By PA reporter
The leader of the DUP has signalled his party will collapse the Stormont Executive within weeks if changes to Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol are not delivered.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also announced his party’s immediate withdrawal from cross-border political institutions established on the island of Ireland under the Good Friday peace agreement.
The moves are part of an intensification of the DUP’s campaign of opposition to post-Brexit arrangements that have created trading barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
In response the European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic called on leaders to “dial down the political rhetoric” while a spokesman for the Prime Minister said the threat showed the “real pressures” the protocol is causing.
Sir Jeffrey issued the warning on the future of Stormont in a keynote address in Belfast on the same day as European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic began a two-day visit to Northern Ireland.
Ahead of any move to pull ministers out of the coalition administration, a step that would bring down the powersharing institutions, Sir Jeffrey said his party was first seeking to challenge the legality of checks on GB to NI trade introduced under the protocol and establish whether their implementation requires the approval of the Stormont Executive.
“In the final analysis those who are democratically elected by the people of Northern Ireland lack the power to prevent such checks, if that is the case, if our ministers cannot in the end prevent these checks taking place and if the protocol issues remain then I have to be clear, the position in office of DUP ministers would become untenable,” he said.
“If the choice is ultimately between remaining in office or implementing the protocol in its present form then the only option, the only option for any unionist minister would be to cease to hold such office.”
Sir Jeffrey added: “Within weeks it will become clear if there is a basis for the Assembly and Executive to continue in this current mandate, and I want that to happen.
“But, equally, we will also need to consider whether there is a need for an Assembly election to refresh our mandate if action is not taken to address and resolve the issues related to the protocol and its impact, its damaging impact on Northern Ireland each and every day.”
(Sir Jeffrey says his party is prepared to pull out of power-sharing institutions)
The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU as a way to maintain a free-flowing land border on the island of Ireland.
It achieves that by moving many of the checks and processes required on goods to the Irish Sea.
Under the arrangements, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market for goods and continues to apply EU customs rules.
Unionists in Northern Ireland have been vehemently opposed to its terms which see additional checks on goods arriving to the region from the rest of the UK.
They claim the arrangements have undermined Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.
While Sir Jeffrey said the DUP was withdrawing from north/south political bodies he said his party would seek to ensure continued cross-border co-operation on health issues.
“And let me be clear, as part of the proper functioning of all aspects of the political institutions I want the north/south institutions to work,” he said.
“Post Brexit, north/south and east/west relationships are, if anything, more important than ever.
“But they cannot operate in isolation or while strand three (of the Good Friday Agreement), the east/west relationship, has been undermined.
“There can be no dispute that the fabric of strand three has been fundamentally undermined by the protocol.
“In such circumstances unionists cannot be expected to operate strand two as though nothing had changed.”
💬 Continued implementation of the Protocol in its current form would make the position of Unionist Minister's untenable. pic.twitter.com/0PmUBWgR4t— DUP (@duponline) September 9, 2021
The DUP leader said ministers would also seek to use their votes at the Stormont Executive to block the implementation of any additional checks at Northern Ireland ports when ongoing grace periods end.
He said the DUP would also oppose the passage of regulations at Stormont required to reflect any changes to EU law applying in Northern Ireland.
Sir Jeffrey warned that the Government’s planned move to legislate for Irish language provisions at Westminster would further undermine devolution.
The UK Government agreed to the Sinn Fein demand in the summer after the republican party threatened not to re-enter the powersharing administration after failing to secure a firm timetable from the DUP on implementing what was a key plank of the 2020 New Decade New Approach deal that restored devolution.
“The proper place for such legislation is the Northern Ireland Assembly where it can receive the proper scrutiny and a balanced approach,” said Sir Jeffrey.
“Such a usurpation of the Assembly’s powers, without the consent of the Assembly, would be difficult at any time.
“But undermining the operation of strand one (of the Good Friday Agreement) as well as strand three at the same time would further undermine confidence in devolution and the operation of the Assembly from an already low base.
“The situation is further exacerbated when the New Decade, New Approach Deal is implemented on a one-sided basis and in the absence of the Government delivering on the NDNA commitment to ensure that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the UK internal market.
“For unionists such a situation is both intolerable and unsustainable.”
Mr Sefcovic is currently on a visit to Northern Ireland and will meet with Sir Jeffry on Thursday.
He said: “We will have the opportunity to discuss this face to face and my message will be let’s work on the concrete problems.
“Let’s focus on the issues which are the most important for the people of Northern Ireland, let’s be constructive, let’s dial down the political rhetoric, let’s bring calm and focus on what is our task to accomplish.”
A Number 10 spokesman said: “We believe that the challenges the DUP and others have set out illustrates that the protocol in its current form is simply not sustainable.”
(Sir Jeffrey says a long-term solution to the protocol is needed)
Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said he will not follow a DUP threat to pull its ministers from Stormont over the Northern Ireland protocol.
Mr Beattie said his party is also opposed to the protocol, but said he wanted to provide “pragmatic solutions and engagement”.
“While the DUP will provide threats leading to instability and further harming our people here in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“I certainly won’t be asking my party to withdraw from the Executive when we are still dealing with a Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences on a health service which is facing challenges on an unprecedented scale.
Pictured - Doug Beattie
“We simply cannot afford to have the Stormont institutions collapse and people, not least those hundreds of thousands on waiting lists, won’t thank us for it.
“We will engage constructively and put forward practical solutions as we seek to replace the protocol. We continue to lobby rather than threaten.
“Unionism needs to show confidence in its own abilities. Now is not the time to retreat to the trenches.
“The UK Government’s Command Paper provides a potential pathway out of the protocol mess and unionism should be using its influence within the democratic structures to hold the Government to account for delivering on it.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald has branded Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s threat to pull down Stormont as a “reckless, irresponsible and a short-sighted election stunt”.
“They are threatening the stability of the political institutions when we are in the midst of the Covid pandemic, when the Tories are putting families and workers under pressure with more cuts, and when there is big work to do on the issues that matter to people’s everyday lives – on hospital waiting lists, on schools, on housing and on jobs, and on rebuilding our economy,” she said.
“The DUP is clearly in panic mode, driven by poor opinion polls they are focused on their own narrow self-interest ahead of the interests of workers, families and local businesses.
“Unionism has lost its political majority, the DUP is in disarray and their vote is in decline.”
Pictured - Mary-Lou McDonald
Social Democratic and Labour Party Leader Colum Eastwood MP has said that the threat to devolution and the North-South institutions issued by Jeffrey Donaldson today serves no community in Northern Ireland and is based on selfish party political self-interest.
The Foyle MP called on the DUP Leader to reflect on the consequences of his statement and return to working with other political leaders to resolve the challenges we all face together.
“The remarks made by the leader of the DUP this morning are disappointing, disproportionate and risk putting an end to devolution in Northern Ireland. I hoped that Jeffrey Donaldson’s leadership would be pragmatic, aimed at resolving the challenges that Brexit has created for all of our communities and acknowledging the need for compromise. Instead we have a return to the incendiary rhetoric and threats that got us nowhere for three of the last four years.
“I have listened to people from a unionist background who have concerns about the Northern Ireland protocol. Their fears are not about changes to trade routes or the availability of mince pies at Christmas.
"They are rooted in identity and while I may disagree, I believe those concerns are genuinely held and legitimate. This debate should not, therefore, be dressed up as a problem with reorienting supply chains. Those issues can be addressed with operational good will and political generosity.
Pictured - Colum Eastwood
Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister has said that “no positive agenda” is served by breaking down the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
Responding to the speech by DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Simon Coveney said: “We take unionist concerns in relation to the protocol seriously and we have consistently sought to listen and engage with those concerns, just as we have with the perspectives of everyone across Northern Ireland.
“The Taoiseach and Tanaiste met with Jeffrey Donaldson to discuss these issues in detail in the last two weeks.
“However, no positive agenda is served by blocking practical north/south cooperation or by the breakdown of the other institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
“The North South Ministerial Council has an important agenda this autumn, including on improving health services, managing environmental challenges, cooperating in education and investing in infrastructure.
“As we emerge from the Covid pandemic, we should be focused on working together to support communities and businesses across the island.”
Pictured - Simon Coveney
Taoiseach Micheal Martin said the DUP’s assertion that it will collapse the Stormont Executive within weeks if changes to Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol are not delivered, has “created new challenges”.
Mr Martin said he is fully committed to maintaining the full operation of the Good Friday Agreement.
“I met with the (European Commission) vice-president Maros Sefcovic last evening, we had a very good comprehensive discussion,” the Fianna Fail leader added.
“In terms of the meeting I had with Mr Sefcovic last evening and meetings I had on the weekend, with the UK side, I am clear that Europe is in solution mode, and that Europe wants to work hard within the existing arrangements to make the protocol work for the people of Northern Ireland.
“I hope that vice president Sefcovic went up today to listen and engage. From our perspective, we have listened to party views and met with all the other parties on this issue.
“What is clear is I think all parties would like to see a streamlining and more flexible operation of the protocol. The UK Government is saying to me that they want to get a solution.”
Pictured - Micheal Martin