Northern Ireland’s (NI) Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have warned they will collapse the Stormont government, unless serious changes are made to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which currently imposes trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Britain.
On Thursday, DUP leader, Jeffery Donaldson, announced that his party are willing to end the power sharing agreement with Irish Nationalist party, Sinn Féin, and withdraw from North-South Ministerial Councils, both of which were established after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) as a means of resolving conflict on the island.
Following the UK’s divorce from the EU, The Northern Ireland Protocol was devised as means of avoiding customs checks and a subsequent hard border between NI and the Republic of Ireland, which stood to violate the terms of the GFA and provoke the ire and potential repercussions from the nationalist community.
Subsequently, the Protocol establishes the border between the EU and UK along the Irish sea, meaning NI has remained a de-facto part of the EU customs Union, and single market in relation to the movement of goods. Trade from Britain to NI is now subject to a series of bureaucratic hurdles and checks, which Donaldson and his party have deemed unacceptable.
“If our ministers cannot in the end prevent these checks taking place and if the protocol issues remain” said Donaldson, “then I have to be clear, the position in office of DUP ministers would become untenable”.
“If the choice is ultimately between remaining in office or implementing the protocol in its present form then the only option, the only option for any unionist minister would be to cease to hold such office”, he continued.
The announcement also arrives during a two-day visit to Belfast from European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic. Westminster has previously urged the EU to take a more flexible, risk-based approach in Northern Ireland, in an effort to allow the free flow of goods and services around the UK.
However, facing accusations of negotiating in bad faith for failure to live up to agreements, and unilaterally suspending measures, has arguably reinforced Brussels’ uncompromising position. In mid-July, Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, stated that the protocol was the “only solution” to prevent a hard border with the Republic, and “needs to be implemented”.
Whilst implemented to avoid violating the GFA and agitating nationalist grievances, the NI Protocol has over the past months has drawn the discontent of NI’s loyalist communities, who feel the protocol and its checks put NI at an economic disadvantage and distance it from Britain.
In April indignations flared into violent riots aimed at the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), with the unrest also causing friction between the neighbouring nationalist and unionist communities of West Belfast.
The prospect of a collapsed assembly in Stormont is perhaps not novel to the province, with the government having been in deadlock for over three years between January 2017 and 2020, after parties disagreed over an energy scandal.
A renewable energy incentive programme started in 2012 commonly known as the ‘Cash For Ash’ scandal, was overseen by former DUP First Minister Arelene Foster, and saw applicants paid rates higher than the fuel costs, which between 2012 and 2017 cost £500 million of taxpayers money.
Foster’s refusal to step down while an investigation was conducted, forced Sinn Féin’s, Martin McGuinness, to resign in protest as deputy first Minister in January 2017, meaning Foster was too removed from her position in the power sharing agreement, and the executive was collapsed.
Donaldson’s new threats to revert to deadlock have also drawn condemnation from many. SDLP Leader, Colm Eastwood, criticised the danger and naivety of walking away from north-south institutions, declaring that “one party cannot be allowed to play Russian Roulette with devolution for the sake of their own political position.”
A spokesman for Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has said the developments demonstrated the “real pressures that the protocol is causing in Northern Ireland and the lack of cross-community support for the current arrangements.”
Making reference to a government published command paper setting out proposed amendments to the protocol, he added that “the government were engaging with talks with the EU to determine whether a constructive process can be established that addresses these issues.”
Boris Johnson has also previously announced in August last year, that “There will be no border down the Irish Sea – over my dead body”.
In light of the unyielding stances observed by all parties, it seems uncertain what kind of further compromise or agreement can be reached.
Furthermore, the EU and PSNI’s ‘Roboborder’ project, which is developing AI powered land, sea and air drones to monitor border activity, suggests “an overall border security solution” may be a greater preoccupation for some.
The project which began in 2017 and draws 90% of its €8.9 million budget from the EU’s Horizon 2020 investment program, is arguably challenging conventional notions of securitised borders, the avoidance of which has been a major focus and cause of contention throughout ongoing negotiations.