Prime Minister Boris Johnson has held “frank” conversations with the DUP on the Northern Ireland Protocol during a visit to the region – but Sinn Féin refused to take part in “a day out for unionism”.
The PM was joined by First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster and Health Minister Robin Swann as he toured a mass vaccination centre in Co Fermanagh on Friday.
The controversial NI Protocol remains a hot topic, with unionists angered by extra checks on goods passing through its ports from the rest of the UK following Brexit.
Mrs Foster says she urged Mr Johnson to “stand up for Northern Ireland” and ditch the “intolerable” protocol governing Irish Sea trade, adding that he was “alive to the issues”.
Not a single unionist party in Northern Ireland supports this unworkable Protocol.
“Rather than protect the Belfast Agreement and its successor agreements, the Protocol has created societal division and economic harm,” Mrs Foster said.
“Whilst grace periods have been extended unilaterally, we need a permanent solution so business can plan and the integrity of the United Kingdom internal market can be restored.”
The DUP leader also told the Prime Minister that a local school in Fermanagh was unable to order trees from England due to red tape surrounding the transport of soil.
The NI Protocol was agreed by the EU and UK during the withdrawal negotiations to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
It achieves that by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods, with regulatory checks and inspections now required on agri-food produce moving into the region from the rest of the UK.
The new arrangements have caused some disruption to trade since the start of the year as firms have struggled with new processes and administration.
Unionists are opposed to the protocol, claiming it undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.
Nationalists acknowledge teething problems with the new arrangements, but argue that they can be finessed.
We’re not in the business of engaging in a fairly superficial PR stunt, which is what the British Prime Minister invited us to do today.
Sinn Féin’s deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill earlier refused to welcome Mr Johnson to Belfast in her Stormont role after a request for a political meeting with the Sinn Féin leadership was not granted.
Ms O’Neill said: “Mary Lou McDonald and myself have a long-standing request to meet with the British Prime Minister to discuss a number of commitments which he and his Government have reneged on in the New Decade New Approach over this past year, and also his reckless and partisan approach to the Irish Protocol. He did not facilitate the meeting.
“I have no plans to meet with him today.”
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane said the party was refusing to engage with the “day out for unionism” after No 10 refused the request for a “professional, grown-up engagement”, to cover topics including the NI Protocol.
“We have made the request to meet with him. I think it’s insulting to the 770,000 people on this island who vote for us that he feels it appropriate to ignore and refuse that meeting,” he added.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Michelle O’Neill was invited to join the PM on the visit.”
Speaking about the NI Protocol, the Prime Minister said there has to be east-west consent to the Northern Ireland Protocol as well as north-south.
We are taking some lawful, technical measures to build up confidence in the east-west operation as well. We think it is lawful, indeed we think it is right, in view of the impact on the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement and the need to have consent from both communities.
“There has got to be a balance and symmetry in that,” Mr Johnson said.
“We want to ensure that the protocol upholds the wishes of both communities and has the consent of both.
“There has got to be east-west consent to what is going on as well as north-south. We want to make sure that is built into that.”
Later, during a virtual news conference, Mr Johnson said the Northern Ireland Protocol was not operating in the way he envisaged.
The Prime Minister said he did not think arrangements he agreed with the EU would involve restrictions on the movements of food products such as sausages, on parcel deliveries, and on soil from Great Britain entering Northern Ireland.
“It needs to be corrected, you can't have a situation in which soil or parcels or tractors with mud on their tyres or whatever are prevented from moving easily from one part of the UK to another – it’s all one United Kingdom,” he said.
Mr Johnson undertook a number of engagements on Friday, including meeting members of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and military medics during a visit to Joint Helicopter Command Flying Station Aldergrove.
He also visited the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute For Experimental Medicine at Queen's University Belfast.