Boris Johnson is said to be willing to “rip up” up his own Brexit deal with the EU over Northern Ireland to avoid an eruption of violence in the summer marching season.
Brexit minister Lord Frost issued a veiled threat that the UK was willing to walk away from its promises in the agreement unless Brussels gives ground on goods checks.
Senior Government sources have suggested the Northern Ireland protocol is “dead in the water” unless the EU is prepared for the UK to row back on its commitments.
One said: “The marching season is a date whereby you would want to have a material improvement in what is happening.
“We need a bit of movement by then because that is when we risk seeing the kind of disruption and the protests that we had recently.”
Lord Frost admitted that the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal had disrupted deliveries of goods to the province from mainland Britain – which could put political stability at risk.
In the Mail on Sunday, he conceded that extra paperwork and checks had resulted from the deal that he negotiated, and which Mr Johnson pushed through Parliament.
But he accused the EU of taking a “very purist view” to the treatment of goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK – even though Brussels has warned throughout it would be necessary to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Lord Frost suggested the PM could trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol to suspend the checks as a result – meaning the EU could hit back with tariffs on UK goods.
“If the Protocol operates so as to damage the political, social, or economic fabric of life in Northern Ireland, then that situation cannot be sustained for long,” he warned.
“We are responsible for protecting the peace and prosperity of everyone in Northern Ireland and we will continue to consider all our options for doing so.”
But No 10 faces criticism for trying to shift the blame onto Brussels when it was fully aware of the commitments required by the deal.
The EU is refusing to budge on the Protocol because it argues that it is a direct consequence of the Brexit.
A No 10 spokesman said: “We’re committed to making the Northern Ireland protocol work and we’re also at the same time asking for the EU to be more pragmatic.”