Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the government needs to make clear it will move to suspend parts of the protocol – by triggering its Article 16 mechanism – if a negotiated deal with the EU is not reached.
His comments in Crumlin, Co Antrim, came after the latest round of talks between Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic on issues with the contentious post-Brexit Irish Sea trading arrangement.
Commenting on the state of the talks, Sir Jeffrey said: “I made clear at the beginning of this new year that January was going to be a very important month and I need to hear from Liz Truss and from the prime minister if these talks are not going to come to a conclusion in the very near future, and if they’re not going to reach agreement then what action, what decisive action, is the government prepared to take in line with their command paper published over six months ago to protect Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market?
“That is a UK government commitment. It was part of the New Decade, New Approach agreement (2020). It hasn’t been delivered, it needs to be delivered.”
Sir Jeffrey suggested his party would follow through with its threat to withdraw ministers from Stormont if progress is not made.
“I think this has to come to a head,” he said.
“We need to know where the government are going on this. The EU are now indicating that the talks will conclude mid-February, so I need to know from the government (that) if we’re not going to get agreement with the EU, and it seems unlikely based on what we’re hearing, then what decisive action are the government prepared to take?
“And I need to know that now – I’m not prepared to be strung out for weeks on end with nothing and no assurance that the government is going to act.
“I need to know from the government are they going to act or are they not going to act?
“If they’re not going to act, then be honest and tell us, and we will have to take the action that we need to take to bring this matter towards a solution.”
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the issues related to the protocol were a direct consequence of the “hard Brexit” advocated by the DUP.
“The implications of Brexit are being felt right across our community,” she told Assembly question time at Stormont.
“The implications in terms of the protocol – we wouldn’t have a protocol if we didn’t have Brexit and the protocol provides a solution.
“So I still maintain the position of rigorous implementation within the framework of the protocol because, despite the utterances of the DUP, the protocol isn’t up for negotiation.
“And as we speak here today there are talks ongoing between the EU side and the British government and I hope, I really hope that there’s momentum built upon.
“I believe in east-west trade. I want that to continue. I have said I want to see access to both markets (EU and UK) – there’s huge potential here, but the DUP are so blindsided (they) cannot see it.”
Later in the chamber there were robust exchanges involving DUP Economy Minister Gordon Lyons and pro-Remain MLAs amid diverging claims about the economic impact of the protocol.
Mr Lyons told MLAs: “When grace periods and mitigations come to an end things are likely to get much worse.
“It’s clear that during 2021 many local businesses and indeed consumers experienced a range of issues as a result of new requirements for sourcing goods in Great Britain and I have spoken personally to many of those businesses.”
Sinn Fein MLA Caoimhe Archibald accused Mr Lyons of “cherry picking” facts and figures on the protocol.
“A recent Manufacturing NI survey showed the biggest issue facing businesses is the shortage of labour, the protocol is down their list of priorities,” she said.
“Two-thirds of businesses do want the protocol to be made to work and 40% want the Executive to maximise the opportunities.
“So does the minister accept that, just like with Brexit, he and his party are out of step with the majority of businesses here on the protocol?.”