The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has told a meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly (Bipa) that the Stormont Executive will not be restored until issues around the Northern Ireland protocol are resolved.
“I am a democrat, I will respect the outcome of [ASSEMBLY]election, but what I am not prepared to do is bury my head in the sand, pretend these problems aren’t there, operate political institutions that this protocol stated they were designed to protect,” Mr Donaldson said.
“Those relationships have been harmed,” he said. “I want this problem sorted out. No more kicking the can down the road ... and when it’s sorted out and when we have agreement you’ll get a restored Executive, you’ll get restored North-South institutions, and I hope it will also lead to better relationships on an East-West basis.”
Mr Donaldson was responding to a question from the Sinn Féin Assembly member John O'Dowd, who challenged him to "commit to this Assembly today that the Democratic Unionist Party will return to the [NORTHERN]Executive regardless of the outcome, even if unionism isn't the largest party?"
Mr O’Dowd said this was the “real issue” and he believed the “practical issues around the protocol can be resolved ... this idea the protocol’s going to be removed is a fundamental mistake in strategising moving forward.”
The Sinn Féin MP John Finucane told the meeting Mr Donaldson's comments were "heard by those of us within nationalism as unionism doing democracy on only unionism's terms."
They were speaking during the plenary meeting of Bipa at Westminster on Monday, the Assembly’s first in-person plenary since the Covid-19 pandemic.
In his speech, Mr Donaldson said the "continued imposition" of the protocol upon Northern Ireland "has cast its long shadow over our political arrangements at Stormont, as well as on a north-south and east-west basis and the everyday lives of our people.
“The genuine objections to it cannot be wished away, nor simply ignored,” he said. “The long shadow of the Irish Sea border must be removed from our politics. It is holding us back.”
Talks between the UK and EU aimed at resolving issues around the Northern Ireland protocol have so far failed to find a solution, with the two sides remaining far apart despite a joint statement last week emphasising their “ongoing determination” to break the deadlock.
Unionists are opposed to the protocol - the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement which avoided a hard Border on the island of Ireland by placing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea - because they argue it is causing economic difficulties and undermines Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as part of the UK.
Earlier this month Mr Donaldson's party colleague, Paul Givan, resigned as the North's First Minister as part of the DUP's campaign against the protocol, triggering a political crisis at Stormont.
During the meeting representatives from the Irish and British governments, as well as the Labour leader Keir Starmer, emphasised the desire in both countries to seek a resolution to the issues around the protocol.
The Minister of State for European Affairs, Thomas Byrne TD, said there was an "opportunity before us to reach an agreement on the protocol" and while the package of measures put forward by the European Commission last year provided a "pathway" Britain "needs to be clear that it's willing and ready to work with the European Union.
“I do acknowledge the change of atmosphere in recent months,” he said, “but there’s still a long, long road to go,” he said.
Mr Byrne added the protocol made the North “a unique place to invest” and could “deliver on the prosperity agenda for the people of Northern Ireland, and that should be our focus.”
The UK's Minister for Europe, James Cleverly, said the resolution to the protocol "needs to happen it is a sticking point at the moment and it is causing tensions which I think we would all wish to avoid.
The most recent set of negotiations I've been involved in with Mr Sefcovic have I think given me hope that there is a genuine appetite for resolution," he said.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said the instability over the protocol had “gone on far too long” and the UK prime minister “negotiated it, ratified it, and legislated for it - and now he must make it work.”
He said he was “deeply concerned about the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive” and implored “all parties to return to Stormont.”