British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned Irish premier Micheal Martin that the situation surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol is “now very serious”.
In a call about post-Brexit arrangements, the two leaders agreed on the vital importance of restoring the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland as soon as possible, Downing Street said.
Mr Johnson said recent elections had shown that the current protocol was not sustainable and the balance of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement was being undermined.
“Despite repeated efforts by the UK government over many months to fix the protocol, including those sections related to the movement of goods and governance, the European Commission had not taken the steps necessary to help address the economic and political disruption on the ground,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
“The prime minister reiterated that the UK government would take action to protect peace and political stability in Northern Ireland if solutions could not be found.”
But Irish deputy leader Leo Varadkar has warned the UK government against taking unilateral action on the protocol.
“This is an international agreement," Mr Varadkar told RTE. "They have to honour their obligations. I was in the Wirral with Boris Johnson. I know what he agreed to.
“The people of Northern Ireland voted and they did not vote for a majority of MLAs who want the protocol to be scrapped. So the British government has to have regard to that. This is a democracy and an election just happened.
“The British prime minister and the secretary of state need to be wise to that, if they’re not already.”
An Irish government spokesman said Mr Martin had urged Mr Johnson “to engage in intensified EU-UK discussions to address issues relating to the implementation of the protocol”.
“He set out clearly his serious concerns at any unilateral action at this time, which would be destabilising in Northern Ireland and erode trust,” the spokesman said.
“The taoiseach [Irish prime minister] pointed out that the EU has engaged constructively in the protocol discussions, addressing the issue of medicines, and last October putting forward a substantial package of flexibilities and mitigations, including on customs and SPS arrangements.
“The taoiseach stressed to the prime minister that the way forward should be through continued engagement with a view to arriving at agreed EU-UK solutions that address the practical issues arising around implementation of the protocol.”
On Tuesday afternoon, European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said renegotiation of the protocol was “not an option”, and that action by the UK would make work on possible solutions “more difficult”.
“The EU has been open to joint work with the UK on implementing the protocol to bring long-term legal certainty and predictability to the people and businesses in Northern Ireland,” Mr Sefcovic said
“The EU remains open to such discussions. Only joint solutions will work. Unilateral action by the UK would only make our work on possible solutions more difficult.
“The protocol, as a cornerstone of the Withdrawal Agreement, is an international agreement. Its renegotiation is not an option. The European Union is united in this position.”
Mr Johnson and Mr Martin also discussed the need to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland after the assembly elections.
The Irish government spokesman said both leaders agreed on the importance of “having a strong functioning executive in place to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland”.
“The taoiseach emphasised the importance of the two governments working together in support of the full operation of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.
Mr Johnson also had calls with DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson who repeated his position that there must be action on the protocol before his party will enter government.
Speaking after the call, Mr Donaldson said he was not “setting a timeframe” according to which the UK government must take action on the protocol.
Asked if legislation should be introduced to satisfy parts of the protocol “within weeks”, he said: “What I am making absolutely clear is it is decisive action that we need, and we need that to happen quickly.”
On the earliest point at which the DUP could return to power-sharing in Northern Ireland, he said: “I’m not measuring this by timeframes; I’m measuring it by outcomes.”
Mr Donaldson said he had contacted the EU and was hoping to meet with the bloc's ambassador to “receive an update from them”.
“In the absence of agreement with the EU, the UK government, I think, must act to safeguard the political institutions in Northern Ireland; to safeguard the political process. That has to be the prime minister’s priority,” he said.
“To be honest I’ve given the EU months and months and months, we’ve had interminable negotiations, but we haven’t had results, we haven’t had outcomes, we haven’t had decisive action in those negotiations, and that’s what we need.”
He said he would not leave the House of Commons to take up his seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly until issues around protocol were resolved.
The DUP leader was elected to Stormont in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections last week, but there had been uncertainty over whether he would take up his position as an MLA or remain at Westminster.
“My party is absolutely committed to the future of the political institutions. We want them to work and to deliver for everyone in Northern Ireland,” he told the House of Commons on Tuesday evening.
“My party is committed to the operation of those institutions. We are committed to our participation in those institutions.
“But it has to be on the basis of fairness, it has to be on the basis of a consensus, it has to be on the basis that we address the problems that are in front of us and that have flown from the imposition of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“I’m prepared to commit the remainder of my political career to going back to those institutions and working with my colleagues to make them work.
“I am prepared to leave this House where I have been a member of for 25 years, and which I would dearly love to continue being a part of, because I want to invest in the future of our people, I want to work for our people, I want to deliver good government.
“But I have to say … I will not leave this House until this protocol issue is resolved. I will not leave this House until I can be sure that our political institutions in Northern Ireland have a stable foundation.”
Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill has insisted that an executive must be formed now.
“The public here can’t be a pawn in the British government’s game of chicken with the EU,” Ms O'Neill said.
Earlier, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was reportedly set to move to discard large parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol after giving up on Brexit negotiations with the EU.
The Times reported that officials working for Ms Truss have drawn up draft legislation to unilaterally remove the need for checks on all goods being sent from Britain for use in Northern Ireland.
The law would also ensure businesses in Northern Ireland are able to disregard EU rules and regulations, and remove the power of the European Court of Justice to rule on issues relating to the region, the paper said.
Importantly, the Bill would override the protocol agreed to by Mr Johnson in 2019 and mean the UK had breached its obligations under the Brexit agreement.
The Times said Ms Truss is understood to have concluded talks with the EU and has been told the proposed Bill could lead to a trade war with the bloc.
It comes after The Sunday Telegraph said Ms Truss faces Cabinet opposition, particularly from British Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Communities Secretary Michael Gove, to her plans to rip up the protocol.
She is poised to take further action in the coming weeks if negotiations with the EU continue to stall, PA reported.
But it was argued that the protocol will not be completely overridden, with measures instead being considered to ease the issues in Northern Ireland.
No decisions have been made, it was stressed, but these could include action to address the difference between VAT, rules and courts within the UK on either side of the Irish Sea.