DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has warned that his party will not form a government in Northern Ireland until it is satisfied that its concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol are resolved.
Sir Jeffrey’s comments came after the historic assembly election of last week, which saw Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin emerge as Stormont’s largest party for the first time.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is part of the UK’s Brexit deal with the European Union and ensures that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland and maintains free trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic to the south.
However, the DUP has voiced its opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol for some time, over the fact that it dictates that checks must be carried out on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
This effectively creates an Irish Sea trade border which has angered unionists, who argue that it undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.
Following the election, the DUP is now being asked by both the UK and Irish governments to nominate ministers to the Stormont assembly but is refusing to do so in protest of the Protocol.
Although Sinn Féin is the largest party, it requires the DUP to nominate a deputy first minister under power-sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland. If the DUP does not do so, an assembly cannot be formed.
Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis met with local party leaders on Monday in Belfast, urging them all to respect the result of the election and form an assembly as quickly as possible.
Lewis also reassured that the UK government would address the Protocol and “continue to press the EU to agree the crucial changes that are urgently needed”.
But Sir Jeffrey has insisted that the DUP will not put ministers forward until “decisive action” is taken to resolve issues around the Protocol.
Sir Jeffrey said: “They [the UK government] 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-and-a-half years to honour that commitment.”
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill, who is now entitled to become Northern Ireland’s first minister, warned that that the DUP must not be allowed to “punish the public” over the Protocol.
O’Neill has said that the DUP and UK government are dutybound to respect the election result and that it was down to the UK government and EU to resolve trading issues.
She said: “Brinkmanship will not be tolerated where the north of Ireland becomes collateral damage in a game of chicken with the European Commission.
“Make no mistake, we and our business community here will not be held to ransom.”
The Republic of Ireland’s taoiseach [prime minister], Micheál Martin, also criticised the DUP’s move and said that it was acting wrongly by placing conditions on Northern Ireland’s power-sharing structure.
Martin said: “The mandate they all got was to take their assembly seats and get into the executive.”
Martin went on to suggest that the EU was committed to making the Protocol work more practically, but that it would not be removed entirely.
Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s chief negotiator in talks around the Protocol, has called on the UK government to be “honest” about exactly what it had committed to in the trading arrangements and that the UK needed to “dial down the rhetoric” over it.
But Doug Beattie, leader of another unionist party, the UUP, believes that if the Protocol is proving on obstacle to forming a new executive, then it must be resolved first.
Beattie said: “We all know what the landing zone is, no checks on goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland if they are staying in Northern Ireland. That gets rid of the border down the Irish Sea.
“The EU Commission know this; the UK government know this and all five political parties who would form the executive know this also.”
Although Sinn Féin’s support rose to see the nationalist party become the largest at Stormont, any talk of a referendum on Irish unity under the conditions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is premature.
The BBC reports that polls from April 2022 suggest that support for a united Ireland remains at roughly a third of the Northern Irish population, and the combined vote for the main parties supporting a referendum falling.
There are also more unionist MLAs that nationalist ones at Stormont following the election, with 35 unionists to 37 nationalist MLAs.
The Northern Ireland Act 1998 stipulates that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and “shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll”.
The legislation also outlines that a unity referendum should be held if it appears likely that a majority of people in Northern Ireland want to unify with the Republic.
Mary Lou McDonald, the president of Sinn Féin, suggested that any planning for a referendum on Irish unity would come within a “five-year framework”.
Image taken from Wikimedia Commons