DUP leader Edwin Poots has accused the EU for using Northern Ireland as a "plaything" over Brexit.
He also accused the EU of doing “demonstrable harm” to the peace process and said he is concerned of violence this summer due to anger over the Northern Ireland protocol.
Appearing on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Mr Poots said once the grace periods on post-Brexit checks on goods from Britain ends, there will be 15,000 checks per week at the region’s ports – more, he said, than take place in Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest port.
“We really need to ditch the protocol and ditch these checks because they are hugely damaging to the lowest paid workers,” he said.
Mr Poots said although the European Commission over the years “put their heart and soul into winning peace in Northern Ireland”, they currently “don’t seem to care for the peace process . . . that really needs to change, that attitude needs to change, they are doing demonstrable harm to every individual in Northern Ireland and it is having a devastating impact”.
He said the UK government had the grounds to trigger Article 16 due to economic and societal damage, which he described as “very evident”.
“This is the European Union seeking to punish the United Kingdom. As a consequence, Northern Ireland is being used as a plaything for the European Union,” the new DUP leader said.
“I can assure you Northern Ireland should be nobody’s plaything, we are citizens of the United Kingdom, we were citizens of the European Union and we deserve to be treated with the same respect as everyone else.”
Also appearing on the BBC programme, European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic rejected Mr Poots’s “plaything” accusation.
“We really do our utmost to make sure we demonstrate our total commitment to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and therefore we’ve been looking for the four years for the best solution to the very sensitive situation in Northern Ireland.
“I would like to hear from Mr Poots himself but also from other leaders of the political parties who form the Northern Ireland Executive, and discuss with them what we can do better,” he said.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the British and Irish governments and most people in Northern Ireland believed if there had to be checkpoints “the best place to have them is at one or two ports and airports, rather than multiple locations either within Northern Ireland, or along the six county Border”.
The Government is “willing to explore any suggestions that people have that minimise the checks, minimise the disruption to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland”.
Potential for violence
Newly ratified Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie warned against politicians playing up the threat of loyalist violence during the marching season as an inevitability.
“I have concerns that there are people who are frustrated, there are people who are angry out there, and it certainly could turn violent,” he said.
“But in the same respect, people do have the ability to demonstrate peacefully, and there is an opportunity to do that,” Mr Beattie said.
“There is deep anger about the Northern Ireland protocol among the unionist population, but I think it is really important and it is incumbent on people like me to not play up violence but to play down violence.
“I will stand with those that peacefully protest, I think that is important, but we do not need violence on our streets, and I think every politician needs to say that clearly, and not play it up as an inevitability,” Mr Beattie said.
Speaking to Newstalk’s On The Record with Gavan Reilly, the UUP leader said tensions over the protocol along with pandemic restrictions easing and issues around policing in the North could contribute to “a perfect storm” over the coming months.
The Upper Bann MLA insisted the post-Brexit arrangements create a “democratic deficit” in the North, which must continue to adhere to some EU rules under a deal struck by London and Brussels to avoid a hardening of the Border on the island of Ireland .
The protocol was slowly undermining peace in the North and “will over the next coming months and years undermine it even more”, he said, adding: “It genuinely concerns me.”
Mr Beattie also urged both Sinn Féin and the DUP to avoid a snap Assembly election, amid speculation Mr Poots will imminently reshuffle his ministers, a move his predecessor Arlene Foster has said will mean her resigning early as First Minister.
An early election “would be destabilising, particularly in the environment there is now” and the two largest parties need to “keep the train on the tracks”, he said. – additional reporting PA