Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, relegated to second place in historic elections, has rejected London’s appeal to join a new power-sharing executive.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s leader, told Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis in Belfast that the DUP would not nominate ministers to a new executive at Stormont “until we get decisive action” on trading arrangements that he said undermined Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.
The Stormont assembly will convene on Friday, but while legislators are expected to elect a new speaker, there appears no prospect that an executive will be formed—opening the door to up to 24 weeks of limbo when caretaker ministers and legislators would have limited powers. This could then trigger another election.
The electoral success of nationalist party Sinn Féin, long associated with the paramilitary Irish Republican Army and committed to Irish reunificationoverturned more than a century of unionist dominance in the region, which was created for the then largely Protestant unionist majority by the partition of Ireland in 1921.
The results mean that Sinn Féin is entitled to lead the next devolved administration. But under the 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of conflict between republicans fighting to oust British rule and loyalists battling to remain British, power must be shared between communities, and the DUP’s boycott could spark months of political paralysis.
“We had a meeting with the secretary of state. Until we get decisive action on the protocol, we will not be nominating ministers to the executive,” said Donaldson, referring to the Northern Ireland protocol, which imposes customs checks on goods traveling from Britain to the region in order to prevent the creation of a trade border on the island of Ireland.
While unionist parties won more votes overall than nationalist parties in Thursday’s elections, the majority at the Stormont assembly supports the protocol. Year analysis by Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University in Belfast, found 54 of the 90 elected legislators could accept the agreement with some changes vs 36 who want alternative arrangements.
Michelle O’Neill, who would become first minister if an executive could be formed, said Northern Ireland “can’t be used as a pawn in a game between the British government and the European Union . . . I worry that Brandon Lewis, the British government and the DUP are holding society to ransom”.
On Monday, the US department of state said: “We call on Northern Ireland’s political leaders to take the necessary steps to re-establish a power-sharing executive, which is one of the core institutions established by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Critical and immediate challenges. . . are best addressed through the collective efforts of a developed government chosen by, and accountable to, its people.”
Lewis has urged the parties to return to the executive and wants to find an agreed solution to the protocol row with the EU, but the DUP has given London an ultimatum: either the protocol or an executive, but not both.
Lewis said negotiations over the protocol should not stand in the way of setting up a new executive.
“Northern Ireland’s party leaders must come together to agree a way forward to deliver a stable and accountable devolved government,” he said in a statement. “We will continue to press the EU to agree the crucial changes that are urgently needed but will take nothing off the table in our pursuit of those solutions.”
Lewis also said London was ready to take other action if necessary — an apparent reference to planned legislation that could unilaterally rip parts of the deal up. That could trigger a trade war with Brussels.
But Donaldson, whom senior DUP sources expect will stay on as an MP at Westminster for now and take up his seat at Stormont only when he has clinched a deal, said the time for words was over. “It’s more important what the government is now going to do,” he said. “Action is now required.”
The EU is unlikely to offer any more concessions on the protocol, say diplomats in Brussels, because it believes the UK has largely ignored proposals it made in October to reduce red tape on goods entering Northern Ireland.
One EU diplomat said Brussels “has made a far-reaching offer on the Northern Ireland protocol. If the UK refuses to acknowledge this and to engage on this basis, might it then not be the time for the UK to honor its international obligations and simply implement what it has knowingly and willfully signed up to?”
Maroš Šefčovič, chief EU negotiator, appealed to London to “make the protocol work, rather than looking for ways to erode it”.
“As always, what does London want?” said a senior Irish official. “If London shows it is serious about finding a way through, the European Commission would respond. But not if they think it’s just more and more constant game-playing.”