Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis called on the Democratic Unionist Party to commit to renominating a First or Deputy First Minister after the elections in May.
It was “wrong” and unacceptable for Stormont First Minister Paul Givan to pull out of the powersharing Executive last week in protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol, said Mr Lewis.
Speaking from Washington, he suggested the resignation has stymied any progress in dealing with the North’s dire hospital waiting lists — with more than a third of the population in lengthy queues to be seen by a medic.
“The right thing for Northern Ireland is to have the devolved authority of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly back sitting as quickly as possible after May so we can get to grips with the various issues,” he said.
Mr Lewis added that he “absolutely” expects the DUP to renominate either a First Minister or Deputy First Minister, depending on who the biggest party is after voters go to the polls on May 5th.
But he acknowledged DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s threat that his party would not renominate unless there was progress in dealing with unionist opposition to the protocol.
His comments came as European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic and British foreign secretary Liz Truss said on Friday their officials would continue “intensive” discussions over Northern Ireland in the coming days after their third in-person meeting. “They agreed on the need for progress in their talks in the interest of people in Northern Ireland, to stay in close touch and that officials will continue intensive discussions in the coming days”, the two said in a joint statement. Ms Truss earlier said finding a solution to the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute was an “absolute priority.
Negotiated by London and Brussels as part of post-Brexit arrangements, the protocol has put up a de facto trade border between the North and Britain, to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and protect the EU single market.
Mr Lewis said it was not acceptable that the DUP had pulled its First Minister out of the Executive over its disputed contention that the trade border in the Irish Sea impacts on the North’s constitutional status within the UK.
“The issue around the Northern Ireland Protocol is between the UK and the EU,” he said.
“We are focused on that. The prime minister (Boris Johnson) is focused on that. That is the discussions we are having with the EU.
“But there are repercussions… Over a third of the (North’s) population are on health waiting lists. I think one of the things everybody in Northern Ireland wants to see is a set of proposals from the Executive that sets out how they can reform the healthcare system to ensure we can get on top of these waiting lists.
“But it is not just healthcare — there are a range of issues, and that needs a functioning Executive, absolutely.”
Mr Lewis said the only way to resolve the current political crisis is to “make progress around the Northern Ireland Protocol” and that he hoped to get a “positive step”in that direction over the coming weeks.
Urging the DUP to commit to renominating either a First Minister or Deputy First Minister after the elections, he said the powersharing institutions are “fundamental” to the Belfast Agreement.
“To be fair, some unionist parties have been very clear that they believe in the institutions and I would like to see all parties — both on the nationalist and on the unionist side — be very clear that whatever the result is in May they will renominate,” he told the BBC.
Stormont Economy Minister Gordon Lyons claimed the protocol was “obstructing our ability to rebuild our economy as we emerge from the pandemic.”
Speaking in Fivemiletown, Co Tyrone, the East Antrim MLA, said being “separated” from the UK’s internal market is having “devastating consequences.”
“The current restrictions on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are simply unsustainable,” he added.
“We want Northern Ireland to have the best of both worlds, able to trade freely with the rest of the United Kingdom and the European Union
“But the Northern Ireland Protocol does not offer the best of both worlds, it confines Northern Ireland to the worst of all worlds.”
Sinn Féin North Belfast MP John Finucane said Brexit and not the protocol was the problem.
“There is a degree of the DUP trying to wash its hands of the consequences of its own actions and what we need to do is identify where there are problems and try and solve them, but also realise the enormous potential that the protocol provides us here,” he said.
Describing the DUP’s decision to pull its First Minister out of the Exectuive as “reckless, irresponsible, and entirely for self-interest”, he insisted the party’s constitutional argument “simply does not stand up to scrutiny.”
“This has been tested in the courts, it has been absolutely demolished by the courts, by the judgement that there is no legal basis to say the constitutional arrangements here have changed.
“[THE PROTOCOL] doesn’t make anybody less British, it doesn’t make anybody more Irish.
“This isn’t a green and orange issue, and I would take offence at any attempt to describe it as that.”
Where there are difficulties around checks and paperwork, the EU has responded in a “very much a problem solving manner.”
“(Maros) Sefcovic came here and met with the sectors, manufacturing, logistics, retail, hospitality and came up with solutions to that,”added Mr Finucane.
“There is always going to be an outworking of a fundamental change in normal working practices and I think the protocol itself… is almost like a moving vehicle whereby it has thew capacity to identify where there are problems and within the structures of the protocol identify and try and solve those problems.
“The EU have already taken steps to alleviate 80 per cent of the problems that have been identified by our sectors here.”
On the unionist contention that the protocol does not command cross-community support, Mr Finucane said the Good Friday Agreement does not state that every single issue must have cross-community support.
“If that was the case we never would have had Brexit in the first place,” he told the BBC, adding that the DUP welcomed the protocol when the withdrawal agreement was first signed. –Additional reporting PA