After the First Minister’s resignation, what happens next with the Northern Ireland Protocol?
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has been threatening to withdraw his ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive for months over its opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol. Yesterday he pulled the rip cord.
Paul Givan’s resignation as Northern Ireland’s First Minster has triggered a new political crisis in Belfast. Due to the power sharing arrangements, Givan’s resignation automatically means Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill also loses her position, and the Executive will no longer be able to function properly. Other ministers can remain in post, but they cannot take any new decisions. Givan’s resignation follows Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots’ order, made on Wednesday, to end checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, which are mandated by the Protocol. Poots’ order has put the Government in a delicate position. Brussels was quick to insist the checks continue and, despite the order, the Prime Minister’s spokesman has said that the checks were continuing, and that “we are reviewing the legal position”.
The political backdrop is the start of the campaign for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, which are due on 5 May. The DUP leadership clearly felt the need to take dramatic action now. Speaking following the resignation of the First Minister, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said, “I warned that as leader of the DUP, I was not prepared to lend my hand to a protocol which so fundamentally undermines the union and the economic integrity of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’s position in it”.
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis said that the Government remains “fully committed to fixing the problems with the Protocol,” but described the DUP’s decision as “extremely disappointing,” and urged “them to reinstate the First Minister immediately.”
The DUP’s decision has certainly raised the stakes in the UK-EU negotiations. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss tweeted that she’d had a “good discussion” with her European Commission counterpart Maroš Šefčovič and the discussions are due to resume next week.
However, as I described in my Conservative Home column last month [https://www.conservativehome.com/thecolumnists/2022/01/stephen-booth-the-eu-also-has-an-obligation-to-settle-the-northern-ireland-protocol-to-help-keep-the-peace-there.html ] , while the mood music around the negotiations may have improved, the fundamental positions on the issues of substance remain very far apart. The negotiations risk being overtaken by events. If EU negotiators were tempted by the prospect, a delicately crafted fudge would no longer appear to be commensurate to the political instability that is now evident.