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The European Commission vice-president has been accused of dismissing the concerns of unionists over the Northern Ireland Protocol by DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.
Sir Jeffrey was responding after Maros Sefcovic gave a speech on Friday in which he said any attempt to renegotiate the protocol would create instability in Northern Ireland and said the post-Brexit agreement needed to be implemented in full.
The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU as a way to maintain a free-flowing land border on the island of Ireland after Brexit.
Unionists in Northern Ireland have been vehemently opposed to its terms, which see additional checks on goods arriving to the region from the rest of the UK.
Sir Jeffrey said “The EU vice-president is of course entitled to his view and we understand that any solution that we need to find on addressing the enormous difficulties created by the protocol has to find a way of protecting the integrity of the EU single market.
“But I think it’s unfortunate that Mr Sefcovic would be so dismissive of the real and genuine concerns that there are out there and I think that the meeting that we had yesterday with him was much more constructive and what I had to say yesterday reflects the concerns of many people in Northern Ireland.
“It is not mere rhetoric, it is articulating the views and concerns of unionists.
“In the end, the agreement that we have, the political institutions that we have can only work if both unionists and nationalists support them so the EU needs to move, and quickly, to address the concerns of unionists.”
On Thursday, Sir Jeffrey threatened to withdraw his DUP ministers and collapse the Stormont Executive if his demands over the protocol were not met.
He said this move was an attempt to focus minds because of the time that negotiations between the UK Government and EU to resolve differences over the protocol are taking.
He said: “These negotiations have been dragging on for months. The joint committee hasn’t succeeded in addressing the issues and the concerns about the harm that is being done on a daily basis to the economy in Northern Ireland.
“I felt it was time to focus minds on what needs to be done and it is the protocol that is causing the instability in Northern Ireland, both economically and politically. It has altered our status in constitutional terms without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.”
The DUP leader said he now wanted to see the UK Government introduce legislation to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market to avoid his party having to quit Stormont.
He said: “The UK Government, in the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement, gave a firm commitment to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market.
“That was over 18 months ago. We haven’t had the measures taken that were required to remove these barriers to trade.
“They intend to introduce legislation in October to deal with certain aspects of NDNA, and therefore we are looking to that timetable to see them take action to address the concerns of many in Northern Ireland about this Irish Sea border.”
He added: “The Prime Minister is a key player in all of this. The Prime Minister promised that there would be no border in the Irish Sea.
“The Government, in its command paper it published in July, gave commitments to take action to address and resolve the difficulties and remove the barriers to trade and remove the Irish Sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“If the EU vice-president believes that the solution is to drive a border down the middle of our country then I’m afraid we need to engage further and disabuse him of that notion. That is not the solution.”