A senior Democratic Unionist has rejected a suggestion his party is considering collapsing powersharing in Northern Ireland in protest at Brexit’s Irish Sea trading border.
Stormont Education Minister Peter Weir also dismissed a report that the party was set to block the passage of Irish language legislation at Stormont amid the intensifying row over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Mr Weir said he was “bemused” by both claims.
Unionists and loyalists are demanding the removal of the protocol, which governs trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK post-Brexit.
The protocol requires a range of new regulatory and customs checks and processes on goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.
At the weekend David Campbell, chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), an umbrella group representing loyalist paramilitary groups, suggested the DUP was contemplating pulling down Stormont.
In an interview with the Sunday Independent, Mr Campbell claimed DUP leader Arlene Foster had told the LCC that collapsing the Executive was within her party’s “thinking”, but only after all other avenues to ditch the protocol had been exhausted.
Mr Weir said his party was urging Mr Campbell to clarify his remarks, insisting the issue had not been raised at a recent meeting between the LCC and the DUP leadership.
The minister said collapsing Stormont would be “counterproductive”.
“That is not what we’re about,” he told the PA news agency.
“We’re about actually trying to make sure that Northern Ireland works, works for everyone.”
On Monday morning, BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show quoted a DUP source claiming the party would not allow the introduction of an Irish Language Act at Stormont while the protocol remained.
A failure to legislate on Irish language was at the heart of Stormont’s three-year powersharing impasse and a commitment to introduce an act was a main plank of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal that restored devolution in January 2020.
Mr Weir again moved to distance the party from the suggestion it would not honour its NDNA commitments.
“We’re committed to devolution, we’re committed to NDNA,” he told PA.
“We’re actually here about making Northern Ireland work and that means both in terms of ensuring that devolution itself continues on, but also that we have good north/south, east/west links.
“That’s one of the reasons why we believe the protocol needs to change, needs to go, to ensure actually that we can actually have things which are beneficial to all of Northern Ireland.
“You know, we’re somewhat bemused by some of the reports and I’m not going to get too much into some of the comments that are unattributable comments.”
Responding to the report about the Irish Language Act, Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill tweeted: “The Irish language act negotiated as part of NDNA must be honoured & delivered by the parties in the Executive & both Governments. There will be no renegotiation or backsliding on commitments.”
A DUP party statement later said “dialogue and political discussion” were the ways to resolve concerns around the protocol.
“The DUP is committed to the balanced upholding of all aspects of the devolution settlement,” it said.
“Each strand can only fully function when the others are working properly. They are all interdependent.
“We have seen the erection of barriers between GB and NI on trade and the application of laws governing our country as well as blatant disrespect for the unionist identity.
“We remain committed to New Decade, New Approach. All of these issues must be addressed and resolved along with the NDNA commitments if we are to achieve stability for Northern Ireland. The way forward is through dialogue and political discussion.”
The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed by the EU and UK during the withdrawal negotiations in an effort to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
It achieves that by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods, with regulatory checks and inspections now required on agri-food produce moving into the region from the rest of the UK.
The protocol also requires Northern Ireland to apply EU customs rules at its ports, requiring a range of customs red tape and declarations on goods arriving from Great Britain.
The new arrangements have caused some disruption to trade since the start of the year as firms have struggled with new processes and administration.
Unionists and loyalists are vehemently opposed to the protocol, claiming it undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.
Amid heightening tensions in Northern Ireland, earlier this month the UK Government moved to unilaterally delay full implementation of the protocol, by extending some grace periods that currently limit the level of checks and declarations required.
In response, the EU launched legal action against the Government, accusing it of breaching the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.