Sinn Fein first minister designate Michelle O’Neill said that she was expecting the prime minister in Northern Ireland on Monday, when she will tell him to “stop pandering to the DUP”, which is refusing to join a power-sharing executive while the protocol is in place.
There was no immediate confirmation from Downing that the viist will go ahead. If it does, it is understood that the PM will focus on talks with the Northern Irish parties to try to get power-sharing arrangements back on track, rather than making an announcement on the future of the protocol.
It comes amid increasing sabre-rattling from the UK administration over the future of the deal with the EU, which was agreed by Mr Johnson in 2019 in order to keep the border with the Republic open after Brexit, but which he now blames for disruption to trade between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.
Ministers are understood to have drawn up legislation to allow the UK to override elements of the protocol, which could be unveiled next week at the risk of triggering a trade war with Europe.
London has been accused of “threats and blackmail” by Brussels after foreign secretary Liz Truss told European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič on Thursday that the UK would have “no choice but to act” unless the EU gives in to demands to scale back customs checks.
Ms O’Neill said that Northern Ireland was being used as “a pawn in the middle of a battle between the British government and the EU”, but insisted that the protocol was “here to stay”.
She said she will tell Mr Johnson on Monday “that he needs to stop pandering to the DUP, that they need to get on and work with the Commission and find ways to smooth the implementation of the protocol and stop holding us to ransom for their game-playing”.
“They are playing a game of chicken with the European Commission right now, and we are caught in the middle,” she said. “That’s not good enough.”
The development came as it was confirmed that a delegation of senior members of the US Congress are to visit London, Belfast, Brussels and Dublin next week for talks to highlight American support for the Good Friday Agreement, of which the US is a guarantor.
The group will be led by the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Richard Neal, who also chairs the Congressional Friends of Ireland Caucus.
“I can confirm that this trip is occurring next week,” a spokesperson for Mr Neal told The Independent. “However, due to security concerns, I cannot comment further”.
A White House spokesperson declined to say whether the congressional delegation would carry a message from President Joe Biden, who during a Saint Patrick’s Day virtual meeting with Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the agreement “cannot change” and called it the “foundation of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland for nearly 25 years”.
The spokesperson said Mr Biden “has long made clear his strong support for the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement” and said the US “underscore[s] our continued support for a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace”.
Ms O’Neill welcomed the Congresspersons’ visit and suggested that UK hopes of a US trade deal may depend on Mr Johnson being able to reassure Washington that his stance on Brexit is not putting stability in Ireland at risk.
“Britain have reneged constantly on international agreements which they are themselves signed up to,” she said. “Before the ink will be dry on the paper, they start to unravel those things and that’s not good enough.
“So if Britain wants to see a future trade deal with the American administration, then they need to honour the Good Friday Agreement and stop messing with it because, quite frankly, that’s what they’re doing right now. “
With cross-community consent required under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the largest unionist party was able to use its boycott to prevent the appointment of a speaker, effectively preventing the Northern Ireland Assembly from sitting.
Ms O’Neill accused the DUP of “punishing the electorate” by paralysing the functions of government at a time when all other major parties in the Assembly wanted to go ahead with the formation of an executive.
“The DUP are holding society to ransom for the hard Brexit which they themselves delivered, along with their friends in the Tories,” she said.
“I would say to the DUP to get real, to understand the public need a functioning executive, to understand that we need to be in this executive together, working together for the people that have elected us, and that the protocol issues can be resolved alongside that work.”