Boris Johnson booed and jeered as he arrived at Hillsborough Castle for talks with Stormont parties
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was booed and jeered by around 200 people who gathered at the gates of Hillsborough Castle as his cavalcade drove in this afternoon.
Protesters, including campaigners for the Irish language, victims campaigners and anti Brexit activists, were among the crowds who held aloft banners.
Boris Johnson is meeting the main Stormont parties at the royal residence in the Co Down village today amid the latest impasse in power sharing government at Stormont.
Protesters held banners which read “Back off Boris. Protect The Protocol”.
The DUP has argued the Protocol has eroded the foundations devolution was built on.
Mr Johnson agrees changes are needed, despite signing up to the deal himself.
There was also a demonstration by some of the families of the 11 people killed by soldiers in Ballymurphy in west Belfast in 1971 against plans by the British Government to offer an effective amnesty to prosecution for Troubles offences.
Sinn Féin was the first party to meet the Prime Minister at Hillsborough Castle this afternoon.
Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald said they had what she would describe as a “very tough meeting” with Mr Johnson. She added that his priority is “placating” the DUP.
“It’s very clear to us that despite all of the rhetoric from the British Government about re-establishing the Executive here in the north, that in fact their priority is placating the DUP,” she said.
“We’ve had what we would describe as a fairly tough meeting with the Prime Minister.
“We have put it to him very directly that the absolute priority is getting government working here in the north.
“People are facing incredible difficulties in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, and it’s simply not acceptable, it’s not good enough for anybody, the DUP or the British Government, to hold society here to ransom.
Ms McDonald added of her conversation with Boris Johnson: “We have said directly to him that proposed unilateral act of legislating at Westminster is wrong.
“It seems to us absolutely extraordinary that the British Government would propose to legislate to break the law. It’s an extraordinary proposal and one that would amplify the bad faith with which the Tory government has conducted itself from beginning of the entire Brexit debacle.
“We have told him very clearly that we are here to do business. The people have spoken. We have had the election, the votes have been counted, the die has been cast. Michelle O’Neill is the first minister in waiting and we want to get on with things and get back to business.
“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 co ordinated between themselves and the DUP, and if the DUP are acting shamefully in holding back government, well then the British Government is behaving even more shamefully.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has welcomed Boris Johnson’s visit.
“We’ve waited a long time on this moment. We’ve waited a long time to see the Government bring forward proposals that represent action to deal with the problems caused by the Irish Sea border.”
He said that he expected Mr Johnson’s Government to “make their position clear” on the protocol later this week.
When asked whether the tabling of legislation on the protocol was enough to restore the executive, or whether legislation needed to be passed, Sir Jeffrey said: “The tabling of legislation is words. What I need is decisive action. And that means I want to see the government enacting legislation that will bring the solution that we need. But let’s see what the Government are prepared to do.”
In response to questions on whether Mr Johnson was “on the DUP’s side”, Sir Jeffrey said that the assertion was “for the fairies”, and that Mr Johnson was meeting Stormont leaders because it is “his job to protect Northern Ireland”.
“Sinn Féin need to stop this puerile nonsense that they’ve been engaging in of late, get serious and let’s deal with serious issues, instead of this silly approach that they take of attacking everybody who doesn’t agree with them.
“The prime minister has a duty to resolve these issues, that is why he is here.”
Mr Donaldson said that he “set out in very clear terms” to Mr Johnson what is needed from the British Government in relation to the protocol.
“We cannot go on like this,” the DUP leader said after the meeting.
“Clearly, we want a fully functioning executive and we want that to happen as soon as possible, and therefore, we’re looking now to the Government.
“That’s what we’re looking for from our Government, from our Prime Minister, it’s decisive action on the protocol.
“We’ve heard the words, now we need to see the action,” he added.
The Alliance Party described a meeting with Boris 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.
“On the one hand, he is coming here with a certain set of stated outcomes, but all his actions belie what he is notionally trying to achieve.”
Speaking after he met the parties Boris Johnson said legislation to rip up parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol was “insurance” in case a deal could not be reached with Brussels.
He said 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 Féin to SDLP, DUP, all of them,” the Prime Minister told reporters in Belfast.
“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.”
Boris Johnson said “you bet” he made efforts to persuade the DUP to join a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister told reporters in Belfast: “I think everybody should be rolling up their sleeves and get stuck in to the government of Northern Ireland.”
Speaking at defence giant Thales’ factory, he said: “The province has got so much going for it but you need leadership and you need government.
“So you bet I said to the DUP in particular ‘we want to see you back in the executive, we want to see you nominating, we want to see a speaker in the assembly’, of course.
“The issue they have is that they object to the operation of the protocol. We don’t want to scrap it, but we think it can be fixed.”
Boris Johnson said the UK does not want to “scrap” the Northern Ireland Protocol, but believes it can be “fixed”.
“We don’t want to scrap it. But we think it can be fixed.
“And actually five of the five parties I talked to today also think it needs reform.”
Put to him that it might not be the wisest move to threaten to tear up the agreement during a cost-of-living crisis, given the potential implications for trade, he said: “What we’re doing is sticking up for the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, and what we’re doing is trying to protect and preserve the government of Northern Ireland.
“And yes, you’re right, there’s a cost-of-living issue, but that’s certainly not being helped by extra barriers to trade, extra burdens on business that are being caused by the protocol.
“And it certainly won’t be helped if we have a situation where the Executive isn’t up and running in Northern Ireland. You need the Executive, you need the Assembly, and that is what the people of Northern Ireland want us as politicians to focus on.”
Ahead of talks with the parties, No 10 Downing Street has said the UK “reserves the right” to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol but stressed that was not the currently approach being taken.
Confirming Liz Truss will make a statement tomorrow, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman was asked why it was said to be looking at domestic legislation when the protocol contained the ability to unilaterally suspend the Brexit treaty.
The No 10 official replied: “We are getting slightly ahead of what the Foreign Secretary will say tomorrow when she will set out any rationale for our approach.”
Asked why the Government was not considering using Article 16, Boris Johnson’s spokesman said: “We still reserve the right to use Article 16.
“And indeed we believe the conditions have been met to use it but our focus is how we best protect peace and democracy in Northern Ireland – that will be our guiding principle for any further actions we may choose to take.”
The Northern Ireland Protocol can be “superseded” by future negotiations between the UK and Brussels, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
Speaking to reporters, the Downing Street spokesman said: “We believe the protocol, as drafted, allows for further negotiations, improvements and enhancements to be made, to facilitate properly, to work properly for the long term.
“That’s what we want to do. We want significant changes to how the protocol is being enforced and we think there is sensible flexibility that was envisaged when it was drafted.
“As I say, we think there is a sensible landing spot within the protocol, and that’s what we want to see.”
Asked whether he was referring to Article 16 when mentioning how the protocol was “drafted”, the No 10 official replied: “No. I understand there is a lot of focus on that but it was Article 13.8 that saw parts of the protocol being superseded by future agreements between the UK and EU and allowing.
“The protocol at the time recognised that there would be further discussions to take place.”
The UK Government sees a “sensible landing” for negotiations with the European Union on the Northern Ireland Protocol, No 10 said.
Speaking to reporters ahead of Boris Johnson’s visit to Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We have always sought to deal with this issue in a calm manner.
“That’s always been the approach we’ve taken when having negotiations with the EU or individual countries.
“That’s a view shared by both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary.
“We believe there is a sensible landing, as the Prime Minister said over the weekend, in which everyone’s interests are protected and we will keep that in mind as we set out next steps.”
Asked whether Brussels needed to “change its mandate”, the Downing Street official said: “What we are clear about is the mandate given to (European Commission vice-president) Maros Sefcovic does not allow him to make the changes that we think are wholly necessary to protect peace and democracy in Northern Ireland.”
Theresa Villiers said it was written into the Northern Ireland Protocol that it could be revisited if the treaty was causing issues.
Defending the UK Government’s handling of the situation, the former Northern Ireland secretary told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: “What is now being proposed is actually in line with some core elements of the protocol.
“The protocol itself contemplates that it might be replaced, the protocol itself says that if it has negative consequences in terms of political stability and trade diversion, then the parties need to come back and look at this again. Both of these are present here.
“And what the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary seem to me to be doing is to present a reasonable offer to the European Union on a system which suspends part of the protocol, yes, but still delivers compliance arrangements to protect the single market while assuaging unionist concerns about how the protocol has been operating up to now.”
Ms Villiers added: “This is a really constructive approach. It is the EU which is being rigid and unreasonable in this situation, not the UK.”