Jeffrey Donaldson warning as EU Chief Maros Sefcovic is grilled by MLAs today on NI Protocol
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has warned an EU leader that many people are losing patience with ‘arrogance’ from Brussels over the NI Protocol.
European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic is due to appear before MLAs at Stormont today, where unionists on the Executive Office committee are expected to demand that he stops ignoring their views regarding the protocol.
Mr Donaldson, who was elected DUP leader designate by his party’s electoral college on Saturday, said last night that the removal of the post-Brexit barriers on trade between NI and the rest of the UK would be one of his key priorities in the role.
Mr Donaldson said: ”Mr Sefcovic will find when he engages with the Northern Ireland Assembly today that anything achieved in Northern Ireland has been based on the consideration of a range of interests.
“Balance not predominance is what has delivered stability in Northern Ireland. The protocol from its conception to its operation has been a lesson in imbalance, inequality, and imposition and has been described as not sustainable.
“We agree, but grace periods and extensions are not the solution. An extension of the unsustainable is not the answer.
“Many have already lost patience and many more will, whether it is through the harm of the protocol, Brussels arrogance or London inaction.”
Mr Donaldson continued: “For the past number of months, the DUP has been engaging with all levels of government and that work is continuing.
“In the weeks ahead some movement is likely. This will be welcome, but any changes must meet our tests of fully restoring Northern Ireland’s place within the UK’s internal market and end the harm of the Protocol
“Yet London remains committed to deliver certain Sinn Fein demands in full measure. If at the same time unionist concerns on the Protocol receive only lip-service or half-hearted action, then this bias and neglect will not be tolerated.”
Speaking after being elected DUP leader designate on Saturday, Mr Donaldson said a key priority will be “to right the wrong that has been done by the imposition of this Protocol and to restore Northern Ireland’s place fully within the UK internal market”.
His pledge came after his leadership bid secured the majority backing of the DUP’s electoral college of party MPs and MLAs.
The Press Association reported that Sir Jeffrey received support from 32 of the college’s 36 members at a meeting in a Co Antrim hotel on Saturday.
Significantly, outgoing leader Edwin Poots – who resigned after just three weeks in the job – did not attend the gathering.
Also absent from the meeting were ex-leader Arlene Foster and MPs Jim Shannon Ian Paisley, however it is understood that Mrs Foster and Mr Shannon used proxy votes to support Mr Donaldson.
After receiving what he described as the “resounding endorsement” of the electoral college, Sir Jeffrey vowed to bring the party together again after a chaotic two months.
Internal divisions have been laid bare after successive revolts deposed former leader Arlene Foster and her successor Mr Poots.
Sir Jeffrey, the party’s 58-year-old Westminster leader, was the only candidate to put his name forward for the DUP leadership after the dramatic resignation of Mr Poots last week.
“I believe that today’s decision is an important first step in building the unity of my party, in rebuilding the strength of my party, in providing the leadership that Northern Ireland needs at this time,” he said.
Sir Jeffrey said he also wanted to address Northern Ireland’s spiralling waiting lists, educational underachievement and focus on rebuilding the economy post Covid-19.
Sir Jeffrey will become the official party leader next week when the DUP’s ruling executive meets to ratify his appointment.
And he acknowledged the four members who voted against his leadership bid, saying he respected their decision and that his task is “to win the confidence of all of our party”.
Commenting on Mr Poots’ absence at the meeting, Sir Jeffrey said he had “prior commitments” and was a “busy man” and had Stormont ministerial duties.
Serious question marks now hang over the future Mr Poots’ appointee as First Minister, Paul Givan. Mr Givan, who has voiced support for Sir Jeffrey’s leadership, did attend Saturday’s meeting.
Sir Jeffrey has made clear his intent to return from Westminster to assume the First Minister’s job.
However, the timeline for that move remains unclear.
He would have to trigger a parliamentary by-election in Lagan Valley in order to re-enter the Assembly and it is unclear whether he would want to prompt such a contest in the near future, given the DUP’s recent poor poll ratings.
Sir Jeffrey said decisions on the future of First Minister Paul Givan had yet to be made.
“Paul remains in the office of First Minister for the time being. I will sit down with my party officer team after our AGM next week and we’ll look at those decisions that we need to take, we’ll look at what is in the best interest of the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.
In regard to when he would trigger a by-election, Sir Jeffrey said: “My most immediate priorities are to stabilise the situation, to get what we need in relation to the Protocol and restoring our place within the UK internal market.”
Sir Jeffrey said he would spend the next “week and months” visiting every constituency in Northern Ireland engaging with members of the community.
“Then I will look for an opportunity if it presents itself to return to Stormont,” he added.
He also warned that the Irish Government must stop “cheerleading” for the protocol, signalling that north-south relationships will be impacted if Irish ministers do not change stance.
He accused the administration in Dublin of only advocating for the nationalist side of the community in Northern Ireland and ignoring the concerns unionists have over the imposition of Irish Sea trade barriers under the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
“I want to make clear to the Irish Government that their cheerleading for the Protocol is simply not acceptable, given the harm that it is doing to Northern Ireland, it is dragging our politics backwards,” he said.
Jim Wells MLA said he believed there could be a “partial” reshuffle of Stormont ministers as Sir Jeffrey “would be keen to reward those who supported him”.
He also thought it “probably likely” that Sir Jeffrey would keep on his close ally, Edwin Poots, as Agriculture minister, claiming he has “a unique empathy with farmers, of all the ministers who have held that post”. The DUP did not offer any comment on ministerial reshuffles.
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