Dublin warns Boris Johnson against using Northern Ireland Protocol to heal party divisions

The PM survived a vote of confidence but still faces task of leading a disunited ruling party

A lorry passes a sign bearing a message opposing the Northern Ireland Protocol near the port of Larne. AFP
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Ireland’s foreign minister has warned Boris Johnson not to resort to a hardening of his position on the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland in a bid to shore up support among members of his bitterly divided Conservative Party.

Simon Coveney voiced concerns over the possibility of Britain’s embattled prime minister using the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol to appeal to the 41 per cent of Tory MPs who said they had no confidence in his leadership.

In a crunch vote on Monday evening, 148 Conservative lawmakers said they had lost faith in Mr Johnson, while 211 said they maintained confidence in him.

The result came as a blow to Downing Street and sparked renewed calls for the prime minister to step down over the “partygate scandal,” which saw him fined for breaking the Covid-19 lockdown rules he had introduced.

The Irish government is “concerned” about the impact deep divisions in Britain’s ruling Conservative Party could have across the water, Mr Coveney said on Tuesday.

“If those divisions within the Conservative Party impact on Ireland, because the prime minister or the British government decides in order to maintain support within the party that they have to take a tougher line on Brexit, or on the Northern Ireland Protocol, well then obviously divisions in the Conservative Party and in the British government impact on Ireland,” Mr Coveney said.

"And of course, that's where we have a concern."

Boris Johnson, pictured chairing a Cabinet meeting in Downing Street on Tuesday, has been warned not to harden his position on the Northern Ireland Protocol in a bid to appeal to members of his divided Conservative Party. Getty Images

The Northern Ireland Protocol, a key part of the post-Brexit agreement Mr Johnson negotiated with the EU, aims to prevent a return to a hard border between the UK nation and the Republic. The clause stipulates that checks must be carried out on goods arriving being transported between Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK.

Britain has for months been at loggerheads with the EU over the protocol, arguing it is creating problems and needs to be amended. Brussels is refusing to budge on the issue.

Speaking to RTE Radio, Mr Coveney warned Mr Johnson against using the protocol as a tool to appeal to lawmakers in his party who have lost faith in him.

“So whoever is the British prime minister, we will work with them, of course, but what we don't want to see is Ireland being part of a strategy to maintain support within the Conservative Party in the context of hardening a position on the Northern Ireland Protocol,” Mr Coveney said.

Opposition to that pact has seen the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) block efforts to restore power sharing in the region.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the UK intends to legislate to override parts of the deal on Northern Ireland.

Mr Coveney said the EU wants “serious” negotiations and is willing to compromise and show flexibility.

He said he hoped planned legislation to override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol would not become the “price” of Conservative Party support for Mr Johnson.

All eyes were on Number 10 on Tuesday morning as members of Mr Johnson’s Cabinet arrived for their first meeting following the vote of confidence.

In a bid to draw attention to the future, Mr Johnson spoke about “driving reform” and “cutting costs” at the gathering.

He hailed the “huge investment that we are making” before adding: “But it’s not enough just to spend money. We have got to spend it wisely.

“We as Conservative ministers, we have got to make sure at every stage that we are driving reform and driving value.

“So what I’m going to ask you all to do in each of your departments is make sure that you’re thinking the whole time about cutting the costs of government, about cutting the costs that business has to face and of course cutting the costs that everybody else faces, families up and down the country.”

He also thanked his Cabinet members for supporting him in the vote.

Updated: June 07, 2022, 10:40 AM