‘Time marching on’ on protocol negotiations – Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

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Time is marching on when it comes to negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has warned,

The DUP leader urged the EU to “step up to the mark”, reiterating his party’s threat to withdraw their ministers from the Stormont Executive if decisive action is not taken.

Earlier Brexit minister Lord Frost was optimistic that an agreement could be found.

Lord Frost (Peter Byrne/PA)

However Sir Jeffrey warned: “Time is marching on, we’ve had nearly four weeks of negotiation and I think what we need to decisive action.

“I note there will be a further couple of weeks of negotiation and that presents an opportunity for the EU to step up to the mark, and it is evident from what Lord Frost has said and from our own understanding that the EU isn’t being serious about putting proposals on the table that are capable of dealing with the very real problems caused by this Irish Sea border.

“We need focus now and I think beyond the next couple of weeks we need decisive action by the UK Government if the EU isn’t prepared to take that action.

“(If there isn’t decisive action) then I think the position of the political institutions here becomes very difficult indeed,” he said.

Watch: EU-UK Brexit dispute: Lord Frost not yet ready to trigger Article 16

“It is simply not sustainable for unionists who are strongly opposed to the protocol, not a single elected unionist representative supports this protocol, to be expected to participate in institutions that are implementing a protocol that is harming the union, that is harming on a daily basis our relationship with the rest of the UK.

“This matter needs to be dealt with, and dealt with quickly.

Sir Jeffrey was speaking during a visit to Hillmount Garden Centre in east Belfast, a business he said has been “badly affected by the protocol in terms of bringing products in from Great Britain, the additional costs, the time delays and indeed losing suppliers from Great Britain”.

Coronavirus – Mon May 11, 2020
Robin Mercer, owner of Hillmount Garden Centre in Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA).

“That is impacting on this business, costing them money, costing them business,” he said.

Sir Jeffrey also urged the Republic of Ireland to “use its influence” to press EU negotiators to “prioritise the interests of Northern Ireland over the interests of EU capitals”.

He was speaking following a phone call with Irish premier Micheal Martin, which he described as a “useful discussion”.

“Dublin is a key influencer in Brussels.

“They must use that influence to reach a sensible outcome which is sustainable and can command the support of unionists in Northern Ireland,” he said.

Speaking separately, Mr Martin called on the UK Government to “double down on dialogue” over the protocol.

Mr Martin said it should not be assumed that the British will trigger Article 16 amid heavy speculation that the UK Government is preparing to suspend the agreement.

The Taoiseach called for extensive engagement on both sides to avoid the situation coming to pass.

Earlier DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots said an EU triggering of a trade war in the Irish Sea border dispute would be a political bid to weaken Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

Mr Poots was responding to suggestions that the EU could axe the Brexit trade deal if the UK suspends the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Watch: Article 16: Boris Johnson warned against suspending post-Brexit border arrangements for Northern Ireland

There is growing speculation that the UK is poised to trigger Article 16 later this month.

Mr Poots, who is responsible for overseeing new Brexit checks on goods arriving from Great Britain, said he has instructed his officials to make preparations for that scenario, saying there is a “significant chance” of it happening and that it needs to happen.

“Europe has not moved and not moved quickly enough and not moved far enough in terms of making a real tangible difference to the livelihoods of the businesses in Northern Ireland and, indeed, the consumers in Northern Ireland who struggle to buy goods which should be freely available within their own country,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.

Asked about the prospect of the EU retaliating by giving notice of its intent to suspend the trade deal, Mr Poots said: “It’s for the EU to choose whether they want a trade battle or whether they want to treat Northern Ireland with respect.

“Thus far they haven’t treated Northern Ireland with respect and they have forced our businesses, and indeed our consumers, to be deprived of goods that would normally be available in their own country by creating a false premise about the Single Market whenever we can quite easily ensure the integrity of the Single Market by taking the appropriate steps in Northern Ireland to ensure that goods don’t enter the European Union that haven’t met their standards.”

Edwin Poots’ department oversees new checks required on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain (Liam McBurney/PA)

The trade arrangements that have created economic barriers on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland were originally agreed between the EU and UK as part of the Brexit withdrawal deal.

The protocol’s purpose was to avoid the creation of 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 that has led to the checks on products crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain.

Mr Poots said the solution is to limit checks to only those goods that are destined for onward transportation to the Irish Republic, not on the vast majority of products which arrive in Northern Ireland from Great Britain and stay there.

“What causes me real concern is that we have a solution to this and the European Union are not applying it currently,” he said.

“So, we can provide solutions to ensure the integrity of the Single Market, allegedly that was what it was about, and if the European Union won’t accept those solutions and choose to go down a route of a trade war then that demonstrates that there was some political influence being used to damage Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.”

First and Deputy First Minister nomination
DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots said he has instructed his officials to make preparations for Article 16 being triggered (Brian Lawless/PA)

Meanwhile Tanaiste Leo Varadkar warned Boris Johnson the UK will not get a better deal if it triggers Article 16.

“We have an agreement in relation to Northern Ireland, we have an agreement in relation to trade with the European Union.

“Don’t jeopardise that agreement,” he said.

“You were part of negotiating us, you own it, it was hard-won.

“It’s a mistake to think that, by escalating tensions, by withdrawing from any part of it or trying to withdraw from any part of it, that you’ll end up with a better deal.

“You won’t.”

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