson was accused of failing to give straight answers after meeting party leaders in Belfast to try to resolve matters over the protocol – an arrangement designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The Irish government has warned that if Britain decides to pull out unilaterally from the protocol, it could put at risk the wider free-trade deal between the UK and the EU.
Meanwhile, Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein’s leader, has described plans to legislate on the protocol as “scandalous”.
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.
Posting on social media on Monday evening, EU Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic said that the issues could be resolved “with political will”.
“With political will, practical issues arising from the implementation of the protocol in Northern Ireland can be resolved. Engaging with us on the flexibilities we offer would be a better course of action than unilateral one,” he said.
“We’re ready to play our part, as from the outset.”
The PM was booed and jeered by around 200 people who gathered at the gates of Hillsborough Castle as he arrived to hold talks with the parties to try to resolve the impasse.
PM gambling that risking fight with Brussels might bringing DUP around
It was nearly a year ago – last July – that London set out demands for a series of reforms to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and six months ago – last October – that the European Commission tabled new proposals.
But the deadlock remains and is now threatening the functioning of Northern Ireland’s assembly.
On Tuesday, the UK government will outline legislation to address issues with current implementation of the protocol and I am told that proposed changes will cover areas of trade, tax and spend, regulations and constitutional areas where agreement has not been reached.
What the UK government hopes is that this legislation, which it intends to progress (if not actually pass) through Parliament will restore the DUP’s faith in the Johnson government and prompt the DUP to elect a Speaker to Stormont and get the power sharing process underway once more.
But the challenges of the delicate diplomatic dance are obvious.
The EU is adamant that the Withdrawal Agreement is honoured, and that the UK government faces up to the consequence of Brexit – a trade border between the EU’s single market and the UK.
The DUP meanwhile views this barrier as an existential threat to Northern Ireland’s standing as part of the United Kingdom and is little mood to compromise.
Mr Johnson is gambling that risking a fight with Brussels might bring the DUP around. If he’s wrong, not only will he be dealing with a political crisis in Northern Ireland but could be eyeing a trade war with the EU too.
Ms McDonald said her party’s discussions with the PM had been “fairly tough”.
The Alliance Party described the meeting with Mr Johnson as “robust and very frustrating”.
And DUP leader Sir Jeffrey said he had “set out in very clear terms” to the PM what is needed from the UK government.
Taoiseach Micheal Martin said on Monday afternoon that the only way the current impasse between the UK and the EU can be solved is through “substantive talks” between the two sides.
Meanwhile, Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney warned that the entire UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement deal could be jeopardised if Mr Johnson takes unilateral action on the protocol.
Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday/Belfast peace agreement contains provisions to protect and develop relations both on a north/south basis on the island of Ireland and on an east/west basis between the island and Great Britain.
Mr Johnson says the protocol has upset this balance.