DUP leader rules out return to Executive without ‘decisive action’ on protocol

Ball is in the UK government’s court, says Jeffrey Donaldson

The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson on Monday ruled out a return to the Northern Executive without "decisive action" from the UK government on the Northern Ireland protocol.

"The man with the stopwatch is Brandon Lewis. The people who can deliver the change are Boris Johnson and the government," Mr Donaldson told reporters. "Frankly the sooner they do it, the sooner we can get things properly functioning again here at Stormont. "

The ball was now in the UK government’s court, he said. “They know what they need to do.”

Flanked by his 25 newly-elected MLAs in the Great Hall at Stormont, Mr Donaldson defended his stance – which has been condemned by the other main Northern parties – saying he had “sought a mandate on the basis of sorting out the protocol” and he was “not going to go back on my word”.

Mr Lewis met Mr Donaldson and the other party leaders on Monday to urge the formation of a power-sharing government following last week's Assembly election which returned Sinn Féin as the largest party. He was also due to speak to Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.

The North's political institutions have been in turmoil since February, when DUP first minister Paul Givan resigned as part of his party's campaign against the protocol.

The Assembly is due to sit on Friday but without a DUP nomination for Deputy First Minister – which it is entitled to as the second largest party – Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill cannot take office as First Minister and the North’s political institutions face a potentially lengthy period of stalemate.

Mr Lewis said he will remain in “close contact” with the Northern party leaders in the coming days, but all sides believe there is little chance of a breakthrough in the short term.

‘Crucial changes’

In a sign of the distance between the UK government’s position and that of the DUP, Mr Lewis said following the talks that negotiations between the EU and the UK over the protocol “should not stand in the way of restoring the Stormont institutions”.

He restated London’s position that it wanted to “address the outstanding issues by agreement with the EU” and said he would “continue to press the EU to agree the crucial changes that are urgently needed but will take nothing off the table in our pursuit of those solutions”.

The other main Stormont parties on Monday also urged the DUP to go back into government.

Speaking at a press conference in Parliament Buildings, Ms O’Neill said there was “no reason for delay” in the formation of an Executive and said that “as democrats the DUP, but also the British government, must accept and respect the democratic outcome of this election.

"Brinkmanship will not be tolerated for the North of Ireland to become collateral damage in a game of chicken with the European Commission, " the Sinn Féin deputy leader said. "Make no mistake, we will not be held to ransom."

She also said that in their meeting with Mr Lewis, Sinn Féin had raised the outstanding issue of Irish language legislation and were told there would be a reference to it in the Queen’s speech on Tuesday, which is to be delivered by Prince Charles.

“That legislation will be rolled forward very, very soon,” she said. “We don’t have a precise date but we have a very precise commitment.”

‘Get on with it’

Alliance leader Naomi Long, whose party dramatically increased its representation at Stormont by taking 17 seats, said she wanted "government up and running as quickly as possible".

She warned the DUP it would be "foolhardy for them to overplay their hand with devolution because that is a gamble that Northern Ireland can't afford to take".

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood urged the DUP to "get on with it today and form a government".

Mr Eastwood – whose party lost four seats, including that of the outgoing minister for infrastructure, Nichola Mallon – said the SDLP would not nominate a replacement for Ms Mallon and would now go into opposition.

Under the D’Hondt system used to allocate ministerial office, Sinn Féin will be invited to nominate a minister in her place.