Full report by UTV Political Correspondent Vicki Hawthorne:
The DUP will take a “graduated and cautious” approach to re-engaging with Stormont power-sharing – depending on the progress of legislation to override parts of the Brexit protocol, party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said.
Sir Jeffrey described the UK government’s announcement to table a Bill that would enable it to act unilaterally to change parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol as a “welcome if overdue step”.
But he stressed that his party, which has refused to return to a devolved government in Northern Ireland in protest at the Irish Sea trading arrangements, needed to see action rather than words from London.
A new executive cannot be formed in Belfast following the recent election unless the DUP agrees to fill the post of deputy first minister.
The party has also declined to support the nomination of a new Assembly speaker, meaning the legislature at Parliament Buildings cannot meet.
Sir Jeffrey has made it clear that radical changes to the protocol must be delivered if the party is to re-engage with power-sharing.
Responding to Tuesday’s announcement by foreign secretary Liz Truss, the DUP leader told the Commons: “From the outset in this House, the DUP warned about the consequences of this protocol and that’s why we opposed it from the beginning, because we recognised the political and economic instability it would cause and the harm it would create for the union itself.
“The statement today is a welcome if overdue step that is a significant move towards addressing the problems created by the protocol and getting power-sharing based upon a cross-community consensus up and running again.
“Therefore, we hope to see progress on a Bill in order to deal with these matters in days and weeks, not months, and as the legislation progresses we will take a graduated and cautious approach.
“We want to see the Irish Sea border removed and the Government honouring its commitments in the New Decade, New Approach agreement (the 2020 deal that restored power-sharing) to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.
“The statement today indicates this will be covered in the legislation to bring about new revised arrangements.
“Under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing can only be stable if consensus exists on a cross-community basis. It does not exist at the moment on the part of the unionist community.
“We want to see the political institutions properly functioning as soon as possible, but to restore unionist confidence, decisive action is now needed in the form of legislation to repair the harm done by the protocol to the acts of union and put in place sensible arrangements that, in the words of the Queen’s speech, ensure the continued success and integrity of the whole of the United Kingdom, including the internal economic bonds between all its parts.
“Finally, Mr Speaker, the words today are a good start but the Foreign Secretary will know that it is actions that speak louder than words and I welcome her commitment to such decisive action in this statement to the House.”
The Alliance Party and the SDLP expressed concern following Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s announcement that a new law would be introduced to change parts of the post-Brexit deal.
But the UUP described it a “step towards fixing the protocol in a pragmatic way”.
Alliance North Down MP Stephen Farry said the proposed action is “unwanted and unwarranted”, adding it “may prove to be counterproductive and destructive”.
He also described “much of the rationale cited by the Government” as “disingenuous”.
Mr Farry insisted the protocol brings opportunities as well as challenges for Northern Ireland.
“Everyone is frustrated at the slow pace of progress over the past 12 months. The EU should display greater flexibility. However the primary fault lies with the belligerent and begrudging approach taken by the UK Government,” he said.
“Any action or even threat of action that takes Northern Ireland out of the single market, including disapplying the jurisdiction of the ECJ, will undermine our region as an investment location. It would also lead to even greater political instability.
“The way forward lies in mutual agreement between the UK and EU around legal and sustainable solutions.”
SDLP leader and Foyle MP Colum Eastwood described the move by the Government as “absolutely astonishing”.
Speaking in the House of Commons he said: “The Foreign Secretary has confirmed that she’s going to go against the majority, despite what she might say, the majority of citizens in Northern Ireland who support the protocol, by ripping up an international agreement called the withdrawal agreement.
“It’s a very, very simple question despite what some people … they might not want to listen to the majority of people in Northern Ireland. It’s a very simple question – how can any international partner or how can any citizen in the north of Ireland ever trust this Government again?”
Ms Truss responded: “An overwhelming proportion of people in Northern Ireland, 78%, agreed that the protocol needs to change in polling conducted in December 2021.
“It is simply not true to say a majority of people in Northern Ireland support the protocol – what we want to find ideally, with the EU, is a solution that works for all the communities in Northern Ireland.”
Meanwhile UUP leader Doug Beattie welcomed Ms Truss’s stated preference for a negotiated outcome to protocol talks.
“But it is important to know that the UK Government is prepared to act to protect Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market and remove the Irish Sea border as well as protecting the hard-fought-for Belfast Agreement,” he said.
“What is clear to me is that the EU needs to change its mandate. I believe that Maros Sefcovic understands and accepts the landing zone, but I sense the hurdles are other member states.
“We need cool heads, not knee-jerk reactions. Not the megaphone diplomacy that we saw from Simon Coveney over the weekend.
“There are clear problems that are in need of solutions rather than sanctimony, which does not help the people of Northern Ireland one jot.
“The solutions are there, the question is whether the political will is there to agree them.”
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