The window of opportunity for the UK Government and European Union to make changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol before the DUP collapse Stormont is closing, the region’s First Minister has warned.
Last week, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson threatened to withdraw his ministers and bring down the powersharing institutions if his demands over the protocol were not met.
Answering questions at Stormont, his party colleague Paul Givan said there was no consensus for the protocol in Northern Ireland and said it had caused economic and political damage.
The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU as a way to maintain a free-flowing land border on the island of Ireland after Brexit.
Unionists in Northern Ireland have been vehemently opposed to its terms, which see additional checks on goods arriving to the region from the rest of the UK.
At the first ministerial question time at Stormont following the summer break, First Minister Mr Givan was questioned on his party’s commitment to implement fully the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement, which allowed the powersharing institutions to return after a three year suspension.
He said: “Within NDNA there is a commitment by the UK Government that when it comes to the internal market, Northern Ireland will be an integral part to it.
“The Northern Ireland Protocol, however, has caused damage economically, damage to our wider society, it has created political tension and therefore that has to be addressed.
“The Belfast Agreement is very clear on where the delicate balance was struck between unionists, nationalists and others and whenever one aspect of that is damaged it causes harm across all others.
“The east/west relationship has been harmed by the Northern Ireland Protocol and that has an impact when it comes to north/south.
“I want to see these issues resolved, I want to see these institutions working because I believe that we are best placed to represent the people who elect us in terms of how we run a country, that we can do that better than other jurisdictions.”
He added: “But we have to address the fundamental problems which have now occurred as a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol and I hope that the UK Government and the European Union seize the window of opportunity that exists; but that window of opportunity is closing.”
Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan said that the DUP was “totally responsible” for the Northern Ireland Protocol, because the party backed Brexit.
Mr Givan responded: “When it comes to the issue of where did it all go wrong in respect of Brexit, it has been the outworking and implementation of that by the UK Government.
“We were very clear that Northern Ireland should be treated just as the rest of the United Kingdom.
“There was no approval of anybody in Northern Ireland for the changes which flowed from the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“It is vital when you are going to make these sorts of changes that it is done in a way which has consensus.
“The protocol doesn’t.”
He added: “In our meetings with Maros Sefcovic (European Commission vice president) I made it clear that I want both communities and our whole community to have the best of both worlds, where you have access to the European single market and you have access to Great Britain’s market in an unfettered manner.
“We don’t have that.”
SDLP MLA Colin McGrath said the threat to bring down Stormont was “reckless” in the middle of a pandemic.
He added: “What message do you have for the businesses, for the communities, for the people out there, if the message from your party leader is that this place can be brought down and decisions won’t be able to be taken?”
Mr Givan said: “Our party is very clear, we want this Executive to continue work, we want this Assembly to continue to operate and to take the type of decisions that we are taking.
“But the basis on which we restored these institutions is in New Decade, New Approach and it was commitments made by the UK Government that Northern Ireland would have unfettered access on an east/west dimension and that the internal market of the UK would be restored.
“The fundamentals on which the Executive is formed have to be right and that is why there is a window of opportunity for both the UK Government and the European Union to make sure that the changes which need to be made, are made.”