‘Significant gaps remain’ between UK and EU on NI protocol, Donaldson says

Five Belfast bus routes suspended on Monday after latest of two recent hijackings

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has warned that "significant gaps remain" between the UK and EU over the Northern Ireland protocol following a meeting with the chief British negotiator Lord David Frost.

Mr Donaldson said he had a “useful discussion and update” from Lord Frost in London but that “little progress has been made in key areas”.

Talks are continuing between the UK and the EU amid the expectation in Dublin and Brussels that the UK is set to trigger Article 16 of the protocol, which would result in it unilaterally taking safeguarding measures.

Speaking in Cork on Monday about the UK's relationship with Ireland and the EU, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said: "I think it is a very serious issue in the context of both those relationships. I would hope that the talks that are still ongoing between the United Kingdom and European Union would bear fruit."


SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the post-Brexit trade deal could unravel if the UK took unilateral action and triggered Article 16.

“What I’m really worried about is we have a reckless prime minister, we’ve Lord Frost who is absolutely ideological about this stuff, and they are not serious about doing a deal [on the protocol],” he said.

“That means there’s no trust between the European Commission, European Union and the British Government. How can we, on that footing, expect for things not to unravel further?”

‘Must follow through’

Mr Donaldson said decisions would need to be taken “very soon” on whether or not discussions “can in fact be concluded successfully in order to fully restore Northern Ireland’s position as a full part of the internal market of the UK”.

In the absence of an agreement, he said the UK government “must follow through” on the commitments made in their Command Paper in July. In the paper, the UK said it was “clear the circumstances exist to justify using Article 16”.

Meanwhile buses were suspended on five routes in the Greater Belfast area after 6.30pm on Monday following the hijacking of two buses within a week in apparent protests against the protocol. Another seven routes are to operate with diversions, with the decision on whether to resume evening services to be made on a daily basis.

Ian Campbell, Translink’s director of service operations, said the safety of passengers and employees was “paramount and our highest concern”.

“Our staff want to provide essential public transport to keep society connected. But this attack on our people and services is simply unacceptable,” he said.

Four masked men armed with a hammer and a bottle of petrol boarded a bus near the loyalist Rathcoole estate in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, on Sunday night. The driver and passengers were ordered off, and the vehicle was set alight. It followed a similar incident in a loyalist area of Newtownards, Co Down on November 1st. Some bus drivers took part in a protest against the attacks at Belfast City Hall on Monday.

Michael Dornan, from the trade union Unite, said the driver whose bus was hijacked on Sunday night had been left “traumatised” and bus drivers were “deeply angered that we are always the political punchbag for issues we have no power over or hand in”.

‘Sabre rattling’

In the Northern Assembly, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill accused the DUP of engaging in “reckless and damaging” rhetoric and called for an end to “sabre rattling” over the protocol.

Referring to the attacks on buses, the Sinn Féin politician said that “not only should the DUP be condemning this violence they should stop feeding the narrative that inflames it and indeed also even encourages it”.

Separately, Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader Billy Hutchinson said there is "no basis for unionist support" for the Belfast Agreement He said he would continue to work with the leaders of the other unionist parties to secure the removal of the "intolerable and constitutionally damaging" Northern Ireland protocol.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times