LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson travels to Northern Ireland on Monday to try to break a political deadlock that is preventing the formation of a regional administration.
The trip comes amid threats from the Johnson government to break the Brexit deal with the European Union that it signed but is now responsible for the crisis.
Johnson said action would be “necessary” if the EU did not agree to overhaul post-Brexit trade rules.
Voters in Northern Ireland elected a new Assembly this month, in an election that saw Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein win the most seats. It was the first time that a party that sought to unite with the Republic of Ireland had won an election in the stronghold of Protestant Unionist power.
The Democratic Unionist Party came second and refuses to form a government, or even allow the assembly to sit, until Johnson’s government removes post-Brexit controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Under power-sharing rules put in place as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, a government cannot be formed without the cooperation of the nationalist and unionist parties.
Johnson will urge Belfast’s political leaders to get back to work and address “bread and butter” issues such as the soaring cost of living, his office said on Sunday.
But Johnson also accused the EU of refusing to give ground on post-Brexit border controls.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a border with the EU. When Britain left the bloc in 2020, a deal was struck to keep Ireland’s land border free of customs posts and other checks, as an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland. Instead, checks are carried out on certain goods, such as meat and eggs, entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
The arrangement is opposed by Northern Ireland trade unionists, who say the new controls have placed a burden on businesses and frayed ties between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The UK government agrees the regulations destabilize the Northern Ireland peace deal, which relies on support from the Protestant Unionist and Catholic Nationalist communities.
The Prime Minister’s Office said on Sunday that the trade deal – which Johnson’s government brokered and signed – had “led to the trade union community feeling threatened in its aspirations and its identity”.
Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Johnson accused the EU of failing to acknowledge the arrangements weren’t working.
“I hope that the position of the EU will change. If not, action will have to be taken,” he wrote.
Johnson said his government would “present a more detailed assessment and next steps to parliament in the coming days.”
The UK has said it could pass legislation allowing it to override parts of the Brexit treaty if the EU does not agree to scrap checks. If that happened, the EU would retaliate with legal action – and possibly trade sanctions. The 27-nation bloc is Britain’s largest economic partner.
Ivan Rogers, former British ambassador to the EU, said: “I think there is a serious risk that we are headed for a trade war.”
Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney said Britain’s “sword talk and demagoguery” was undermining peace in Northern Ireland “at a time when the world needs the western world to stand together, act together to solve problems together”.
“The last thing the EU wants, the last thing Ireland wants is tension with the UK, especially at this time given what is happening in Ukraine, Russian aggression and the need to work together on the international stage,” he told Sky News. .