No political stability in North until protocol issues resolved, warns DUP leader

Taoiseach dismisses reports that Coveney has not contacted DUP leader in months

Border force officer checks paperwork at the NI Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) point of entry site at Belfast Port. Photograph: Liam McBurney/EPA

There will be no political stability in the North while unionist concerns over post-Brexit arrangements remain unresolved, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has warned.

The Lagan Valley MP said Boris Johnson had "badly" let down unionists by failing to focus on tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol, while he dealt with the so-called partygate controversy at Downing Street.

“The prime minister did let us down and let us down badly,” he said.

“At the Conservative party conference this year I met the prime minister – he apologised to me. The problem is we have had a lot of words about triggering Article 16 which the protocol allows the (British) government to do in circumstances where there is economic, societal or political harm caused by the protocol and yet we haven’t had any action.”

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Meanwhile, Taoiseach Micheál Martin dismissed reports that Mr Donaldson was put out that Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney had not contacted the DUP leader in months.

“We have been speaking to unionism and Jeffrey knows that,” he said.

“I met with Jeffrey and all of the unionist party leaders, as well as all of the leaders in Northern Ireland, before Christmas in November ... We spoke about the protocol issues.”

Mr Martin said there is an “open channel” between Dublin and the DUP and that Mr Donaldson “can ring me anytime” and that he can ring him.

Early elections

Mr Martin said there was not “necessarily” a need for early elections in the North and that all parties should be upholding the institutions set up under the Belfast Agreement.

“Pulling down the Executive or undermining the Executive for short-term electoral tactical purposes is not in my view acceptable,” he said.

Suspensions of the power-sharing Executive “on quite a number of occasions now” has resulted in people in the North having “lost faith and confidence in those institutions, which I think is a great pity”.

Sinn Féin’s national chairman Declan Kearney accused the DUP of sparking a political crisis in an attempt to avoid handing the First Minister role over to Sinn Féin after Assembly elections.

“It is a crisis about power sharing and whether unionism is prepared to accept that political power should be shared in this state,” he said, speaking at a commemoration of two IRA men - Phelim Grant and Charles McCann - who died after a bomb they were planting on a barge in Lough Neagh in 1972 exploded prematurely.

“At its core is the old mantra that ‘no nationalist need apply’; that no nationalist should apply for the position of First Minister.”

The South Antrim MLA said the DUP does not want power-sharing “unless it is on their terms.”

“They don’t want democracy, unless that is on their terms,” he added.

“The challenge which political unionism has created for itself now is whether it will accept the direction of change in this society. That is the political crux of the next Assembly election.”

The contentious Article 16 of the protocol allows the EU or UK to unilaterally suspend aspects of its operations if either side considers that aspect to be causing “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.

The protocol was negotiated as part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland by effectively keeping the North in the EU’s single market for goods.

Resulting additional checks on goods arriving into the region from Britain are opposed by unionists, who believe it threatens the constitutional status of the North within the UK.

DUP First Minister Paul Givan resigned from his post in the power-sharing Executive at Stormont on Thursday in protest at what the party sees as inaction on the protocol.

Mr Donaldson said he has repeatedly asked for a commitment from Downing Street that Article 16 will be triggered if there is no agreement between London and Brussels on removing the de facto trade border in the Irish Sea.

While he wanted to see political stability in the North, he said that can’t happen until the controversy over the port inspections and checks are resolved to the satisfaction of unionists.

“But we can’t have political stability when the concerns of unionists are being completely ignored, when the protocol is harming our relationship with the rest of the UK, and the government is failing to act,” he told Sky News.

Speculation

On the timing of Northern Ireland Assembly elections, expected in May but with some speculation about possibly bringing the date forward, Mr Donaldson said it was a matter for Britain’s secretary of state for the North Brandon Lewis to decide.

Despite polls showing Sinn Féin widening its lead on the DUP as the North’s largest party, which would allow it to nominate a First Minister if replicated at the ballot box, Mr Donaldson said he was “not contemplating defeat to Sinn Féin”.

His party is working to maintain “the DUP and unionism as the largest bloc in the Northern Ireland Assembly and in those circumstances I think we will have a DUP First Minister,” he said.

While he is committed to devolution and power-sharing “we cannot go on with the situation where the views and concerns of unionism and unionist parties in Northern Ireland are being ignored,” he added.

Mr Donaldson said “solutions have to found” and that he hoped that would happen before the Assembly elections.

Appealing to Mr Johnson to switch his focus from the partygate controversy to the Northern Ireland Protocol, Mr Donaldson said the British prime minister should follow the lead of his predecessors.

‘Serious problem’

“Recognise that we have a serious problem here and instead of being focused on what is going on in Downing Street, be the prime minister the people need, reach out to Northern Ireland, help us to resolve these issues, make this a priority,” he said.

“Let’s get our political institutions restored on the basis of sound foundations. That means dealing with the protocol.

“We can’t go on like this. We can’t go on with a situation where serious problems like we have here in Northern Ireland are not getting the attention they deserve.”

Mr Donaldson said the controversy surrounding parties in Downing Street during Covid-19 restrictions “is making it difficult for the prime minister to focus on what needs to get priority.”