THE controversial Northern Ireland Protocol “clearly” threatens the province’s place within the Union, the Prime Minister said on a visit to Belfast.

Rishi Sunak pledged to work “flat out” to restore the power-sharing agreement between Nationalists and Unionists within the Northern Ireland Executive on Friday.

The post-Brexit border workaround is hated by Unionists who view it as devaluing Northern Ireland’s place in the Union by creating a border in the Irish Sea to avoid one on the island itself, which would enrage Nationalists.

Speaking at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the birthplace of HMS Titanic, Sunak promised his Government was “very committed” to resolving issues with the protocol.

Devolution has been in flux since February when the DUP withdrew its first minister from the ministerial executive in protest at the protocol.

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The region’s largest Unionist party has blocked the formation of a new administration following May’s Assembly election and prevented the Assembly meeting to conduct legislative business as part of its protest over the protocol.

Talks between the UK and EU to resolve the impasse over the contentious trading arrangements are continuing with both sides continuing to insist a deal is possible.

The DUP has insisted it will not allow a return to powersharing until radical changes to the protocol are delivered.

Sunak said: “I am really committed to resolving some of the issues with the protocol, protecting Northern Ireland’s place in the union, in the United Kingdom, and in doing so, restoring the Executive.

“That is what the people in Northern Ireland need and deserve and that is what I am working flat out to try and deliver.

“I have not put a strict deadline on the talks (between the Government and the EU) and I don’t want to raise people’s expectations of an imminent breakthrough.

“What I can tell you is I am very committed to resolving this issue.

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“The Foreign Secretary met with his counterpart just this week, talks are ongoing and I will work as hard and as fast as I can to find a resolution to the issues with the protocol.

“I want to do that as soon as practically possible.”

Asked about the status of the talks with the EU, he said: “I am not going to give a running commentary on the negotiations, it wouldn’t be appropriate.

“What is of paramount importance to me is protecting Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

“The protocol, clearly there are areas of it which threaten that.

“I want to resolve those and I want to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

“That is what I am setting out to do. If we can do that, we can get the Executive up and running, that is what people need and deserve.”

During his first visit to Northern Ireland as Prime Minister, Sunak met the region’s political leaders on Thursday.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill said she pushed Sunak on the need for a deal on the protocol, while DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the Prime Minister told him there is likely to be an “intensification at the political level” of negotiations over coming weeks.

Sunak toured the Harland and Wolff Belfast shipyard, accompanied by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, following the recent announcement of a contract to build three new supply ships for the Royal Navy there.

He added: “If you think about it, Belfast used to be home to the world’s largest shipyard so I think it is really fitting that it is going to complete the next generation of our navy support ships, which increase our security at sea.”