DUP Boycotts NI Assembly Speaker Vote in Protest at EU-UK Customs Barrier
© AP Photo / Peter Morrison / Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson campaigns for the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly electionsDemocratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson campaigns for the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly elections
© AP Photo / Peter Morrison / Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson campaigns for the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly elections
The UK government has given Brussels an ultimatum to return to talks on the Irish Sea customs border before Downing Street invokes article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to remedy the "diversion of trade".
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will boycott the election of a new Northern Ireland Assembly speaker over the customs barrier imposed with the UK mainland.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson announced the move on Friday morning, hours ahead of the vote in the Stormont assembly.
The protest comes in support of unionist demands for the abolition of the trade barrier with Britain. The barrier was erected under the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol agreed with the European Union (EU).
"Devolution was restored on the basis of the 'New Decade, New Approach' agreement. We have seen delivery of, or significant progress towards, nearly every aspect of that document except one," Donaldson said. "That is the UK government's promise to legislate to respect Northern Ireland's place within the UK internal market."
The DUP, now the second-biggest party in the assembly with 25 out of 90 seats since last week's election, had already refused to nominate one of their Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) as deputy first minister as part of the customary power-sharing arrangement.
On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warned EU Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic that the UK would take steps to remedy the situation unless Brussels returned to the negotiating table with a compromise.
Article 16 of the protocol allows either side to take "appropriate safeguard measures" if the deal’s application disrupts trade or causes social unrest. It was an addendum to the 2020 withdrawal agreement that sought to maintain free trade between the continental bloc and the UK. Northern Ireland has been rocked by often violent unionist protests over the customs border since last year.
For its part, the EU has insisted on applying customs checks on goods moving between the mainland and the exclave, while banning the transport of certain goods, including chilled meats, sausages and potted plants.
Sinn Fein, Northern Ireland’s largest party with 27 seats, accused the DUP of sabotaging power-sharing.
"All parties should turn up, all parties should nominate and we should have an Executive up and running," Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said. "Is not acceptable or not good enough that the DUP won't turn up or won't nominate for the position of Speaker or the title of First or deputy First Ministers."
12 May 2022, 15:08 GMT
But Donaldson said republicans knew the crisis was coming months earlier.
"Some parties who just a few months ago were mocking the promise of decisive action from the DUP in relation to the protocol are the very same parties now feigning surprise and outrage at a political party keeping its promise to the electorate," the DUP leader said. "Twenty-eight months since that promise was made and 16 months since it should have been delivered, unionists cannot stand accused of lacking patience."
He went on to counter claims that modifying the protocol would jeopardise the 1999 Good Friday Agreement, rather arguing that the modification undermined guarantees to unionists in the peace deal which ended the 30-year 'Troubles'.
"Unionist concerns on the Northern Ireland Protocol are not merely some political squabble which is impacting upon Stormont," Donaldson stressed. "The protocol is a direct challenge to the principles that have underpinned every agreement reached in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years. It erodes the very foundations that devolution has been built upon."
UK Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of the leading advocates of leaving the EU in 2016, backed Donaldson's position.
"I think Jeffrey's position has been relatively clear that he believes the protocol is not functioning properly and needs reform," Rees-Mogg told Sky News. "I agree with Sir Jeffrey. I think that's a reasonable position, understandable position for him to take. We cannot allow the functioning of the European Union to undermine the United Kingdom."