The cabinet are reportedly split over whether to suspend Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements.
The Northern Ireland Protocol was implemented to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the wake of Brexit by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods. It has been heavily criticised by unionist groups for allegedly undermining the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which remains outside the EU customs union.
Although foreign secretary Liz Truss has been rather more quiet on the issue than the erstwhile Brexit minister Lord Frost, the Telegraph newspaper has claimed she is at the forefront of plans to trigger Article 16 to suspend the deal. The suggestion is that the government will argue that the row is stunting Northern Irish politics, and that suspending it will help preserve peace.
In Thursday’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections, Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin became the largest party for the first time in its history, with the Democratic Unionist Party coming runners up.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan told Sky News this morning that the Protocol “is not working.”
She added that she “I believe[s] the concerns about that were reflected in the recent result that we saw in the election. We are working at pace to resolve this. Nothing is off the table.”
She once again confirmed that unilaterally scrapping the deal is “on the table” for ministers, but that their “first attempt here is to try and negotiate with the EU. We want to resolve this at pace.”
The UK and EU talks have been ongoing for months with little progress made.
However Donelan stressed: “We are negotiating. We are working at pace.”
She also appeared to hint that efforts to negotiate could be ramped up following Thursday’s vote, stating: “And we will be over the coming days trying to rapidly find a solution, working with the EU.”
While Sinn Féin was once firmly opposed to the European Union, it is now in favour of keeping the Protocol the UK negotiated with the bloc in place.
However, the DUP’s refusal to govern unless the Protocol is scrapped means they may refuse to nominate a deputy first minister for the region, collapsing Stormont’s ability to form an executive.
Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis MP said in a statement yesterday afternoon: “I encourage the parties to form an Executive as soon as possible. The people of Northern Ireland deserve a stable and accountable local government that delivers on the issues that matter most to them.
“The electorate delivered a number of messages on Thursday. They were clear that they want a fully functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland, they want the issues around the Protocol addressed, and that they want politics to work better,” he went on.