Northern Ireland’s largest pro-British party threatened on Thursday to withdraw from the region’s power-sharing government unless big changes were made within weeks to the terms of Britain’s divorce deal with the European Union.
Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson demanded the removal of most of the new trade barriers between the British province and the rest of the United Kingdom that were introduced under the terms of the divorce settlement.
“Within weeks it will be clear if there is the basis for the (Northern Ireland) Assembly and Executive to continue in this current mandate or whether there is a need for an Assembly election to refresh our mandate,” Donaldson said in a speech in Belfast.
“If the choice is ultimately between remaining in office or implementing the protocol in its present form, then the only option for any unionist minister would be to cease to hold such office.”
Northern Ireland’s fate was the most contentious issue in Britain’s negotiations over its exit from the EU, which was completed last Dec. 31, and it is still causing friction.
To avoid imposing a hard border on the island of Ireland, Britain agreed — under what is known as the Northern Ireland protocol — to leave some EU rules in place in Northern Ireland and accept checks on goods arriving there from elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
London has since said the arrangement is not working and wants it changed. The EU rejects any renegotiation of the treaty.
Donaldson made his speech on the first day of a two-day visit to Belfast by European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic for talks on how to ease the impact of the protocol.
Donaldson said the DUP would seek to block any additional measures taken at the region’s ports to police the trade restrictions and look at grounds to take legal challenges against existing measures.
He said he would immediately halt cooperation with the government of the Republic of Ireland under the 1998 Belfast Agreement peace deal except in the area of health.
A withdrawal by the DUP from power-sharing with the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, and from so-called North-South cooperation, would undermine two of the pillars of the peace deal, which ended three decades of violence over Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom.
Donaldson, who took over as DUP leader in June, demanded there be no checks on goods trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, no regulatory border between the jurisdictions and that no laws be imposed on the region by the EU without input from Northern Ireland voters.
He also said street violence by youths opposed to the protocol may have just paused rather than ended.
Photo: (FILE) – The Statue of Lord Edward Carson in the grounds of Stormont Parliament Buildings, Belfast, Northern Ireland . EPA-EFE/PAUL McERLANE