Northern Ireland First Minister Paul Givan has announced his resignation from Stormont's powersharing Executive.
He told reporters on Thursday evening: “Today marks the end of what has been the privilege of my lifetime – to serve as the First Minister of Northern Ireland. When I first entered the Assembly 12 years ago, I never expected to have the opportunity to lead the Government and serve the people of Northern Ireland as First Minister.
“Holding this office is one that comes with a heavy responsibility and I have often felt the weight of this burden, to do what is right for all out people.”
In a statement immediately after Mr Givan’s announcement, the Northern Secretary, Brandon Lewis, said the decision by the DUP to withdraw the First Minister from the Northern Ireland Executive was “extremely disappointing”.
“I urge them to reinstate the First Minister immediately to ensure the necessary delivery of public services for the citizens of Northern Ireland.”
Under the rules of the power-sharing administration at Stormont it means the Deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, will also cease to hold office at that time.
Mr Givan's resignation is part of the DUP's ongoing protest against the Northern Ireland protocol, which led the Minister for Agriculture, Edwin Poots, to order a ban on post-Brexit checks at the North's ports from midnight on Wednesday.
The DUP has repeatedly threatened to withdraw its ministers from the Stormont Executive if sufficient changes are not made to the Northern Ireland protocol.
Previously the resignation of the First Minister would have triggered a potential crisis by starting a seven-day countdown to nominate candidates to both positions or the political institutions could have collapsed.
However legislation expected to be completed at Westminster next week - which is aimed at strengthening the sustainability of the Stormont institutions - will allow the Assembly to continue for an initial six-week period, which could be further extended.
This will apply retrospectively even though it has not yet become law.
In a speech in Belfast the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said Mr Givan’s resignation would take effect from midnight tonight.
Speaking to reporters in Belfast on Thursday evening, the DUP leader said the party had been left with no alternative.
He said he had given the UK Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, a deadline of January 31st for progress.
“I said that we needed to know by the end of January that there was the prospect of real progress and the evidence of that progress. And if agreement could not be reached, that we had a commitment from the Government to trigger Article 16.
“As I stand before you now, after the 31st of January, I have not received any such commitment from the UK Government.
“Therefore, I believe the actions that I’ve taken and I forewarned of back in September are necessary to bring this matter to a head, to a conclusion, and to find the solutions that the people of Northern Ireland need.”
Meanwhile Sinn Féin has called for an early election at Stormont in response to the resignation.
Mary Lou McDonald said: “I want to be clear, we cannot stagger on in the months ahead without a functioning executive. Sinn Féin will not facilitate this.
“So in the absence of a functioning executive, an early election must be called and the people must have their say.
“This is one of those defining moments. We can do so much better than this chaotic theatre. Powersharing can work, but it can only work if parties involved are committed to it.
“Good government can deliver, of that there is no doubt. And that is what we, and we believe the other parties, wants to see happening.
“So if today’s behaviour and decisions of the DUP show anything, it is again demonstrable evidence that we live in a time for real change, and this includes the prospect of constitutional change, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement.”
With an election expected to take place on May 5th, the Assembly must cease sitting by the end of March to allow for the six-week election period.
However while the Assembly will continue to sit, it will be unable to take any new significant or cross-cutting decisions, which will leave a question mark over decisions which are currently in the pipeline, including a three-year budget which is currently out for consultation.
The DUP’s move has sparked criticism from the other political parties in the Northern Executive, who have accused them of a political stunt ahead of the Assembly election.
DUP rivals at Stormont insist Mr Poots’s direction is unlawful and civil servants are obliged to follow the law at all times.
The European Commission’s vice president Maros Sefcovic has said that checks from Britain into Northern Ireland must continue and the European Union will monitor to ensure they are being performed.
The EU’s point man on post-Brexit talks met with his counterpart UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss over videoconference to discuss the issue, which has been thrown into upheaval by political events in Northern Ireland.
Mr Sefcovic condemned an announcement by Northern Ireland agriculture minister Edwin Poots that he would instruct officials not to perform checks, and called for Britain to respect its international obligations.
“We see the recent instruction by the Northern Irish Minister for Agriculture to cease sanitary and phytosanitary checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as being very unhelpful,” Mr Sefcovic said in a statement.
“It creates uncertainly and unpredictability for the people and businesses in Northern Ireland. These checks are necessary for Northern Ireland to benefit from access to the EU’s Single Market for goods,” he added.
“The Protocol, the cornerstone of the Withdrawal Agreement, is an international agreement. It is therefore the UK government’s responsibility to uphold its legal obligations stemming from the Protocol.”
Despite the announcement by Mr Poots, checks are continuing to be performed on arriving goods according to the Commission.
“It is essential that this remains the case. The European Commission will closely monitor the developments on the ground,” Mr Sefcovic said.
British and EU officials are to continue talks on the Protocol next week and Mr Sefcovic and Ms Truss are to speak again on Friday.
“I believe we must stay laser-focused on practical challenges raised by Northern Irish stakeholders,” Mr Sefcovic said.
The European Commission has said the decision by Mr Poots creates “further uncertainty and unpredictability for businesses and citizens”.
An EU spokesperson said: “The European Commission has been working tirelessly with the UK government to address practical challenges related to the implementation of the protocol. The decision by the Northern Irish Minister for Agriculture is therefore unhelpful.
“The European Commission will closely monitor developments in Northern Ireland pursuant to this announcement.”
On Thursday, officials from Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) and the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told industry groups on a call that they should continue following procedures for border checks at the ports.
Vice-president of the European Commission Maros Sefcovic is due to meet UK foreign secretary Liz Truss on Thursday afternoon to continue talks on the protocol.
“He will recall that controls on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain are a key element of the protocol,” the spokesperson said. “They are necessary for Northern Irish business and citizens to continue to benefit from access to the single market for goods. They are also necessary to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.”
Lorries were still being received at a Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs checking facility in Belfast Port earlier on Thursday morning.
Several vehicles entered the facility after the ferry arrived from Cairnryan in Scotland at 6am.
A staff member declined to confirm whether the agri-food checks required under the protocol were continuing.
The picture is further clouded due to the fact some of the port checks have been delegated to local council staff, while UK Border Force personnel also have a presence at the facilities. It is unclear what would happen to their roles if the agriculture department staff withdrew.
Mr Poots’s direction only relates to the sanitary and phytosanitary checks required by the protocol. The customs procedures on Irish Sea trade are unaffected by his instruction.
Announcing the move on Wednesday, Mr Poots said legal advice he had sought on the issue supported his view that he was entitled to stop the checks.
The UK government has said it will not intervene in what it has characterised as a matter that falls within the Stormont Executive.
Government critics dispute this contention, highlighting that the UK has a duty under international law to abide by the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. – Additional reporting: PA