Boris Johnson has said he is trying to get rid of the “ludicrous” Brexit border checks in Northern Ireland by “sandpapering” the protocol he signed with the EU in January 2020.
In a TV interview in Northern Ireland he also said the protocol had been misinterpreted and border checks were supposed to be light touch.
“What we are doing is what I think is removing the unnecessary protuberances and barriers that have grown up and we are getting the barnacles off the thing and sandpapering into shape,” he told a BBC Spotlight programme marking the centenary of Northern Ireland.
He claimed the way the protocol had been interpreted did not conform with the clauses in the deal, which specifically states it has to regard “the importance of maintaining the integral place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom’s internal market”.
If necessary he would invoke article 16 of the protocol, which allows either the UK or the EU to suspend that part of the withdrawal agreement altogether.
This would be a hugely confrontational move and relations with the EU have to yet to recover after an official in Brussels threatened to invoke article 16 January in relation to vaccine supplies.
Officials in London and Brussels are engaged in intense technical talks to smooth the application of the protocol which has been opposed by unionists and contributed to loyalist rioting at Easter.
Last week the European commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, described a meeting with Brexit minister Lord Frost as productive.
The Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin, told Spotlight said it was overly dramatic for anyone to claim the protocol was tearing the UK apart.
He said there appeared to be some signs that unionists, who are campaigning to have the protocol scrapped, would try and make the protocol work.
Both Martin and Johnson were also asked about the prospect of a referendum on a united Ireland.
Johnson declared there would be no such border poll for a “very very long time to come” while Martin also denounced the prospect of a referendum in the near future, describing it as “explosive and divisive”.
Johnson said he would prefer people within the UK to think collectively about what they can do together, rather than concentrating on how they can split themselves apart, the BBC reported.
Such a referendum is provided for under the Belfast Good Friday agreement with UK law enabling such a border poll in the Northern Ireland Act 1988.
It states that “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”, the government will enable a border poll.
There would also at the same time be a referendum south of the border on a united Ireland were this order to be given by the British government.