The leader of Northern Ireland’s biggest party on Thursday suspended cooperation with Dublin and warned he might collapse the province’s devolved government in protest at a UK-EU protocol regulating post-Brexit trade.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson demanded “significant and substantial changes” to the Northern Ireland Protocol, under which London agreed to checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea as part of its drawn-out divorce from the European Union.
Donaldson took over the faction-ridden DUP in June and is due to meet with EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, who has insisted that Brussels will not renegotiate the protocol.
Sefcovic, on a two-day visit to Northern Ireland, urged politicians to “dial down the political rhetoric” and called for constructive solutions.
And in Dublin, Irish premier Micheal Martin said Brussels was in “solution mode”, warning that an end to cross-border cooperation and political meltdown in Northern Ireland was in no one’s interest.
But in a speech, Donaldson said it was “a matter of political reality, that our political institutions will not survive a failure to resolve the problems that the protocol has created”.
“Let me be clear: if the choice is ultimately between remaining in office or implementing the protocol in its present form, then the only option for any unionist minister would be to cease to hold such office,” he said, warning the DUP might trigger new elections in Northern Ireland.
Donaldson said the DUP was pulling out of a cross-border dialogue council with the government of EU member Ireland — “Strand Two” of a 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of violence over British rule in Northern Ireland.
“In such circumstances unionists cannot be expected to operate Strand Two as though nothing had changed,” he said.
– ‘Political limbo’ –
Northern Ireland has the UK’s only land border with the EU. How to deal with that after the country left the bloc’s single market and customs union has bedevilled the Brexit process.
The protocol came into effect on January 1, involving checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from mainland Great Britain — England, Scotland and Wales — to stop them entering the EU by the back door via Ireland.
It is also designed to avoid customs checks on a hard border with Ireland — another key part of the hard-won 1998 peace deal.
But pro-British unionists say the port checks have hit business and trade, and altered Northern Ireland’s status within the wider UK, putting a border in the Irish Sea and effectively keeping it bound by many EU rules.
Earlier this year, opposition erupted into some of the worst unrest in the province in recent years.
The UK government in London, which wants to renegotiate the protocol, on Monday said it would extend a grace period indefinitely on implementing checks.
Brussels said it would not oppose the move or implement sanctions for breaking the deal while talks were going on to find a solution.
Donaldson, however, said that left Northern Ireland in an unsustainable “political limbo” and rather than “tinkering”, the protocol should be replaced with “alternative arrangements to provide political stability and economic opportunity”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman told reporters in London the issues raised by the DUP leader showed “the real pressure that the protocol is causing in Northern Ireland”.
But Donaldson failed to secure the backing of the second-largest pro-British party in the province, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).
UUP leader Doug Beattie said despite his party’s opposition to the protocol, they wanted “pragmatic solutions and engagement”.
“We simply cannot afford to have the Stormont institutions collapse,” he said referring to the devolved assembly in Belfast.