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The Irish News's three key questions for the Prime Minister - and how he responded

Paul Ainsworth

BORIS Johnson has insisted the protocol was "not a finished solution" but said Stormont parties must form an Executive "as soon as possible" despite the ongoing impasse over customs checks.

In a response to three key questions from The Irish News to the British Prime Minister, Downing Street last night said that Mr Johnson wants the Stormont institutions up and running while a solution to the protocol issue is found.

The DUP has insisted it will not nominate ministers to an Executive while the Irish Sea border – which was imposed by the protocol – remains in place.

Mr Johnson agreed the protocol with the EU as part of the 2019 Brexit Withdrawal Agreement to avoid a hard border in Ireland, and touted the agreement as an "oven ready deal".

Along with making the deal a key part of his 2019 General Election campaign, Mr Johnson also praised the protocol as a "good arrangement…with the minimum possible bureaucratic consequences" while speaking in the House of Commons in October of that year.

The Irish News asked why, if he had made that statement in 2019, Mr Johnson now insisted change to the protocol was necessary.

Responding, the Tory leader said: "The protocol was designed as a delicate balance, formed in a spirit of compromise in challenging circumstances.

"The text itself makes clear that it is not a finished solution. There are elements which need to be operationalised jointly by the UK and EU and Article 13(8) specifically foresees parts of the Protocol being superseded by future agreements between the UK and EU.

"We had hoped that the EU would take a more pragmatic, common-sense based approach to implementing it, however this has turned out not to be the case.

"I’d point out that even the EU now accept that the Protocol needs to change which is why they proposed a package of measures in October."

However, former EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier this month attacked Mr Johnson's new stance, saying the UK was "calling into question the treaty that they themselves negotiated".

Speaking on French TV network Public Sénat this month, Mr Barnier added: "And I can testify that they know every comma, every sentence, every breath of that treaty. Because they negotiated all of it - Mr Johnson himself, who was the negotiator I had right in front of me."

Meanwhile, asked by The Irish News if he agreed the full work of the Stormont Executive should continue while negotiations between the UK and EU continue, Downing Street responded: "Yes. It is vital that the parties form an Executive as soon as possible. The people of Northern Ireland deserve a stable and accountable devolved government that delivers on the issues that matter most to them."

However, asked if he accepted a clear majority of MLAs elected this month to the Assembly support the protocol, the prime minister referred to an earlier statement in which he referred to unionists, saying: "One of the communities does not like the way it is operating.

"In fact, none of the parties likes the way it is operating. All of them think it can be reformed and improved, from Sinn Féin to DUP, all of them. We would love that to be done in a consensual way, with our friends and partners, ironing out the problems."

Meanwhile, a former spokesman for prime minister Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, last night praised yesterday's Irish News editorial.

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