Northern Ireland’s pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was on Friday set to block the restart of the British province’s new assembly in Belfast, in protest at post-Brexit trade arrangements.
The DUP, which came second in last week’s elections to the Stormont assembly, said it will obstruct the selection of a speaker to the devolved legislature, effectively leaving it unable to function.
Newly elected and returning members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) began sitting at 12:00 pm (1100 GMT) to officially register their membership of the Stormont legislature.
But DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson announced beforehand that his party would not support the selection of a speaker, to send a “very clear message to the European Union and to our government, that we are serious”.
In its election campaign, the DUP said it would boycott the assembly until the issues it has with trading arrangements, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, were addressed.
Signed as part the UK’s exit from the European Union, the protocol provides checks on goods heading to Northern Ireland from the British mainland and keeps the province mostly under European trading rules.
Unionists have said that by erecting a trade border in the Irish Sea, the protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s constitutional place in the UK and threatens the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
“Consensus is the key principle at the heart of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement… not a single Unionist MLA elected to this assembly and taking their seats today supports the protocol,” Donaldson said.
“Therefore we look to the (UK) government now… to take the action that is necessary to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom,” he added.
Pro-Ireland Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill said the DUP was “disgracefully holding the public to ransom for their Brexit mess”.
– Ransom –
O’Neill, whose party won the Stormont elections, would be set for nomination as the first nationalist leader in the province’s 101-year history were it not for the DUP boycott.
The standoff in Northern Ireland comes as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government threatens unilateral action to override parts the protocol with legislation next week, putting it on a collision course with the European Union.
According to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, a US congressional delegation is set to arrive in Northern Ireland in a matter of days amid growing international concern over the impasse.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Johnson’s former Brexit negotiator David Frost said that though the UK had been right to agree to the protocol in 2020, it “has no option now other than to act unilaterally to disapply part or all of” it.
“There is an imminent threat to our ability to govern Northern Ireland,” Frost added, calling possible EU retaliation on trade tariffs “disproportionate”.
Europe’s chief negotiator on the issue, Maros Sefcovic, on Thursday said unilateral action on the part of London to suspend the protocol “is simply not acceptable”.
“This would undermine trust between the EU and UK as well as compromise our ultimate objective –- to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.
“Upholding the rule of law and living up to international obligations is a necessity,” he added.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, London’s minister for Brexit opportunities, told GB News television he believed that Brussels “wants to make the UK feel bad about having left the European Union”.
“That underpins its whole policy and it doesn’t really mind about the consequences of that,” he added.
EU member Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney said any unilateral UK action would be undemocratic as 53 of the 90 MLAs at Stormont supported the protocol.
Should they trigger the protocol’s suspension clause, they “would be deliberately acting in an anti-democratic way” and breach international law.