The UK must immediately suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol to avoid the Stormont institutions being “torpedoed”, ministers have been told.
DUP MP Ian Paisley (North Antrim) sounded the warning as the House of Commons approved legislation designed to protect powersharing at Stormont by offering greater stability should a fresh political crisis emerge.
The Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill relates to undertakings the UK Government made in the New Decade, New Approach Deal, such as extending the time period within which a snap election must be called if devolution collapses again.
It would also lengthen the time allowed to appoint Northern Ireland ministers after an election, and also allow ministers to stay in office for up to 24 weeks or for up to 48 weeks if the first minister or deputy first minister resigns.
But Mr Paisley urged the UK Government to move “immediately” to invoke Article 16 of the Protocol, a move that would effectively unilaterally suspend the treaty.
Brexit minister Lord Frost has set the EU a December deadline to find a solution on the treaty, which was agreed by the UK and EU as a way to maintain a free-flowing land border on the island of Ireland after Brexit.
Mr Paisley told the Commons: “People from Northern Ireland will look on at this and whilst I’ll use a phrase ‘fiddling while Rome burns’, some people may think that more attractive than others, I certainly do not, but many people will know that a torpedo has been fired at the Northern Ireland institutions.
“It is outside of the control of the unionist parties, of the nationalist parties operating the assembly, and that torpedo is the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“Until and unless the Government in this place resolves itself to do what it said in its command paper in July of this year, that torpedo will eventually hole those institutions below the line, and when that happens no amount of hand-wringing in this place, no amount of declaring one’s undying loyalty to whatever interpretation of the Belfast Agreement people feel they wish to support will actually keep those institutions salvaged.”
The SDLP’s Claire Hanna (Belfast South) earlier said she agreed with the thrust of the Bill’s intended aims but added: “We are beset and bedevilled by a culture of veto and on stand-off and this would have been an appropriate opportunity to try and fix some of those things.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said the UK Government is committed to ensuring the New Decade, New Approach is “delivered in full”, adding: “I want to reassure members that further progress will be made in due course.”
Speaking at the Bill’s third reading, he said: “It’s one that will deliver necessary and well overdue reforms to strengthen the sustainability of the institutions in Northern Ireland, update the ministerial code of conduct and reform the petition of concern mechanism.”
He added: “The past 18 months have demonstrated that a power-sharing executive can work together under the hardest of circumstances to find compromise and act in the shared interests of all communities in Northern Ireland.
“This Bill can only empower their capability in that respect.
“We have made commitments to ensure that areas that were committed to be delivered within this mandate for Stormont will be delivered.
“A cultural package is part of that and we will do that.”
Mr Lewis later said the Westminster Government will “still be seeking to deliver” the cultural package “if the executive itself can’t take it forward”.
For Labour, shadow Northern Ireland minister Alex Davies-Jones said: “We would strongly urge the Government to look at how they can fast-track the remaining passage of this legislation.”
The Bill cleared the Commons after receiving an unopposed third reading and will undergo further scrutiny in the Lords at a later date.