Legislative assembly

Brexit trade deal change must sway NI government – PM

Boris Johnson must tell Northern Ireland leaders that any move to change post-Brexit trade rules must also restore power-sharing in the country’s legislature.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Photo: AFP / Wiktor Szymanowicz / NurPhoto

The British Prime Minister is due to visit Northern Ireland on Monday amid a political crisis sparked by tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol.

Following the May 5 election, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol, refused to engage with the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly.

A new administration cannot be formed without them.

The Northern Ireland Assembly – called Stormont, is a devolved legislature, with authority vested in it, or delegated to it, by the UK government.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is part of the UK-EU Brexit deal which keeps Northern Ireland aligned with the EU’s single market for goods and establishes a trade border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

It was designed to ensure that free trade could continue across the Irish land border, but unionist politicians opposed it.

A No 10 Downing Street spokesman said Johnson would hold private meetings with the parties and that the UK government would “play its part to ensure political stability”.

The PM is expected to say there is ‘no substitute for strong local leadership’.

He will urge members of the Stormont assembly to ‘get back to work on day-to-day issues’.

But the Prime Minister will also tell political leaders that “there will be a need to act” on the protocol if the EU does not change its position.

Sinn Fein chairwoman Mary Lou McDonald and vice-chairman Michelle O’Neill say protocol is going nowhere

Johnson’s visit coincides with increased speculation that the UK government is about to introduce legislation to scrap parts of the protocol from Northern Ireland.

The DUP argued that the protocol had eroded the foundations on which devolution had been built and undermined Northern Ireland’s position in the UK.

The common goal of the UK and the EU should be that a reformed protocol has the widest possible cross-community support when it faces a consent vote at Stormont in 2024, the Prime Minister will also say.

The Northern Ireland Assembly election on May 5 has cemented a majority for politicians who accept the protocol, including the new largest party, Republican Sinn Féin.

The DUP’s decision to block the election of a speaker on Friday means the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot function.

The party said its actions sent a clear message of its opposition to the protocol.

Its leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, said the PM needed to “outline what he intends to do”.

Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson speaks during a press conference at Parliament House in Stormont, Belfast, Monday May 9, 2022.

On Monday, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said his party would not support the election of a president until action was taken on the protocol.
Photo: AFP

On Saturday, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald accused the Prime Minister of being “in cahoots” with the DUP.

McDonald said the protocol was going nowhere and that she and future prime minister Michelle O’Neill would tell Johnson on Monday.

“The DUP did not just call for a halt to the formation of an executive, they also tried to veto the functioning of the assembly,” she said.

“The UK Government assisted the DUP in these blocking tactics.”

By refusing to support the election of a president, the DUP – previously Stormont’s largest party and holder of the premiership – prevented the formation of a government.

Without a speaker, there can be no debates in the assembly, no committee can be held and the actions of ministers, currently acting in an interim capacity, cannot be monitored.