media captionBoris Johnson pledges to end “ludicrous barriers” Between Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged to end “ludicrous barriers” to internal trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

He said he would take whatever steps necessary to end barriers created by the EU Withdrawal Agreement.

But Taoiseach (Irish PM) Micheál Martin insisted the Brexit protocol was not a danger to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the UK.

They spoke to a BBC Spotlight for a film on Northern Ireland’s centenary.

A Contested Centenary will be broadcast on Tuesday evening and includes contributions from First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.

In the programme, Mr Johnson said his government was trying to “sandpaper” the Northern Ireland Protocol into shape.

He warned the government would take further steps if the EU insisted on being dogmatic over matters like the supply of British rose bushes, soil and sausages to Northern Ireland.

Noting that the EU Withdrawal Agreement specifically mentions Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK’s internal market, the prime minister said the way the deal had been interpreted did not conform with that provision.

He insisted the checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea had always been intended to be light-touch measures and he described the UK economic market’s integrity as paramount.

Unionists have demanded the protocol must be scrapped altogether and are taking a legal challenge arguing the deal breaches the UK’s Act of Union.

Mr Johnson said that if he concluded the Irish Sea trade checks are not working in the interests of the UK, he would invoke Article 16, which allows either London or Brussels to temporarily suspend the protocol.

media captionThe Northern Ireland Protocol is not a danger to UK, says Micheál Martin

However, Mr Martin said it was overly dramatic for anyone to claim the protocol – which has led to checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – was tearing the UK apart.

The taoiseach said he believed the early signs were that unionists were going to work with the protocol in a pragmatic way.

Mr Martin said he was concerned that “heat” generated about the protocol by its political critics had “drowned out” the voices of Northern Ireland’s businesses, farmers and educational institutions who could see potential advantages in the new trading arrangements.

Mr Martin was questioned about the angry response to the protocol by loyalist paramilitaries, who formally withdrew their support for the Good Friday Agreement.

The Loyalist Communities Council, which represents the paramilitary groups, said it was “determined that unionist opposition to the protocol should be peaceful and democratic”.

There have been reports of threats from some loyalist sources against senior Irish government ministers.

In response, the taoiseach said any opposition to the protocol must be “peaceful and democratic”.

He called on all political leaders, irrespective of their views, to “ensure calm deliberation of these issues” and not to raise tensions unnecessarily.

image captionA Contested Centenary is presented by BBC News NI’s former political editor Mark Devenport

As part of the programme presented by BBC News NI’s former political editor Mark Devenport, Spotlight commissioned an opinion poll on both sides of the border to find out whether people want the Brexit protocol scrapped, whether they are concerned about a potential resurgence of violence and how much longer they believe Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK.

After the launch of the poll results on Tuesday night’s programme, viewers, listeners and readers can expect the full findings across a range of BBC Northern Ireland’s digital and broadcast services over the next three days.

Mr Johnson said that as “a proud unionist” he would celebrate Northern Ireland’s centenary.

However he acknowledged the past 10 decades saw some unhappy and difficult periods with nationalists feeling excluded for much of the time.

The prime minister recalled the words of his predecessor Tony Blair, who said on the eve of the Good Friday Agreement that he felt “the hand of history” on his shoulder.

Mr Johnson said it was time to look forward to Northern Ireland’s future.

Looking back to the bloodshed of the 1920s and its legacy, the taoiseach acknowledged “the hurt and the terrible deeds that were done” but argued that “people did evolve from it and we can’t be captured forever by the bitterness of the past”.

Mr Martin said it was his “firm belief that the vast majority of people on this island have left violence well behind”.

The prime minister told Spotlight he did not envisage the UK considering a border poll to determine whether Northern Ireland should leave the UK for “a very, very long time to come”.

He 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 taoiseach refused to put any timescale on the holding of a border poll but indicated that he expected a completely different political dispensation on the island in another hundred years’ time.

Given the recent strain on Anglo-Irish relations in the wake of Brexit, Mr Martin argued that calling an early border poll, which Sinn Féin has demanded, would be “very explosive and divisive”.

Mr Martin’s predecessor Bertie Ahern has suggested the 30th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in 2028 might be a suitable year to hold a border poll.

However, Mr Martin said it was not helpful to stipulate dates.

Instead he “much prefers to see the meat on the bone, and for me the meat on the bone is real engagement, real discussions, real opening up”.

The Spotlight film – A Contested Centenary – is presented by BBC News NI’s former political editor Mark Devenport, who has been meeting people whose family stories are intertwined with Northern Ireland’s often tragic 100 year history.

The programme will be broadcast on Tuesday night at 21:00 BST on BBC One NI with a live discussion on the BBC News NI website immediately afterwards, exploring the issues raised and delving further into the results of the cross-border opinion poll.

As Northern Ireland reaches its 100th birthday, Spotlight has commissioned a major opinion poll on both sides of the border to find out whether people want the Brexit protocol scrapped, whether they are concerned about a potential resurgence of violence and how much longer they believe Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK.

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