Boris Johnson has said the UK needs to “proceed with a legislative solution” to the Northern Ireland Protocol as an “insurance” in case a deal is not reached with Brussels.
Speaking on an official visit to Northern Ireland, the prime minister 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 added that the UK also needs the “insurance” of a “legislative solution at the same time”.
Earlier today, Mr Johnson was accused of failing to give straight answers after meeting party leaders in Belfast to try to resolve a political impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol – an arrangement designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Sinn Fein claimed the UK government had been coordinating with “obstructionist tactics” by its political opponents in the DUP who are unhappy with the protocol, which governs Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements.
The PM told reporters that all five of Stormont’s main parties had problems with the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“None of the parties – I spoke to all five parties just now – not one of them likes the way it’s operating, they all think it can be reformed and improved – from Sinn Fein to SDLP, DUP, all of them,” he said.
“The question is how do you do that? We would love this to be done in a consensual way with our friends and partners, ironing out the problems, stopping some of these barriers east-west.
“But to get that done, to have the insurance, we need to proceed with a legislative solution as well.”
He continued: “We don’t want to scrap it. But we think it can be fixed.”
The PM also said he made efforts to persuade the DUP to join a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland.
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.
But at the same time, 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.
“I think everybody should be rolling up their sleeves and get stuck in to the government of Northern Ireland,” the PM said after his talks with the party leaders.
Mr Johnson visited the region on Monday amid a warning from Ireland against unilateral action to override the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is expected to formally announce a plan to legislate on the protocol on Tuesday.
Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein’s leader, has described that course of action as “scandalous”.
Meanwhile, 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.
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.
Ms McDonald said her party’s discussions with the PM had been “fairly tough”.
She said: “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 coordinated between themselves and the DUP.
“If the DUP are acting shamefully in holding back government, well then the British government is behaving even more shamefully.
“The unfortunate thing is that the British government now is playing a game of brinkmanship with the European institutions, indulging a section of political unionism which believes that it can hold a veto and frustrate and hold society to ransom.”
But DUP leader Sir Jeffrey said he had “set out in very clear terms” to the PM what is needed from the UK government in relation to the protocol.
“We cannot go on like this,” he said after meeting Mr Johnson.
Sir Jeffrey also rejected the idea that Mr Johnson was picking sides in the row over the protocol.
“This is the same Sinn Fein who were in Dublin this morning asking the Irish government to take their side. Sinn Fein do double standards very well.”
He continued: “The idea the prime minister is taking sides is for the fairies.”
The Alliance Party described the meeting with Mr Johnson as “robust and very frustrating”.
Deputy leader Stephen Farry said: “We were giving him a very clear warning that if he plays fast and loose with the Protocol and the indeed Good Friday Agreement, then he is going to be adding more and more instability to Northern Ireland.”
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.