Boris Johnson was booed by protesters as he arrived for political talks in Northern Ireland as the question of the protocol looms large, reports ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana
Political parties in Northern Ireland have voiced their frustration after meeting Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with the deadlock for a functioning government there still not broken.
The PM met leaders from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionist Party, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Alliance Party to discuss how to get the Executive up and running, with the DUP refusing to join in government until issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol are resolved.
Sinn Fein described its meeting with the PM as "tough" and Alliance said the talks were "very frustrating", while the DUP said no consensus exists on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The Protocol, an international treaty signed by the UK and EU which ensures there is no hard border on the island of Ireland by placing checks on some trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is supported by republicans and has put Ulster politics into deadlock.
The EU insists that checks are necessary on some trade flowing east to west to protect the integrity of the Union's single market, but the DUP and UK government say it has created economic barriers for Northern Ireland.
The DUP is refusing to enter government with Sinn Fein over the contentious agreement, with the unionist party saying it is causing instability in Northern Ireland due to checks on trade which are hindering the country's ability to access certain products.
Mr Johnson has insisted he does not want to to "scrap" the Protocol, but believes it can be "fixed" after meeting the political leaders.
He said legislation to rip up parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol was "insurance" in case a deal could not be reached with Brussels.
"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," 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."
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said her meeting with the PM was "fairly tough", adding that she'd had "no straight answers" from Mr Johnson, who she said was prioritising DUP demands.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson rejected the idea that Mr Johnson was siding with his party, saying "the idea the prime minister is taking sides is for the fairies".
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
Prime Minister Johnson said "you bet" he made efforts to persuade the DUP to join a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland.
"I think everybody should be rolling up their sleeves and get stuck in to the government of Northern Ireland," he said, adding: "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'."
"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."
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie, speaking after his party's meeting, said: "If the UK government takes steps tomorrow or this week to fix some of the issues that we see with the protocol, it is important that we then nominate a speaker and we get back to government and start doing the work.
"And if we do not get back into government, then we need to identify who is blocking it and we need to bypass them."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "If the British government tomorrow signal their intent to break international law by legislating to rip up the protocol at Westminster, he (Mr Johnson) will not have the support of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland."
Alliance Party Deputy leader Stephen Farry said: "We were giving him a very clear warning that if he plays fast and loose with the protocol and indeed the 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."
Protesters gathered outside Hillsborough Castle, where the meetings will take place, holding placards which read "Back off Boris. Protect The Protocol".
After meeting the prime minister, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he "set out in very clear terms" what is needed from the British government in relation to the protocol.
"I want to see Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom fully respected and fully restored because that's what the New Decade New Approach agreement said," he added.
Sinn Fein, which won the recent Stormont election, says the DUP is "holding society to ransom" with its refusal to enter government.
Prime Minister Johnson's trip is aimed at breaking the impasse so both parties can reopen Stormont, discuss reforms to the Protocol and begin to address pressing issues such as the cost-of-living crisis.
Ms McDonald said it appears the UK government's 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.
She added: "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."
The DUP said it was to see "decisive action" from Mr Johnson to resolve issues with the Protocol so Northern Ireland can return to a "fully functioning Executive".
Mr Johnson suggested the UK could unilaterally tear up the agreement if solutions cannot be found, writing in the Belfast Telegraph the UK will have a “necessity to act” if the EU is unwilling to reach a compromise in the deepening row over the protocol.
Critics of the PM's approach to the Protocol say a trade war between the UK and EU could follow if Mr Johnson decides to unilaterally walk away from the agreement by removing all checks on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney urged Mr Johnson to commit to further engagement with the EU to resolve the Irish Sea trading dispute, rather than breaking international law by acting alone.
But Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is expected to formally announce plans to legislate on the protocol on Tuesday, a move which would allow the UK to unilaterally leave the agreement.
For analysis of news' biggest stories listen to the What You Need To Know podcast