Northern Ireland news

Ditching protocol won't save PM, Eastwood warns

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture by Frank Augstein/PA Wire

AN EMBATTLED Boris Johnson was last night warned not to heed European Research Group calls to “rip up the protocol” in exchange for securing the support of pro-Brexit Tory MPs.

As the British prime minister faces a crucial week amid the Downing Street lockdown party fallout, reports emerged claiming the group had offered to back him if he ditched the protocol.

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic and UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss met yesterday ahead of a round of “intensive discussions” aimed at resolving the deadlock around the post-Brexit trade arrangements. In a joint statement, the pair said the meeting “took place in a constructive atmosphere with the aim to advance the talks”.

As well as the ongoing discussions, the EU-UK Joint Committee will meet in February. This will be the first time the panel, set up to oversee the implementation and application of the Brexit divorce deal, will have met since June.

The government is seeking substantial changes to the protocol, which forms part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, arguing that it hampers free movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and is damaging community relations.

However, Mr Sefcovic said the protocol represents the “one and only solution found jointly” to protect the peace process.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said any effort to distract from the prime minister’s difficulties by “blowing up” the negotiations would be “totally cynical” and would not “save Boris Johnson’s skin”.

“People in Northern Ireland are sick of being used as a bargaining chip between the rowing factions of the British Conservative Party,” he said.

Sinn Féin junior minister Declan Kearney welcomed the joint statement’s commitment to cooperation.

He said it was important to ensure “certainty for businesses and wider society”.

“In the spirit of agreement it is also essential that the British government steps back from their threats to trigger Article 16,” he said.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson warned the government he was not prepared to be “strung out for weeks” waiting for an assurance that it will act over the protocol.

He suggested his party would follow through with its threat to withdraw ministers from Stormont unless progress is made.

“I think this has to come to a head,” he said.

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