NI Protocol: First Minister sets February 21st as potential talks deadline

Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill met UK chief post-Brexit negotiator Liz Truss

DUP First Minister Paul Givan talks to the media at Stormont in Belfast after meeting  foreign secretary Liz Truss. Photograph: David Young/PA Wire

DUP First Minister Paul Givan talks to the media at Stormont in Belfast after meeting foreign secretary Liz Truss. Photograph: David Young/PA Wire

 

The North’s First Minister has set February 21st as a potential deadline for progress to be made in negotiations between the EU and the UK on the Northern Ireland protocol.

The DUP’s Paul Givan was speaking after he and the Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin, met the UK’s foreign secretary and chief post-Brexit negotiator Liz Truss and the Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis, at Stormont House in Belfast on Thursday.

The DUP has repeatedly threatened to withdraw its ministers from the Northern Executive - potentially collapsing the power-sharing institutions - if changes are not made to the Irish Sea border.

Ms O’Neill said the majority in Northern Ireland wanted the protocol to work and accused the DUP of “undermining politics”.

Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland are opposed to the protocol which they claim is creating economic hardship and undermines the North’s constitutional status as part of the UK.

A meeting of the Joint Working Committee on the Brexit withdrawal agreement is due to take place on February 21st.

Mr Givan said it would be a “very significant date in terms of what progress will have been made or not made.”

He warned “we need to see that progress, we need to see that imminently and we also need to see action taken by the UK government if there isn’t an agreed outcome.”

Port Checks

The First Minister also confirmed his party colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Edwin Poots, would act to halt post-Brexit checks at Northern Ireland’s ports after a DUP paper formally asking the Executive to retrospectively approve the checks was blocked by Sinn Féin.

Mr Givan said he believed it was “a mistake on the part of Sinn Fein not to have allowed it into the Executive because for those checks to continue requires the Executive to agree that - that’s why we believe that the checks continuing would be unlawful.

“That requires Edwin Poots as the minister to act in a way that will resolve that issue and Edwin Poots is going to act.”

Ms O’Neill described it as “stunt politics” and said it was “yet another staging post for DUP and their election campaign.

“He [MR POOTS]has a responsibility, and the [DEPARTMENT’S]permanent secretary has responsibility, regardless of what the minister says, that they have to deliver upon the checks because that is an international agreement.”

However Mr Givan appeared to step back from the warning made by his party leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, who said on Wednesday he could not guarantee Mr Givan would still be First Minister next week.

“I hope I am still in this position next week,” Mr Givan said, “because there are huge issues that we need to deal with as an Executive.

“That is why it is critical the UK government take action, why it is critical they get an agreed position with the European Union, and if they don’t get that then let the UK government take action because the people of Northern Ireland need us to be here delivering.”

‘Deal to be done’

The deputy first minister accused the DUP of undermining the stability of Stormont, saying it was “a moveable feast in terms of this issue of dates and when they’re going to act and when they’re going to do something.

“What remains consistent is that they’re undermining politics, they’re undermining everybody else’s ability to deliver a three-year budget to tackle waiting lists, to employ more nurses, to employ more doctors, to bring forward the organ donation bill, to bring forward more all of the pieces of legislation that are coming towards an end point.”

She said Ms Truss had “repeated her words that there is a deal to be done” and that she was working to find solutions but this was “yet to be seen in terms of striking an agreed way forward.

“She needs to hear loud and clear that the DUP do not speak for the majority here. She needs to hear loud and clear that triggering Article 16 serves no purpose other than to cause more uncertainty and she needs to hear the reality on the ground that the majority here want the protocol to work and they want solutions to be found,” Ms O’Neill said.

Speaking after meetings with politicians and business leaders in Northern Ireland on Thursday, Ms Truss said she wanted “a deal that works for everyone”.

“We are making progress. We’re having constructive talks,” she said. “I want to make significant progress by February. That’s important but it’s important that we secure the support of all of the communities in Northern Ireland, including the unionist community.”