Scrapping the Northern Ireland Protocol “is on the table as one of the options”, a Government minister has said, in the wake of Sinn Fein’s success in the Stormont elections.
The votes cast in Northern Ireland “demonstrate a commitment to the Union”, universities minister Michelle Donelan insisted, adding that the prospect of a border poll was “a bit speculative”.
Resolving the Northern Ireland Protocol “has to be our absolute priority”, she said.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis will meet the leaders of the five parties which formed the last Stormont Executive in a series of meetings on Monday.
Ms Donelan told Sky News: “We will not have a functioning executive unless we can resolve this problem, but I think what we need to be doing is negotiating, trying to find a tangible solution.
“I can’t outline the solution at the moment because we are working at pace with the EU to try and negotiate that.”
On the DUP, she said: “Their clear red line that they have been very clear on is that they will not resume their seats unless we resolve the protocol, so that has to be our absolute priority.”
Asked about timing, she said: “I am not going to put an arbitrary figure of a number of days, that would be foolish, I think, on my behalf, but what I will say is that we’re working at pace, we want to get this done as quickly as possible.
“We want a functioning executive in Northern Ireland and we understand the extreme urgency of this.”
She added: “The Northern Ireland protocol is not working in the way that we had intended it to do so and we’ve been very open and frank about that one … the level of bureaucracy that is being placed on Northern Ireland’s businesses is not acceptable.”
The protocol effectively creates checks on goods flowing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland in order to allow an open border with Ireland, which is within the EU’s single market and customs union.
Ms Donelan said: “Our priority, of course, is to deal with the problem head on, we have a duty towards the people of Northern Ireland who are a fundamental part of the UK.
“As you point out, the Northern Ireland protocol is not working and I believe the concerns about that were reflected in the recent result that we saw in the election.
“We’re working at pace to resolve this, nothing’s off the table.”
She added: “We’re negotiating with the EU to find a solution, as we’ve said nothing is off the table here. If we need to, we will trigger Article 16, but we want to try and negotiate as our first priority.”
Asked about scrapping the protocol, she said: “That is on the table as one of the options.”
On the prospect of a border poll and the break-up of the Union, she said: “I think that’s a bit speculative and… a long way down the track in terms of a topic of conversation.
“This election does not indicate that there is a groundswell or a dramatic change in terms of wanting a split from the Union from the people of Northern Ireland and the votes cast demonstrate that, in fact they demonstrate a commitment to the Union, which is at the heart of the work of my Government’s policy and we will continue with that and try and sort out the issues around the Protocol and protect the UK.”
Downing Street played down reports of a Cabinet rift over the protocol.
Asked about the Government’s position on the protocol and whether there are divisions within Cabinet over proposals to unilaterally scrap it, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “I wouldn’t say that at all.
“I think our preference has always been for a negotiated solution to fix the protocol and we have been clear that we will take further steps if solutions can’t be found.
“No decisions have yet been taken on the way forward. The Deputy Prime Minister made clear the situation, it’s very serious.”
He insisted the proposals put forward by the European Commission “don’t go anywhere near far enough to make the protocol sustainable”, adding: “We believe (they) would take us backwards from where we are today. So no decisions have been taken. But we do reserve the right to take action.”
The spokesman’s comments came as the Telegraph reported that Liz Truss faces Cabinet opposition, particularly from Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Communities Secretary Michael Gove, to her plans to rip up the protocol.