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Taoiseach says EU wants 'solution' on NI Protocol after DUP leader threatens to force election

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said his party will collapse Stormont if their issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol are not resolved.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Sep 9th 2021, 5:39 PM

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has said Europe wants to find a “solution” on the Northern Ireland Protocol disupte after the DUP leader said the party would collapse Stormont unless it is resolved.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson threatened earlier today that his party will bring down the Stormont institutions “within weeks”, forcing an election if issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol are not addressed.

This afternoon, Martin said that Europe is in “solution mode” and wants to work hard within the existing arrangement to make the protocol work for the people of Northern Ireland”,

Speaking to reporters at the Fianna Fáil think-in in Co Cavan, Martin said that “from our perspective, the issue now is can we make this work”.

“What’s clear is all parties would like to see streamlining and more flexible operation of the protocol and that’s what we’re going to work on,” the Taoiseach said.

“It’s no secret that I’m passionately committed to maintaining the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and their full operation in all aspects north and south,” he said.

Martin said the DUP’s assertion that it will collapse the Executive if changes aren’t delivered has “created new challenges”.

“I met with the [European Commission] vice-president Maros Sefcovic last evening, we had a very good comprehensive discussion,” the Fianna Fail leader said.

Jeffrey Donaldson

In a speech in Belfast earlier today, Donaldson said the political, economic, and constitutional difficulties created by the protocol threaten prosperity in Northern Ireland and the quality of its status within the United Kingdom.

He said the constitutional guarantee which has underpinned political progress in Northern Ireland has been “fundamentally undermined by the protocol”. 

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.

Under the arrangements, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market for goods and continues to apply EU customs rules.

“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,” Donaldson said.

“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.”

Donaldson today also announced his party’s immediate withdrawal from north/south political structures established under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

These institutions include the North–South Ministerial Council (NSMC) and the North–South Implementation Bodies. 

While Donaldson 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.

Ahead of any move to pull ministers out of the coalition administration, Donaldson said his party was first seeking to challenge the legality of checks on Britain to Northern Ireland trade introduced under the protocol and establish whether their implementation requires the approval of the Stormont Executive.

Donaldson 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.

“It has been said before, but it will be the policy of the DUP to seek to frustrate and prevent such alignment. We cannot and will not accept a situation where we are required to endorse and implement EU laws, whilst having no say in how those laws are formulated,” he said.

“The Northern Ireland protocol requires certain aspects of EU law to apply in Northern Ireland but this can only happen if they are incorporated into Northern Ireland law.

“Over time a failure to incorporate such law will mean that Northern Ireland will increasingly diverge from EU law and would ultimately undermine the operation of the EU Single Market.”

Europe

European Commission vice-president Maros  has called on politicians to “dial down the rhetoric” over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The vice-president is in Northern Ireland for a two-day visit in which he will meet with business leaders and politicians to discuss issues with the implementation of the protocol, which has created trading barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Sefcovic, who is due to meet Donaldson this afternoon, said his “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,” he 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.”

Responding to the DUP leader’s comments, Minister of Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the government takes unionist concerns in relation to the protocol seriously.

Coveney said the Taoiseach and Tánaiste met with Jeffrey Donaldson to discuss these issues in detail in the last two weeks.

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“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,” he said.

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.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said the withdrawal of DUP ministers from north-south political bodies would also be a clear breach of the ministerial code at Stormont.

“The position set out by Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP today is a reckless, irresponsible and short-sighted election stunt,” she said.

“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.”

Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Colum Eastwood has said that the threat to devolution and the North-South institutions serves no community in Northern Ireland.

“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. Whether it’s the DUP or Sinn Féin, this behaviour has risked fatally damaging public confidence in politicians and the political process,” he said.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said his party will “provide pragmatic solutions and engagement while the DUP will provide threats leading to instability and further harming our people here in Northern Ireland”.

“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 the people, not least those hundreds of thousands on waiting lists, won’t thank us for it.”

With reporting from PA, Christina Finn and Lauren Boland

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