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On the eve of polling on Wednesday night, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis indicated that a move against the protocol is unlikely to feature in the Queen’s Speech.
This was despite recent speculation that the Government might take unilateral action on the post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland, which have caused angst and opposition among loyalists and unionists.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said on Wednesday: “I have spoken to the Secretary of State last evening and made absolutely clear to him that words alone will not be sufficient.
“We need action to deal with the very real difficulties that the protocol is causing for people across Northern Ireland.
“It is driving up the cost of living, it is harming our economy and it is undermining the political institutions in Northern Ireland.
“The Government needs to act. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State both know that.
“I will not enter an Executive until that action is taken.”
Sir Jeffrey said that the eve-of-polling intervention had not undermined his party.
“I think people are determined to come out in this election and send a very clear message to the Government in London that they want action on the protocol,” he said.
The suggestion that the UK might take measures to remove or ease some of the post-Brexit rules for the region, despite ongoing negotiations with the EU, had prompted frustration in European capitals.
Mr Lewis said the Government wants to resolve issues with the protocol by agreement with the European Union.
Asked during an interview with ITV’s Robert Peston if the Government is planning to introduce a new law allowing it to waive elements of the protocol, Mr Lewis signalled that it would not be in the Queen’s Speech.
Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill filled out her ballot paper in St Patrick’s Primary School in her home village of Clonoe, Co Tyrone.
Asked about the comments by Mr Lewis, she said she would not speculate on the timing but stressed that she was opposed to unilateral action by the UK Government.
“Unilateral action is not the way to go,” she said.
“What we need to find are solutions to make the protocol work, to find a smooth implementation of the protocol.
“What I am more concerned about is that solutions are found and the protocol is made to work, because the protocol is here to stay. It is our best protection against Brexit.
“What Liz Truss says, what Brandon Lewis says – I am only interested in finding solutions. The same pragmatism that was found before Christmas whenever we had solutions to the medicines issue needs to be found to make the protocol work.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, speaking as he voted in his Foyle constituency in Londonderry, said that the protocol, which created new checks on some goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, was not on the minds of voters.
“I tried to tell Jeffrey Donaldson the other night that Boris Johnson will not be coming to your rescue and the only solution for us here is to sit down together and work these problems out.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said that Mr Lewis’s comments showed the need for a strong unionist voice in Northern Ireland.
“If the Government is resiling again from taking action on the protocol, then the reaction of unionism has to be to vote with strength.”