Ministers 'Very Close' To Agreeing Northern Ireland Protocol Action As DUP Boycotts Stormont
UK government is "very close" to reaching a decision on what action to take on the Northern Ireland Protocol after the Democratic Unionist Party today fulfilled its threat to refuse to form an Executive in Stormont over their opposition to the post-Brexit treaty.
"No final decisions have been made" within Cabinet about what specific course of action to take, but ministers are expected to reach an agreement imminently, a government source said.
The government is pessimistic about the chances of a breakthrough in its talks with the European Union over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which have been taking place since early last year.
Maros Sefcovic, the bloc's chief negotiator, recently signalled to foreign secretary Liz Truss that the European Commission would make no more major concessions in the negotiations.
Truss is leading the push within Cabinet for the UK to take the contentious step of unilaterally overhauling the Northern Ireland Protocol through new primary legislation, The Telegraph reported.
But Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer, and Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling-up, housing and communities, were believed to be urging a more cautious approach, according to the account.
PoliticsHome has previously reported that Sunak was opposed to the UK disapplying parts of the protocol before Christmas by triggering Article 16 of the treaty, arguing to Cabinet colleagues that it risked a trade war with the EU at a time when supply chains were already under pressure.
A Whitehall source said one of the reasons Gove was leaning towards keeping faith in negotiations with Brussels was that he felt "protective" over the Northern Ireland Protocol, having negotiated it in his former role as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. A source close to him said he fully supported Truss' handling of the issue.
However, another government source told PoliticsHome that the briefing looked like "leadership feather fluttering" from Truss, who is currently a leading favourite to succeed Johnson as Prime Minister and Tory leader amid ongoing questions over how much longer he has left in Downing Street.
The government is set to foreshadow its intent to take action on the Northern Ireland Protocol when it unveils its legislative agenda in the Queen's Speech on Tuesday, though it is not expected to unveil any legislation.
EU sources over the weekend told PoliticsHome they were fully braced for the UK to take unilateral action and that they had been expecting it for a number of weeks.
The protocol, which came into effect at the start of last year, was designed to avoid a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland. The UK and EU did this in Brexit negotiations by agreeing to keep Northern Ireland aligned with EU rules while Britain would diverge from them.
However, it has created barriers to trade across the Irish Sea which both sides agree need to be reduced, while unionists like the DUP say it has undermined Northern Ireland's place in the UK.
Prime Minister Johnson is under increased pressure to act after the DUP on Monday made good on its long-standing promise to refuse to enter into government with Sinn Fein, which made history on Thursday when it was elected as the largest party in Northern Ireland. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson this afternoon said his party would not form a government until or unless the UK government addresses its concerns about the protocol.
Sinn Fein wants to break away from the UK and reunify with the Republic of Ireland. It is the first time in the province's history that a nationalist party has been returned as the largest party.
As the second largest party, the DUP must nominate a Deputy First Minister to serve alongside Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill in order for an Executive to be formed. Under Northern Ireland's power-sharing system, established as part of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, the largest unionist and nationalist parties must share the leadership posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, today urged the province's party leaders to "come together to agree a way forward to deliver a stable and accountable devolved government".
After meeting Donaldson, O’Neill and the other party leaders in Belfast, he said: “As I conveyed to party leaders today, our collective focus must be on the restoration of the Stormont institutions so that those newly elected representatives can come together and deliver in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland”.
He said the protocol had created an “unacceptable” situation in Northern Ireland and that while the UK would “continue to press the EU to agree the crucial changes that are urgently needed,” ministers would “take nothing off the table in our pursuit of those solutions”.
However, he stressed that the problems with the Northern Ireland Protocol should not stand in the way of the formation of a fully-functioning Executive.
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