The DUP will hold back on its threat to collapse Stormont over the Northern Ireland Protocol for a few more weeks to enable negotiations between the UK and EU to continue, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said.
The party leader has faced questions at to why he has not followed through on his ultimatum to withdraw ministers from Stormont at the start of November – thus collapsing powersharing – if major changes to the contentious Irish Sea trading arrangements had not been secured by that date.
There have been suggestions the hijacking and burning of a bus in a loyalist area of Newtownards, Co Down, on Monday morning was timed to mark the DUP’s missed deadline.
Condemning the “paramilitary elements” behind the attack, Sir Jeffrey insisted they would not influence his political strategy to remove the Irish Sea border.
He said it would be “churlish” to pull down Stormont at this point, claiming the UK Government was making progress in efforts to slash the red tape burden imposed by the protocol.
His comments come as negotiations between the EU and UK remain deadlocked.
The Government has signalled it will move to unilaterally suspend elements of the protocol – by triggering a mechanism known as Article 16 – if an agreed outcome is not reached by the end of November.
The oversight role of the European Court of Justice in policing the operation of the protocol remains a key sticking point in the negotiations.
“It would be churlish in the face of that progress to now move precipitously in relation to what I have warned about if we don’t get the outcome that we need,” said Sir Jeffrey.
“Now, I’m prepared to give a little more time for those negotiations to reach a conclusion and that conclusion has to mean agreement on the removal of the Irish Sea border.
“If that doesn’t happen, I expect the Government, as the Prime Minister said last week, to take unilateral action. The Prime Minister has said that the conditions exist to trigger Article 16 and I expect that to happen. If these things don’t happen, then I will act. I’ve made that absolutely clear.
“My strategy remains as it has been. But, given the progress that we’re making towards the objectives that we want to achieve, I’m prepared to give a little more time to achieve those objectives.”
He added: “I think that we’re talking about weeks, that’s what I have said, and I expect real and decisive progress to be made.”
The protocol is the mechanism agreed by the EU and UK to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland post-Brexit.
It has achieved that by effectively keeping Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods, an arrangement which has led to checks on products crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain.
Brexit minister Lord Frost and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic are due to meet face to face on Friday to check in on what progress has been made in the talks.
Mr Sefcovic, writing in the Daily Telegraph, said he feared the UK was embarking on a “path of confrontation” in its refusal to back down on its stance that the ECJ should not have an arbitration role.
He said the EU had “gone the extra mile” with its own reform proposals, but that the bloc had “limits”.
But Lord Frost, writing for the Policy Exchange think tank, said the EU had “destroyed cross-community consent” in Northern Ireland with an “overly strict” enforcement of the trading arrangements.
He condemned the European Union for behaving “without regard to the huge political, economic and identity sensitivities” in Northern Ireland.