DUP threatens to collapse Stormont ‘within weeks' in protest at Irish Sea border
The leader of the DUP has signalled his party will collapse the Stormont Executive within weeks if changes to Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol are not delivered.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also announced his party’s immediate withdrawal from cross-border political institutions established on the island of Ireland under the Good Friday peace agreement.
The moves are part of an intensification of the DUP’s campaign of opposition to post-Brexit arrangements that have created trading barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Mr Donaldson issued the warning on the future of Stormont in a keynote address in Belfast on the same day as European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic began a two-day visit to Northern Ireland.
Ahead of any move to pull ministers out of the coalition administration, a step that would bring down the powersharing institutions, Mr Donaldson said his party was first seeking to challenge the legality of checks on GB to NI trade introduced under the protocol and establish whether their implementation requires the approval of the Stormont Executive.
“In the final analysis those who are democratically elected by the people of Northern Ireland lack the power to prevent such checks, if that is the case, if our ministers cannot in the end prevent these checks taking place and if the protocol issues remain then I have to be clear, the position in office of DUP ministers would become untenable,” he said.
“If the choice is ultimately between remaining in office or implementing the protocol in its present form then the only option, the only option for any unionist minister would be to cease to hold such office.”
He added: “Within weeks it will become clear if there is a basis for the Assembly and Executive to continue in this current mandate, and I want that to happen.
“But, equally, we will also need to consider whether there is a need for an Assembly election to refresh our mandate if action is not taken to address and resolve the issues related to the protocol and its impact, its damaging impact on Northern Ireland each and every day.”
The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU as a way to maintain a free-flowing land border on the island of Ireland.
It achieves that by moving many of the checks and processes required on goods to the Irish Sea.
Source restrictions: Credit: DUP/Facebook
Under the arrangements, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market for goods and continues to apply EU customs rules.
Unionists in Northern Ireland have been vehemently opposed to its terms which see additional checks on goods arriving to the north from the rest of the UK.
They claim the arrangements have undermined Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.
While Sir Jeffrey said the DUP was withdrawing from north/south political bodies he said his party would seek to ensure continued cross-border co-operation on health issues.
“And let me be clear, as part of the proper functioning of all aspects of the political institutions I want the north/south institutions to work,” he said.
“Post Brexit, north/south and east/west relationships are, if anything, more important than ever.
“But they cannot operate in isolation or while strand three (of the Good Friday Agreement), the east/west relationship, has been undermined.
“There can be no dispute that the fabric of strand three has been fundamentally undermined by the protocol.
“In such circumstances unionists cannot be expected to operate strand two as though nothing had changed.”
The DUP leader said ministers would also seek to use their votes at the Stormont Executive to block the implementation of any additional checks at Northern Ireland ports when ongoing grace periods end.
He said the DUP would also oppose the passage of regulations at Stormont required to reflect any changes to EU law applying in Northern Ireland.
He warned that the government’s planned move to legislate for Irish language provisions at Westminster would further undermine devolution.
The UK Government agreed to the Sinn Féin demand in the summer after the republican party threatened not to re-enter the powersharing administration after failing to secure a firm timetable from the DUP on implementing what was a key plank of the 2020 New Decade New Approach deal that restored devolution.
“The proper place for such legislation is the Northern Ireland Assembly where it can receive the proper scrutiny and a balanced approach,” said Sir Jeffrey.
“Such a usurpation of the Assembly’s powers, without the consent of the Assembly, would be difficult at any time.
“But undermining the operation of strand one (of the Good Friday Agreement) as well as strand three at the same time would further undermine confidence in devolution and the operation of the Assembly from an already low base.
“The situation is further exacerbated when the New Decade, New Approach Deal is implemented on a one-sided basis and in the absence of the Government delivering on the NDNA commitment to ensure that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the UK internal market.
“For unionists such a situation is both intolerable and unsustainable.”
Responding to a question from media, the DUP leader said his party’s ministers in the Executive could resign within weeks if no action is taken against the protocol.
“We cannot sit and pretend as if it is business as usual, as if we’re prepared to accept this and not speak and not act and do something about it,” he said.
“I am very clear, government must honour all their commitments that they made because that’s the basis on which we entered in good faith, we entered the political institutions when devolution was restored.
“The government made a commitment to restore our place fully and protect our place fully within the UK internal market, and if they’re not going to do that within weeks, which what is required to stop the harm, the harm and damage that this protocol is doing to Northern Ireland, then that will have consequences.”
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said he will not withdraw his party from the Stormont Executive.
Mr Beattie said his party is also opposed to the protocol, but said he wanted to provide "pragmatic solutions and engagement".
"While the DUP will provide threats leading to instability and further harming our people here in Northern Ireland," he said.
"I certainly won't be asking my party to withdraw from the Executive when we are still dealing with a Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences on a health service which is facing challenges on an unprecedented scale.
"We simply cannot afford to have the Stormont institutions collapse and people, not least those hundreds of thousands on waiting lists, won't thank us for it.
"We will engage constructively and put forward practical solutions as we seek to replace the protocol. We continue to lobby rather than threaten.
"Unionism needs to show confidence in its own abilities. Now is not the time to retreat to the trenches.
"The UK Government's Command Paper provides a potential pathway out of the protocol mess and unionism should be using its influence within the democratic structures to hold the Government to account for delivering on it."
Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald branded Jeffrey Donaldson's threat to pull down Stormont as a "reckless, irresponsible and a short-sighted election stunt".
"They are threatening the stability of the political institutions when we are in the midst of the Covid pandemic, when the Tories are putting families and workers under pressure with more cuts, and when there is big work to do on the issues that matter to people's everyday lives - on hospital waiting lists, on schools, on housing and on jobs, and on rebuilding our economy," she said.
"The DUP is clearly in panic mode, driven by poor opinion polls they are focused on their own narrow self-interest ahead of the interests of workers, families and local businesses.
"Unionism has lost its political majority, the DUP is in disarray and their vote is in decline."
TUV leader Jim Allister described "fine words" from Mr Donaldson, but said "it is actions that count".
"Presenting the prime minister with the stark choice of saving the protocol or saving the Stormont institutions is a long-proclaimed TUV strategy, built on the realisation that if the price of Stormont is implementing the union-dismantling protocol then Stormont is unsustainable for any unionist who puts the union first," he said.
"Likewise operating north-southery while our east-west links are trashed is utter folly.
"The down payment on Unionist intent and determination should be the immediate ending of all Daera checks.
"The protocol, which the High Court says has already repealed the foundation of the economic United Kingdom, is a vehicle to destroy the union, having already delivered us into a foreign economic zone and subjected us to foreign laws.
"Hence, it is beyond redemption.
"It must go.
"Mere tinkering is not an option, nor is repackaging it as something capable of being controlled through new Belfast Agreement institutions, such aids, not inhibits the protocol and its building of the stepping stone of an all-Ireland economy."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also criticised the DUP stance, accusing the party of holding the people of Northern Ireland to ransom.
Mr Eastwood said the DUP steps were based on "selfish party political self-interest".
"People across Northern Ireland are sick of being held to ransom by political parties that put their own narrow self-interest above the interests of our communities and I do not believe that devolution could sustain another self-inflicted wound like this," said the SDLP leader.
"Whether it's the DUP or Sinn Féin, this behaviour has risked fatally damaging public confidence in politicians and the political process.
"The remarks made by the leader of the DUP this morning are disappointing, disproportionate and risk putting an end to devolution in Northern Ireland.
"I hoped that Jeffrey Donaldson's leadership would be pragmatic, aimed at resolving the challenges that Brexit has created for all of our communities and acknowledging the need for compromise.
"Instead we have a return to the incendiary rhetoric and threats that got us nowhere for three of the last four years."
He called on parties to work together to find solutions to issues around the protocol.
"Today's change in tone and tact from the DUP follows another bad poll for the party," said the Foyle MP.
"One party cannot be allowed to play Russian roulette with devolution for the sake of their own political position.
"The DUP leader must withdraw his threats, reflect on the consequences of bad faith with partners in government and work with everyone to find solutions to ensure devolution delivers for people.
"We are all sick of this lazy self-interested politics that puts the interests of political parties before the interests of people."
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic has called on politicians to "dial down the rhetoric" over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Mr Sefcovic was reacting after DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said his party could collapse Stormont within weeks if changes to the protocol are not delivered.
At the beginning of a two-day visit to Northern Ireland, Mr Sefcovic told the PA news agency that politicians needed to be calm on work on the "concrete problems".
He said: "I already had conversations with Sir Jeffrey a couple of weeks ago. I will see him this afternoon as I will see also the other political leaders.
"We will have the opportunity to discuss this face to face and my message will be let's work on the concrete problems.
"Let's focus on the issues which are the most important for the people of Northern Ireland, let's be constructive, let's dial down the political rhetoric, let's bring calm and focus on what is our task to accomplish.
"I know that Sir Jeffrey is a very experienced politician and I know that he wants the best for Northern Ireland and I can assure him that is my intention as well."
EU vice-president Maros Sefcovic said he wants to find out "face-to-face" what the problems are with the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Speaking after meeting business leaders in Newry, Mr Sefcovic said: "I came here to listen, to learn what are the concrete problems that the people of Northern Ireland are facing with the implementation of the protocol.
"But I am also here to talk about opportunities the protocol is bringing, especially to the economy and of course the people of Northern Ireland, and I am starting with the business representatives.
"I just had a very inspiring meeting with representatives of companies who told me over the last 10-15 years this border region was completely transformed thanks to the great co-operation between the EU, the UK and Ireland and it has brought a lot of business opportunities, it brought peace, it brought security and I think this is what we want to achieve also with the proper implementation of the protocol.
"I know there are some who are opposing, I know there are a lot of people who are supporting but I want really to hear from the stakeholders what are the concrete problems so we can focus on them and help to resolve the remaining outstanding issues."
Reaction from the Republic
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has called for the DUP not to wreck the political institutions of Northern Ireland.
Mr Ahern, who was one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, was responding to Jeffrey Donaldson who said his party would collapse Stormont if changes are not made to the Protocol.
"I understand what he is saying but there's a process and it's a very complicated process of dealing with Brexit and undertaking with how Brexit has to be dealt with," Mr Ahern said.
"I just wish people stuck with the process. I have no problem with people wanting changes or want amendments, but then stick with the process, don't bring down the institutions of Northern Ireland that are for the benefit of people of Northern Ireland.
"If you want to change the protocol then change the protocol, don't wreck a system that has equally got us through the pandemic in the north and working hard on it.
"I think he is quite within his rights to argue for changes, but don't wreck don't wreck a political system."
Bertie Ahern also said that the Irish Government is not the driving force of the Brexit negotiations.
"The Irish Government are just part, like other 27 countries, of the whole Withdrawal Agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union," the former Fianna Fail leader said.
"It's within that space that that has to be resolved
"The Irish Government has an input but they are not the driving force in it. This is where I don't get the logic.
"Why bring down the institutions or threaten to bring down the institutions in Northern Ireland to resolve a problem with 27 countries that don't know much about that?
"I just want to see the peace process work. I'm afraid the logic bypasses me."
The Republic's Foreign Affairs Minister said that "no positive agenda" is served by breaking down the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
Responding to the speech by Jeffrey Donaldson, Simon Coveney said: "We take unionist concerns in relation to the protocol seriously and we have consistently sought to listen and engage with those concerns, just as we have with the perspectives of everyone across Northern Ireland.
"The Taoiseach and Tánaiste met with Jeffrey Donaldson to discuss these issues in detail in the last two weeks.
"However, no positive agenda is served by blocking practical north/south cooperation or by the breakdown of the other institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
"The North South Ministerial Council has an important agenda this autumn, including on improving health services, managing environmental challenges, cooperating in education and investing in infrastructure.
"As we emerge from the Covid pandemic, we should be focused on working together to support communities and businesses across the island."
Simon Coveney added: "We believe people want to see a positive commitment from everyone to resolve issues, not the creation of any new cliff edges or instability.
"The EU is already listening closely to concerns in Northern Ireland and is ready to work in good faith to minimise friction.
"Vice President Sefcovic is in Belfast today listening to voices across the whole of Northern Ireland society and business and engaging on the issues, and the opportunities, around the protocol.
"Ireland has been, and will continue to be, a strong voice at EU level to encourage solutions and I look forward to speaking to Vice President Sefcovic tomorrow to engage further on the detail.
"Our focus should be on achieving positive progress. We remain confident that solutions do exist, within the parameters of the protocol, for the issues that have arisen."
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the DUP's assertion that it will collapse the Executive within weeks if changes to Brexit's Northern Ireland Protocol are not delivered, has "created new challenges".
Mr Martin said he is fully committed to maintaining the full operation of the Good Friday Agreement.
"I met with the (European Commission) vice-president Maros Sefcovic last evening, we had a very good comprehensive discussion," the Fianna Fail leader added.
"In terms of the meeting I had with Mr Sefcovic last evening and meetings I had on the weekend, with the UK side, I am clear that Europe is in solution mode, and that Europe wants to work hard within the existing arrangements to make the protocol work for the people of Northern Ireland.
"I hope that vice president Sefcovic went up today to listen and engage. From our perspective, we have listened to party views and met with all the other parties on this issue.
"What is clear is I think all parties would like to see a streamlining and more flexible operation of the protocol. The UK Government is saying to me that they want to get a solution."
Loyalist Communities Council
The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) welcomed Mr Donaldson's stance and said it expected him to "honour the commitments made today".
"The LCC hopes that HM Government and the European Commission will now realise the extent to which the Protocol is harming Northern Ireland and imperilling our peace process. If the Irish Sea border is not now rapidly abandoned all of unionism will expect the DUP to honour the commitments made today."