DUP petition on Northern Ireland Protocol gets Westminster debate date

Arlene Foster said people right across the unionist community are "very angry" about the protocol and the way in which the Belfast Agreement has been interpreted by the Irish Government, Brussels and London. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire
Rebecca Black and David Young, Press Association

A call by the DUP to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol is to be debated at Westminster later this month.

More than 100,000 people signed a petition calling for the emergency move by the party within 24 hours.

The UK and EU have reiterated their "full commitment" to the new arrangements governing Great Britain-to-Northern Ireland trade post-Brexit.

But DUP leader Arlene Foster said there "has to be a recognition in London, Dublin and Brussels that damage has been done by this protocol and therefore we have to deal with it".

She said there must be unfettered trade and urged the UK Government to step up and protect Northern Ireland with "permanent solutions, not sticking plasters".

Mrs Foster received notice today that the petition will be debated in the House of Commons on February 22.

"I think it was an indication of how strongly so many people right across the United Kingdom felt about the issue that that petition took off in the way that it did," she said.

Mrs Foster said there is anger and concern among the unionist community about how the Belfast Agreement is being interpreted in Dublin, Brussels, and "sadly London".

"I have been saying that as first minister and DUP leader, my former colleague and friend Peter Robinson said as much again today writing for the News Letter," she said.

"I think that is a very good article and people should read what has been in there and the way in which the Belfast Agreement has been misused."

Mrs Foster said the Belfast Agreement has three parts, the parties in Northern Ireland, the North/South dimension and the East/West dimension.

"Once you start damaging one of those strands of the Belfast Agreement, then it does have an impact on the overall operation and I have been saying that for some time," she said.

"People need to listen to what we're saying, they need to take heed of what is being said by the unionist community and I hope that the message is being heard in London, and in Dublin and Brussels because we need to deal with this issue and deal with it quickly."

Mr Robinson told Northern Ireland unionists they could not oppose the protocol at the same time as being part of an administration that implements it.

The former first minister said only extreme action by unionists was likely to extract any significant changes to the protocol.

He indicated that unionists effectively face a choice of learning to live with the new arrangements or collapsing Stormont's powersharing institutions.

Mr Robinson highlighted that the latter course of action would potentially impact Northern Ireland's fight against Covid-19.

"Is the scrapping of the protocol more important than the continued operation of the Assembly?" he wrote in the Belfast News Letter.

"A choice may have to be made."

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and the European Commission's vice president Maros Sefcovic held talks last night aimed at finding resolution to issues with the protocol's first six weeks of operation.

A joint statement issued at the conclusion said Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic had a "frank but constructive discussion" in which they agreed to "spare no effort" in implementing solutions.

The two politicians agreed to convene the joint committee tasked with implementation of the protocol no later than February 24 to provide "the necessary political steer".

The protocol requires regulatory and customs checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but it has caused disruption to trade since it came into force on January 1, with various grace periods in operation.

Unionists in Northern Ireland are deeply concerned about the arrangements, insisting they have driven an economic wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

They have called on the UK to trigger a mechanism within the protocol, Article 16, which enables the Government to unilaterally suspend aspects it deems are causing economic, societal or environmental problems.

However, the EU and UK statement yesterday did not indicate either side was currently willing to contemplate ditching the arrangements.

In the joint statement, the two sides had agreed to find "workable solutions on the ground" and to further engage with business groups in Northern Ireland.

Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic also reiterated their "full commitment" to the Good Friday Agreement, and impacting as "little as possible" on those living in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, according to the joint statement.

Following the meeting, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney described it as a "good day's work" and said the focus was now on co-operation between the EU and UK to implement the protocol.

Unionist demands for Article 16 have intensified since the EU briefly triggered the mechanism itself, though swiftly backtracked on the move, amid its efforts to restrict the export of Covid vaccines out of the bloc.

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