McDonald warns Donaldson against collapsing powersharing over NI protocol

Sinn Féin president says calls to abolish protocol are ‘not grounded in reality’

 Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald has defended the Northern Ireland protocol. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald has defended the Northern Ireland protocol. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald has warned the incoming DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson that it would be a “huge error” to attempt to collapse powersharing in the North over Brexit issues.

The two spoke on Tuesday for the first time since Mr Donaldson’s selection as the DUP’s next leader, and Ms McDonald said they had agreed to meet next week.

“I said it would be a huge error, the DUP in particular, to attempt to bring down powersharing on the basis of political posturing around the [Northern Ireland] protocol,” Ms McDonald told reporters at a press conference following a speech to Sinn Féin party members and elected representatives in a hotel in west Belfast on Wednesday. The protocol is part of the EU-UK Brexit withdrawal agreement that ensures a special post-Brexit trading status for the North and has become a source of political tensions there amid objections in relation to it from the DUP.

“That is my strong view and I will share that view consistently, as will my colleagues, with the DUP,” she said. “Whether we can change their mind, you can take the odds and the bets on it.”

She also said she “reflected to him that this has been a very turbulent time within the DUP but that that has had a consequence for wider politics”, adding that “I think he agreed that re-establishing some order and calm and sense of stability is a priority matter”.

On Irish language legislation, the source of recent tensions within the DUP that led to the stepping down of recently installed party leader Edwin Poots, she said she “shared with him [Donaldson] the fact that the cultural package, An Acht Gaeilge, that matter is now settled”.

In her keynote address, Ms McDonald emphasised the importance of the powersharing institutions and delivered a warning that previous commitments must be honoured.

“In the days ahead it is critical that political stability must be restored. Sinn Féin stands ready to renominate Michelle O’Neill as Deputy First Minister.

“We don’t seek to humiliate or profit from the dysfunction within the DUP. But we will stand firm on basic rights and entitlements,” she said. “These are not up for discussion and they are not up for negotiation.”

The question facing Mr Donaldson, she said, was “whether he is up for real partnership, real powersharing, for political institutions that deliver?”

New Decade, New Approach

Ms McDonald emphasised that all of the North’s parties and the Irish and British governments had signed up to the New Decade, New Approach deal – which restored the North’s Assembly in 2020 and which includes commitments for the Irish language legislation and other cultural legislation – and said its implementation was “not a point of negotiation. It is an obligation.”

“The failure of the DUP to meet this basic political benchmark and to obstruct basic rights is not the basis upon which effective partnership government can be built,” she said.

Talk of abolishing the Northern Ireland protocol was “not grounded in reality”, she said, adding that progress on Wednesday on the post-Brexit grace period for the importation of chilled meats from Britain into Northern Ireland was evidence “solutions can be found” on issues relating to the protocol.

In regard to Brexit and the protocol, she said the DUP were “evidently not in step with broad public opinion, including so many within wider unionism”.

“Brexit and Brexiteers sought to isolate the North from the rest of Europe against the democratic wishes of a majority of the people,” she said.

“The DUP will be making another political error if they seek to endanger the political stability of the [North’s] institutions over the consequences and the outworkings of their Brexit policy.”

Ms McDonald called on the DUP to “work alongside the rest of us to meet the challenges and maximise the opportunities of the Irish protocol”.

“Business wants the protocol to work. They expect their political leaders to work together to deliver solutions to the practical challenges that they face,” she said.

Irish unity

Ms McDonald also reiterated her view that a referendum on Irish unity would come before the end of the decade. “I firmly believe that within this decade the people will have the opportunity to freely choose new constitutional and political arrangements on this island, as underpinned by the provisions of the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement,” she said.

“Everyone who has a stake in this transformation from across this island must be involved in designing what shape that takes. Far from diluting unionist tradition or British identity and culture in any future arrangements, these rights like others must be guaranteed.

“Last weekend Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar made a very welcome political intervention saying that the time to start planning for Irish unity is now. I hope that he and the Government of which he is a part is as good as his word and will start this process now.” Additional reporting – PA