The News Letter has learnt that Downing Street is increasingly concerned that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill could be defeated unless there is a cast-iron guarantee from the DUP that it will agree to soon nominate a speaker for the Stormont Assembly – a move that will open up the path for the formation of a new power-sharing Executive.
There is mounting pressure on the DUP to provide a “written assurance” to re-enter the Executive before the government can push the bill any further through the House of Commons.
The focus at Westminster on the DUP comes after the EU announced yesterday that it was launching fresh legal action against the legislation that would enable Boris Johnson’s government to unilaterally dump parts of the protocol.
“The government’s patience is running thin as they expect the DUP to reciprocate following the publication of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. There should be written assurances, a clear public commitment that they will now nominate a speaker,” a senior source said.
They refused to comment on reports from London that the government may hold up the second reading of the bill in the House of Commons until that clear commitment to nominate a speaker is given by the DUP.
It is understood that Downing Street fears some backbench Tories frustrated over a lack of response from the DUP on restarting the devolved institutions might end up voting in large numbers with opposition parties against the legislation.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who introduced the bill at Westminster on Monday, told Radio Ulster this week “what we expect and we want is for the institutions of NI to be up and running. This bill does deliver and we expect to see NI political parties to form an Assembly, appoint a speaker and form an Executive ... I would like them to get on with it now”.
DUP sources told the News Letter that because there is “limited trust” in Boris Johnson and his government the party will take a cautious approach to the bill and will carefully watch its passage through Parliament.
While pressure is mounting on the DUP from Downing Street and Westminster there is renewed pressure also on Boris Johnson’s government from Brussels over the legislation.
European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic announced EU legal action against the UK in retaliation over the legislation which will scrap parts of the post-Brexit deal.
At a press conference in Brussels yesterday, Mr Sefcovic accused the UK government of setting out to “unilaterally break international law.”
He said: “Let there be no doubt: there is no legal nor political justification whatsoever for unilaterally changing an international agreement. Opening the door to unilaterally changing an international agreement is a breach of international law as well.”
The EU’s legal move will start with a two-month period in which the UK will have to respond but if that response is not to Brussels’ satisfaction it will refer the matter to the European Court of Justice.
Two new infringement proceedings against the UK were also announced yesterday and relate to the UK’s alleged failures around Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks on agri-produce entering NI from GB as well as claims that the British failed to provide the EU with data on the movement of goods in the Irish Sea.
Mr Sefcovic insisted he still wanted a negotiated settlement with the UK to the problems caused by the protocol adding that he has his own “oven ready” proposals to solve these issues.
East Belfast DUP MP Gavin Robinson said the EU’s action was not driven by Northern Ireland’s best interests but rather by what suits Brussels’ interests.
“The legal challenge is not against the government’s draft bill rather it is against grace periods which enable the supply of frozen foods which struggling families depend on. This action will victimise hard-pressed households in Northern Ireland.”