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DUP First Minister Resigns In Protest Over Northern Ireland Protocol

4 min read

Paul Givan has announced his resignation as Northern Ireland's First Minister as part of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Givan confirmed on Thursday afternoon an earlier PoliticsHome report that he was standing down, bringing Northern Ireland's political insitutions in Stormont to a standstill. 

"Today marks the end of what has been the privilege of my lifetime," he said at a press conference in Belfast, confirming that he was resigning as First Minister after just 231 days in the job.

"Holding this office is one that comes with a heavy responsibility and I have often felt the weight of this burden, to do what is right for all out people," he added.

The DUP, which in Westminster is led by Jeffrey Donaldson MP, had been threatening to take major action over the Northern Ireland Protocol since early last year.

Speaking after Givan's resignation, Donaldson said the moment had come for the party to say "enough" and make make good on its threat escalate its opposition to the Protocol.

"Now is the moment to send the clear signal that we want Stormont free from the long shadows of the Protocol  — the Irish Sea border must go," he said.

Givan's resignation in itself will not cause Stormont to collapse. However, it forces Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill to resign as Deputy First Minister and will bring some key decision-making to a halt. There are questions over whether the Executive will be able to go ahead with reported plans to lift Covid measures in Northern Ireland next week, for example.

Conservative MP Simon Hoare, who chairs the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, said Givan's resignation was a "momentous dereliction of duty".

"It is stepping away from what the public legitimately expect their politicians to be doing at this incredibly challenging time for health, the economy, education and all sorts of issues that need attention. These things, by definition, are best done by locally elected politicians," he told PoliticsHome.

The DUP says the post-Brexit treaty has put unnecessary barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, leaving unionists feeling like they have been cut adrift from the rest of the UK.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed by the UK and EU part of Brexit negotiations and implemented in January 2021, was designed to avoid a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland. It did this by keeping Northern Ireland in line with the EU's trading rules.

However, the government and Brussels are trying to renegotiate the treaty after agreeing that it was causing undue levels of disruption in Northern Ireland. Both sides want to reach an agreement before the province's Assembly elections in May, but that currently looks unlikely.

Givan's resignation is part of a wider escalation of the DUP protest against the Protocol.

This got underway on Wednesday evening when Stormont's Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots ordered the suspension of checks on goods heading from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, citing legal advice he had received.

A spokesperson for the UK government last night said Boris Johnson would not immediately intervene, saying the operation of checks "is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive".

They added that the development was further proof of the need to alter the Protocol and that Foreign Secretary Liz Truss would discuss it with her EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic on Thursday.

However, a spokesperson for the European Commission said the Poots move was "unhelpful" and sought to put pressure on the UK government to stick to the Brexit agreement it signed up to.

"The European Commission will closely monitor developments in Northern Ireland pursuant to this announcement. It recalls the responsibility of the UK Government for the respect of the international obligations it has entered into," a spokesperson said.

The Irish government echoed the European Commission. "The Protocol is part of an international agreement and UK has responsibility under international law to ensure that it meets its obligations," a spokesperson said.

There was confusion on Thursday morning whether checks had been halted at Northern Ireland's ports as instructed by Poots, with industry figures reportedly being told by officials in London and Belfast to continue preparing paperwork as normal.

George Eustice, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, confirmed this afternoon that officials would continue carrying out checks on goods heading across the Irish Sea until they had received further legal advice.

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