Protocol talks cannot be ‘put on long finger’, DUP warns

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Negotiations on resolving issues with Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol cannot be put on “the long finger”, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has warned.

The DUP leader said talks between the UK and EU on the contentious Irish Sea trade border need to reach resolution “very, very soon”.

Sir Jeffrey has warned that he will pull down powersharing at Stormont if significant changes to the protocol are not secured by early November.

Asked about the prospect of negotiations going into December, Sir Jeffrey said people should not assume that was the Government’s intention.

“I wouldn’t assume that December is where we’re heading for,” he said.

Brexit
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (PA)

His comments came as Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill branded DUP threats to the Stormont institutions as “ludicrous” and claimed they were motivated by concerns over bad polling results.

The DUP leader welcomed comments from Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday that “rapid progress” was required in the talks between London and Brussels on reducing the red tape burden that the protocol has imposed on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

“We’re very clear you can’t put the protocol issue on the long finger and I welcomed what the Prime Minister said yesterday about the need for rapid progress,” Sir Jeffrey told reporters in Co Tyrone on Thursday.

“I think that what we need and what I said to the Prime Minister yesterday was we need decisive action taken by the Government to honour the commitment they gave in New Decade, New Approach (agreement) to protect Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market.”

Sir Jeffrey said progress was being made to address concerns about the protocol but he warned that an outcome was needed rapidly.

“I believe that we’re making progress in terms of addressing the issues that matter to businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland, which is removing this ridiculous border within the United Kingdom,” he said.

“But clearly we need to see an outcome and we need to see that very, very soon.”

Sir Jeffrey was also asked how the DUP would respond if the Government moved to table Irish language legislation at Westminster next week while the protocol issue remained unresolved.

Northern Ireland Executive
Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill described the DUP stance as “ludicrous” (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Government intervened on the devolved issue in the summer amid a stand off between the DUP and Sinn Fein on the proposed language and cultural laws for Irish and Ulster Scots speakers.

Sir Jeffrey has warned that progressing the key Sinn Fein policy objective at Westminster would further undermine devolution in Northern Ireland at a time when unionists are so opposed to the Irish Sea border.

On Thursday he said: “Our view on the culture package is very clear – we do not believe it’s right for the Government to go over the head of the Assembly on this issue.

“This is a devolved matter, it should be dealt with at Stormont and that remains my position.”

Ms O’Neill has said she has received assurances from the Government that it would table the draft legislation in Parliament in the coming weeks.

On Thursday she said it would be “ludicrous” if the DUP brought down the institutions over the Irish language.

“We worked with the British government, we have this political commitment, I now expect to see that political commitment honoured,” she told RTE Radio One.

“The DUP are holding everybody else to ransom.

“The rest of the political parties in the north are willing to work together, they want to deal with the issues of health, housing and jobs, they want to stand up and work together in terms of building out of the pandemic and creating jobs and economic recovery and everything else that we need to be focused on.

“Whilst they’re doing that, the DUP are busy looking over their shoulder at the mess that’s going on within the internal dynamics of the DUP, but also around bad polling results around the threat from (Traditional Unionist Voice leader) Jim Allister.”

Ms O’Neill said she would keep the pressure on the Government to fulfil its pledge to legislate on language.

“The British government have a track record of backtracking on political commitments however I will hold their feet to the fire on this issue,” she said.

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