Northern Ireland news

Naomi Long: Would be foolhardy for DUP to overplay their hand with Protocol

 Alliance Party leader Naomi Long with her party's newly elected MLAs in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings at Stormont
Rebecca Black, PA

The DUP has been warned not to be “foolhardy” to “overplay their hand” in demands for the British Government to take action over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

MLAs returned to Parliament Buildings on Monday following a dramatic election result at the weekend which saw Sinn Féin became the largest party.

The centre-ground Alliance Party made significant gains, increasing its seat count by nine to 17, becoming the third largest party at Stormont behind the DUP.

Leading her enlarged team into Stormont on Monday morning, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long  told the media they were turning up for work as they had promised voters during their election campaign.

“I want us to sit down, get the negotiations under way on the programme for government and the budget, and I want to see us getting government up and running as quickly as possible,” she said.

“We’re going to see a functioning Assembly hopefully pretty soon – that will be the easier part of all of this – but to get a functioning Executive we need the DUP to step up to the plate. With power comes responsibility, and people now need to take the responsibility seriously.

“I think the DUP need to reflect on their mishandling of Brexit, on the fact they had huge influence at Westminster and overplayed their hand.

“It would be foolhardy for them to overplay their hand with devolution because that is a gamble that Northern Ireland can’t afford to take.”

 Alliance Party leader Naomi Long with her party's newly elected MLAs in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings at Stormont

Ms Long was also critical of statements by government ministers that the Northern Ireland Protocol is threatening the Good Friday Agreement and preventing formation of government at Stormont.

“What is threatening the Good Friday Agreement is the British Government not playing an open hand with the people of Northern Ireland, using and abusing the protocol as an issue to try to garner support for their own cause,” she said.

“I think it’s time for the UK Government to resume its role as an honest broker in this process, to be open and honest with the people of Northern Ireland, with the political parties about what is possible and what is not.

“Ultimately this is Boris Johnson’s baby, the protocol was birthed on his watch. There is no point in telling us now it’s a disaster – it’s up to him to provide solutions, and those solutions have to be agreed with the European Union because that is the only thing that will bring certainty and clarity that business needs.”

The Prime Minister does not plan to be personally involved in the Northern Ireland talks, Downing Street has said.

On what the British Government can do to encourage the different sides to share power, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is meeting the five main political parties today to that end.

“The people of Northern Ireland deserve a stable and accountable devolved government that delivers on the issues that matter most of them and that’s, that’s our focus. He will be meeting with the party leaders with that in mind.”

He added: “I think the first thing to do is to meet with them all and listen to the issues that they raise. Encourage people to form that accountable government that is needed.”

On whether there is any plan for the Prime Minister to get personally involved in the talks or involved in the talks with the EU, he said: “No plans for that. This has been led by Brandon Lewis.”

Visit out Assembly Election result hub

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he told Secretary of State Brandon Lewis that his party will not nominate ministers to the Stormont powersharing Executive without “decisive action” on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Speaking following a meeting in Belfast, he said: “We have had a meeting this morning with the Secretary of State and we have made our position clear to him.

“It is the position we have held before the election, throughout the election campaign and will continue to hold, and that is until we get decisive action taken by the UK Government on the protocol we will not be nominating ministers to the Executive.

“We want to see stable political institutions, we want to be part of the Executive, we want to play our part and fulfil the mandate we were given by the people of Northern Ireland.

“We are also clear given the damage and harmful impact the protocol continues to have on Northern Ireland, driving up the cost of living, harming our economy, impeding the ability of businesses to trade with our biggest market and fundamentally undermining political stability, undermining the principle of consensus politics.

“We need this to be resolved.

“When we re-entered the Executive back at the beginning of 2020 we did so on the basis of a clear commitment by the UK Government under the New Decade, New Approach agreement to address and protect our ability to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom.”

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that action was now required from the UK Government over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The DUP leader said: “I am not asking them to do anything that they have not already committed to.

“They gave a firm commitment to protect our place in the UK internal market.

“They have not done so, they have failed over the last two-an-a-half years to honour that commitment.

“We made clear to the Secretary of State that until he honours his commitment, the obligations that they entered into in New Decade, New Approach, we will not be nominating ministers to the Executive.

“That is our position. We look to what the Government is now going to say, but more fundamentally important is what the Government is going to do.

“Action is what is required and the sooner it happens, the better for all of us.”

The Stormont Executive has been unable to fully function since February when First Minister Paul Givan resigned as part of the DUP’s efforts to force action against the Northern Ireland Protocol.

This means Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader, Michelle O’Neill, is in line to become the first nationalist or republican First Minister.

However the DUP, as the second largest party, must nominate a deputy First Minister to serve alongside her in the joint office.

Sir Jeffrey has signalled that the British Government must act over concerns about the post-Brexit trading arrangements before his party will nominate ministers to a new Executive.

On Sunday, his party colleague, Jonathan Buckley, said: “Either the Secretary of State wants an Executive, or a protocol – he can’t have both.”

 Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill with her party's newly elected MLAs outside Parliament Buildings at Stormont, Belfast

Downing Street has played down reports of a Cabinet rift over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

When asked about the Government’s position on the protocol and whether there are divisions within Cabinet over proposals to unilaterally scrap it, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “I wouldn’t say that at all.

“I think our preference has always been for a negotiated solution to fix the protocol and we have been clear that we will take further steps if solutions can’t be found.

“No decisions have yet been taken on the way forward. The Deputy Prime Minister made clear the situation, it’s very serious.”

He insisted the proposals put forward by the European Commission “don’t go anywhere near far enough to make the protocol sustainable”, adding: “We believe (they) would take us backwards from where we are today. So, no decisions have been taken. But we do reserve the right to take action.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman’s comments come as The Telegraph reported Liz Truss faces Cabinet opposition, particularly from Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Communities Secretary Michael Gove, to her plans to rip up the protocol.

Mr Lewis is due to have a call with Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney following his meetings with the parties.

“The people of Northern Ireland deserve a stable and accountable devolved government and I will continue to urge the leaders of Northern Ireland political parties to fulfil their responsibilities and form an Executive as soon as possible,” he said.

 Newly placed portraits of Peter Robinson, Arlene Foster, Michelle O'Neill and Paul Given at Parliament Buildings at Stormont, Belfast, following the historic result at the weekend with Sinn Fein overtaking the DUP to become the first nationalist or republican party to emerge top at Stormont. Picture date: Monday May 9, 2022.

“This process must begin with the nomination of an Assembly Speaker to allow legislation to progress and address the important issues affecting the people of Northern Ireland.

“We have to address the outstanding issues relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and we want to do that by agreement with the EU, but, as we have always made clear, we will not shy away from taking further steps if necessary.

“However, the people of Northern Ireland need a stable and accountable government that delivers on the issues that are important to them. That is why we urge the parties to come together and form an Executive.

“I will remain in close contact with the party leaders, but it is for the parties to agree on a way forward.

“New Decade New Approach specifically introduced measures to support a process led by the parties. This is in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland and I urge the Northern Ireland parties to work together towards a brighter future.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said his party will not nominate another infrastructure minister to sit in a “zombie Executive”.

A vacancy arose after Nichola Mallon lost her Assembly seat in North Belfast in the recent elections.

Mr Eastwood said it would be undemocratic for his party – which was returned with a reduced mandate – to be in the Executive.

The party leaders are due to meet at Parliament Buildings later in the afternoon.

 Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald, and Sinn Fein Vice-President Michelle O'Neill leaving rskine House, Belfast, after their meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis,

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Northern Ireland news