Risk of Stormont collapse recedes as fresh talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol continue in Brussels

The immediate threat to the Stormont institutions appears to have receded as fresh talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol continue in Brussels today, the News Letter understands.

Friday, 15th October 2021, 8:34 am
PACEMAKER BELFAST 01/07/2021 Newly elected DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson speaks to the media today at the Stormont hotel. It comes as Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MLA Alex Easton has announced his decision to quit the party after 21 years. The North Down politician said he was at the "end of his tether" and saw no "respect, discipline or decency" in the DUP's recent behaviour. His announcement came just hours after the DUP met to ratify Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as its new leader. Sir Jeffrey said on Thursday that he hoped Mr Easton would "find his way back to this party". Mr Easton said he intended to stand as an independent unionist in the next Stormont assembly election.

It is now more than a month since the DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson warned that his party’s ministers could withdraw from the Northern Ireland Executive — a move that would collapse the devolved government here — if action isn’t taken on the protocol.

In a keynote speech on September 9, Sir Jeffrey said those steps would be taken if the UK government presses ahead with plans to legislate for the Irish language without also ensuring Northern Ireland “remains an integral part of the UK internal market” — both of which were government commitments in the New Decade New Approach agreement last year.

Earlier this month the government confirmed, following days of repeated questioning by the News Letter, that its intention to press ahead with language and culture legislation remains.

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File photo dated 10/11/2020 of Lord David Frost. Britain and the EU are mounting a fresh attempt to resolve the problems over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland. Issue date: Thursday April 15, 2021.

But it is now thought unlikely that any Irish language legislation will be forthcoming at Westminster before the end of October — the timeframe originally set out by Secretary of State Brandon Lewis.

And in the meantime, crunch talks between the UK government and the EU on the protocol will continue today with the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost expected to meet with the European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic in Brussels.

Mr Sefcovic, who leads negotiations for the EU, met with Northern Ireland leaders yesterday after outlining a series of proposals the European side believe could resolve many of the problems associated with the protocol.

A DUP source has indicated it is unlikely the party would take any steps that would lead to the collapse of Stormont with fresh negotiations underway.

Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, meanwhile, gave an indication he believes a deal can be struck following his meeting with Mr Sefcovic yesterday.

“There is a window to get this right,” he said in a statement afterwards. “To get a deal which can allow Northern Ireland to, once again, get moving forward.”

The DUP leader repeated an earlier warning, however, that the latest proposals from the EU still “fall short”.

“We had a useful and honest discussion,” Sir Jeffrey said.

“I welcomed the change of heart in Brussels with the decision to renegotiate. For so long we were told the Protocol could not be reopened but the persistent pressing of our case has paid dividends.

“I also explained why the proposals fall short of what is needed. These negotiations must not be a missed opportunity.”

He continued: “Short-term fixes will not solve the problems that have beset the United Kingdom internal market. Removing some checks today does not solve the divergence problems of tomorrow. State Aid and VAT arrangements if left unaltered will be detrimental to Northern Ireland’s long-term prospects. “

UUP leader Doug Beattie also met with Mr Sefcovic yesterday. Afterwards, Mr Beattie said: “We have taken a step in the right direction as the EU indicate a willingness to move, but they don’t deal with some of the core issues.

“The detail of the wave topping proposals by the EU need to be analysed in full through negotiation and engagement.

“We need to fix this and if that is to happen we need a change in tone and language surrounding negotiations.

“It’s time to drop the adversarial language. If we are to reach a deal, the important conversations must involve the UK Command Paper`s proposals. A lop-sided deal will bring us all back to square one again. We simply cannot afford that.”

He added: “We are at the start of a period of negotiation and I hope those negotiations will result in a deal that produces a solution which delivers better for all the people of Northern Ireland, protects the Belfast Agreement and doesn’t undermine Northern Ireland’s position within the UK. Northern Ireland deserves better.”

TUVleader Jim Allister, meanwhile, said: “Far from laying the basis for a solution the EU’s proposals would in many instances tighten the noose and certainly do nothing to address the core issue of their ill-gotten sovereignty over Northern Ireland.”