The Democratic Unionist party leadership has warned it is prepared to walk out of power-sharing in Stormont if the Brexit Northern Ireland protocol is not changed substantially.
Just days after the Brexit minister, David Frost, announced the UK would not “sweep away” the controversial arrangements, which involve checks on goods crossing into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, the DUP’s leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, warned the DUP could not continue in Stormont if the “protocol issues remain”.
While Frost moved on Monday to suspend parts of the protocol indefinitely, Donaldson upped the ante on Thursday, saying he wanted solutions within weeks.
“We are totally opposed to the protocol as it presently exists. We will neither accept it nor will we work it. In my assessment, the time frame for resolving issues can be measured in weeks and not months or years,” he said.
“If, in the final analysis, those who are democratically elected by the people of Northern Ireland lack the power to prevent such checks, and the protocol issues remain, then the position in office of DUP ministers would become untenable.
“Let me be clear: 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,” he said in a speech in Belfast.
He said the UK’s approach to “limit” the protocol was “doomed to fail” and it “is far better that we grasp the nettle now and have the matter settled once and for all”.
The remarks, in a speech on Wednesday morning, are the most serious threat by the DUP coming just 18 months after power-sharing resumed. The Belfast-based assembly was collapsed three years earlier after an acrimonious dispute with Sinn Féin.
It is a major political move for Donaldson, who took over from Arlene Foster as party leader in the summer. The DUP has slumped in the polls, leaking support to rival unionist parties.
His warnings coincide with the arrival in Belfast of the European Commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, Lord Frost’s counterpart in Brussels, for two days of meetings with political, business and civic leaders.
Donaldson noted that Esmond Birnie, a senior economist at the University of Ulster, recently suggested the cost of the protocol could be in the region of £850m a year.
“That is money we simply cannot afford to lose. And though I am alarmed by the constitutional implications of the protocol, it is assuredly not simply a unionist issue.”
He added that the Marks & Spencer chairman, Archie Norman, recently warned that customers in Northern Ireland could face a “substantial reduction in food supply” and price increases this year.
At the weekend Frost said he was seeking substantial changes to the protocol and wanted to trigger Article 13 (8) of the agreement, which allows for the agreement to be superseded.
But he said this did not mean axing the protocol, and in his vision the new arrangements would still include some checks in the Irish Sea.
“This is not simply a question of limiting checks at the border or moving the checks from the border. It must mean that, save for the most limited circumstances, EU law would not apply in Northern Ireland,” Donaldson said.