Northern Ireland’s leader on Thursday suspended cooperation with Dublin and warned he might collapse the province’s devolved government in protest at a UK-EU protocol governing post-Brexit trade.
First Minister 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, who took over the faction-ridden Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in June, is due to meet with EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, who has insisted the EU will not renegotiate the protocol.
But the Northern Irish leader 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’ –
The Northern Ireland Protocol came into effect on January 1, when the United Kingdom left the European single market and customs union.
It involves checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from mainland Great Britain — England, Scotland and Wales — to stop items entering the EU by the backdoor via Ireland.
It is also designed to avoid customs checks on a hard border with Ireland — another key part of the 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.
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 the protocol should be replaced with “alternative arrangements to provide political stability and economic opportunity”.