The leader of the Democratic Unionist party has given Boris Johnson until the end of October to solve the Northern Ireland protocol row just hours after the UK issued a veiled threat to the EU it would pull the plug on the Brexit arrangements.
At a private meeting with the prime minister in Manchester and later at a public event, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson warned that the party needed him to “take action within weeks” or he would force an election in Northern Ireland.
Donaldson, however, said he “was greatly encouraged” by what Johnson had told him on Monday morning and hoped significant progress could be made within three next three weeks.
The DUP leader was speaking shortly after the UK Brexit minister, David Frost, said Britain “cannot wait for ever” for the EU to respond to its demands to rewrite the Brexit arrangement.
Lord Frost said he had been waiting since July for a formal request for substantial changes to the protocol, which the UK has largely suspended over objections to checks on a range of goods, including sausages.
“We cannot wait for ever. Without an agreed solution soon, we will need to act, using the article 16 safeguard mechanism, to address the impact the protocol is having on Northern Ireland,” he said.
In a speech to the Conservative party conference declaring the “long bad dream of EU membership” over, Frost warned the EU that it must come back with “ambitious” proposals to renegotiate the protocol, which was drawn up to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Setting the scene for an imminent triggering of article 16, he said he was not confident the EU would meet his demands.
“From what I hear I worry that we will not get one [a response] which enables the significant change we need,” Frost said. “That may in the end be the only way to protect our country – our people, our trade, our territorial integrity, the peace process, and the benefits of this great UK, of which we are all part.”
The Ulster Unionist party and the Traditional Unionist Voice both support the protocol being scrapped altogether, saying triggering article 16 will only fix “a narrow trade issue” and not provide the solution to a broken UK.
The government is also coming under renewed pressure from the European Research Group of MPs to ditch the protocol completely.
The chair of the influential group of backbench MPs, Mark Francois, said its members knew the protocol was flawed when they voted for the withdrawal agreement in January 2020 but went into with their “eyes wide open”. He told the Guardian that the group viewed the protocol as “unfinished business” at the time and had faith in Frost and Johnson’s ability to renegotiate the arrangements.
Lord Trimble, one of the architects of the 1998 peace accord, said there was little point in waiting for the EU to renegotiate the protocol. “They will never change their position. We need to repudiate the entire arrangement.”
In his speech Frost blamed what he described as the EU’s “heavy-handed actions” for the unravelling of the protocol in Northern Ireland. “Cross-community political support for the protocol has collapsed,” he said.
His claims came days after business representatives in Northern Ireland warned that triggering article 16 would have a chilling effect on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and between Northern Ireland and the EU.
The EU’s ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida, who was in the audience, said there was “nothing strange” or unexpected in Frost’s speech, promising a response to the UK’s demands within the coming weeks.
“We are looking forward to the solutions in Northern Ireland. We are ready to be flexible,” said.
He told delegates Boris Johnson knew he was “taking a risk” when he agreed the protocol in the “difficult autumn” of 2019 but the risk was “a worthy one, in the cause of peace and protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement”.
But he added: “We worried right from the start that the protocol would not take the strain if not handled sensitively. As it has turned out, we were right.”