Boris Johnson has told the Irish Prime Minister that ‘meaningful changes’ are still needed with Northern Ireland’s controversial protocol – after the taoiseach said there was growing opinion it was working.
The Prime Minister met Taoiseach Micheál Martin in London where the couple discussed Ukraine and protocol before watching Ireland beat England in the Six Nations at Twickenham.
Johnson told Martin he hoped the “same spirit of cooperation” that the UK and EU shared during the Ukraine crisis could be applied to the Brexit talks.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister has reiterated the need for significant changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol in order to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland and to safeguard the agreement of Belfast (Good Friday) in all its dimensions.
“He said that while greater ambition and flexibility were needed from the EU in the negotiations, he hoped that the same spirit of cooperation that had characterized relations between the UK and the EU against Ukraine could also be applied to resolve issues with the protocol.”
The protocol created new economic barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Accepted by the UK and the EU to ensure that the Irish land border is not hardened after Brexit, it has instead moved regulatory and customs controls to the Irish Sea, with Northern Ireland remaining in the single market EU goods. The region also applies the EU customs code in its ports.
Unionists say the arrangements undermined UK sovereignty and demanded the UK trigger the protocol’s Article 16 mechanism to suspend its trade arrangements.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said on Friday he would not return to the Stormont executive until the protocol issue was settled.
Earlier on Saturday, Martin said everyone he met in Northern Ireland wanted continued access to the EU’s single market.
Martin was asked what the Irish government‘s communication channels look like with the DUP and how likely it is that the Northern Ireland protocol issue will be resolved by the time of the next election.
Speaking to reporters at the Irish Embassy in London, Martin said the Irish government had good channels of communication with all parties in Northern Ireland.
He said: ‘What is very interesting from our point of view is that what is growing and growing is a view in Northern Ireland, particularly in Northern Irish business and industry, that the protocol works in terms of inward investment into Northern Ireland, and in terms of access to the EU single market.
“So everyone I met in Northern Ireland all wants to continue to have access to the EU single market. This is a good basic principle to start with.
“And in my opinion, given the improvement in relations between the UK and the EU thanks to the partnership on Ukraine, I would like to think that in time we will be able to solve this problem.
“But we will take it step by step. And there is a channel between the European Union and the United Kingdom which is in progress and we will proceed step by step.
Donaldson was applauded at Crossgar Orange Hall on Friday night as he said his party would not reinstate the Stormont executive until the government acted to ‘protect Northern Ireland within the UK’.
Paul Givan resigned as prime minister earlier this year as part of the DUP’s action against protocol in a move that also removed Deputy Prime Minister Michelle O’Neill from the joint office.
Johnson and Martin also agreed to “further sanctions to target Putin’s regime” after their bilateral meeting, Downing Street said.
A spokesman for No 10 said they “agreed on the vital importance of continued unity in the face of Russian aggression”, which included humanitarian relief, defensive military support to the Ukrainian government and additional sanctions against Russia.
The leaders spoke of their “deep concern” at the “intensification of hostilities” near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and condemned the attacks by Russian forces against civilians.
The prime minister said it was a “critical moment” for Ukraine, as well as wider European and international security when he joined the taoiseach for talks.
A spokesman for the taoiseach’s office said the two discussed “the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine and its profound global security, economic and humanitarian consequences”.
They welcomed the “close collaboration” between the EU, UK and other partners to hold Russia to account and to meet the humanitarian needs of the Ukrainian people, the spokesman said.
Earlier, the Defense Ministry said fighting northwest of Kiev was continuing, with the bulk of Russian ground forces about 24 km from its center.
Last month, the EU, the US and its allies, including the UK, agreed to cut off a number of Russian banks from the main international payment system, Swift.
The EU announced that Russian central bank assets were also being frozen, in addition to a crackdown on so-called “golden passports” that allow wealthy Russians linked to Vladimir Putin’s government to become citizens of a country.