The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will not agree to a new power-sharing assembly in Northern Ireland until the protocol issue is resolved, according to trade unionists in Stormont.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the protocol undermined the foundations of Northern Ireland’s institutions. “It changed our constitutional status without our consent,” he said. “We have to deal with it.”
The nationalist Sinn Fein party, which hoped to install its leader as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland for the first time, accused the DUP of “punishing the public”.
“They are shamefully holding the public to ransom for their Brexit mess,” said Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill.
Without a Prime Minister or even President of the Assembly, the newly elected members (deputies) cannot sit and the Assembly cannot function.
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The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed and ratified by London and Brussels in 2020. It allows free movement of goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland to the south across the shared land border.
EXPLAIN What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
It is a crucial communication link allowing medical care, access to education, social access as well as commerce. But it also keeps Northern Ireland in the EU single market.
Post-Brexit checks are now required between the UK and the EU, as Britain now works to different environmental, labor and production standards than the European Union. Sausages made in Britain, for example, may breach European regulations.
So the checks are taking place at Northern Ireland’s sea border with the UK – which trade unionists and the UK government say is putting an intolerable strain on the local economy and needs to be reworked.
It is the fight that is currently turning sour between Westminster and Brussels with negotiations led by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic.
Public language is getting harsher and Britain is threatening to explore options the EU says would breach 2020 agreements and hinting at retaliation.
President Biden is deploying diplomats to monitor the situation and has already warned Boris Johnson not to renege on the protocol agreement.
The protocol’s popularity in Northern Ireland is now the subject of debate. Nationalists claim he has more public support than Westminster and Unionists say so.
Michael Pierse of Queen’s University Belfast says the moderate vote that worked well in recent elections could indicate greater enthusiasm for the protocol.
He says the DUP may now “further alienate” moderate trade unionists who may begin to question whether Northern Ireland will ever be able to function “as normal under the current arrangements”.
The Stormont Assembly is 100 years old and the Good Friday Agreement will be 25 next year.
Even so, for the first time in modern history, the whole notion of this style of decentralized government is, to many, beginning to look tired.
Cover picture: Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). /Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters