David Young, PA
The leader of the DUP has urged party colleagues to maintain a united front during a “critical time” in the campaign against the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has written to DUP members telling them he expects the UK government to take unilateral action – including moving legislation to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market – if ongoing negotiations between London and Brussels end in failure.
Stressing the need for unity across unionism, Mr Donaldson also insisted his strategy over the contentious post-Brexit trading arrangements has been consistent since coming to post in the summer.
The DUP leader has extended a deadline he initially set in September to pull his ministers out of the Stormont Executive at the start of November if significant changes to the protocol had not been secured by that date.
There have been suggestions the hijacking and burning of a bus in Newtownards, Co Down, on Monday morning was timed to mark the DUP’s missed deadline.
Mr Donaldson has said it would be “churlish” to pull down Stormont when negotiations between the EU and UK on addressing issues with the protocol remain ongoing.
In a letter to party colleagues, seen by the PA news agency, Mr Donaldson wrote: “Our strategy has not changed since I first addressed party members on 1st July.
“The only acceptable outcome to this process is the removal of the Irish Sea border.”
Mr Donaldson said he had outlined at the Conservative Party conference last month that “further time would be necessary to see the outcome of negotiations between the UK and EU”.
The UK government has signalled it will move to unilaterally suspend elements of the protocol – by triggering a mechanism known as Article 16 – if an agreed outcome is not reached by the end of November.
The oversight role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in policing the operation of the protocol remains a key sticking point in the negotiations.
Mr Donaldson said that the 2020 New Decade, New Approach agreement contained a commitment to ensure the integrity of the UK internal market.
He said if the EU refused to “agree to the restoration of Northern Ireland’s economic and constitutional sovereignty” then it would fall upon the UK government to do so through legislation.
“The prime minister has been clear that the conditions to trigger Article 16 have been met and I spoke to him again last week,” he wrote.
“He agrees that rapid progress is now needed in the negotiations or the government will take unilateral action. I expect this to include legislation to protect our position in the UK internal market.
“We should not forget the stance taken by the European Union even until recent weeks or ignore the progress that has been made.
“We secured that progress because of decisive action taken by the Democratic Unionist Party and a united focus across the Unionist family.
“Whilst we await the outcome of negotiations our strategy remains clear and unchanged.
“We expect real and decisive progress to be made in the coming weeks and if it doesn’t, we will act in accordance with the commitments previously given.
“Thank you for your support at this critical time. Our collective efforts have brought us much needed progress and we must continue to present a united front within the Party and across Unionism in order to achieve our objectives.”
The protocol is the mechanism agreed by the EU and UK to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland post-Brexit.
It has achieved that by effectively keeping Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods, an arrangement which has led to checks on products crossing the Irish Sea from Britain.
The UK's Brexit minister Lord Frost and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic are due to meet face to face on Friday to check in on what progress has been made in the talks.
Mr Sefcovic, writing in The Daily Telegraph at the start of the week, said he feared the UK was embarking on a “path of confrontation” in its refusal to back down on its stance that the ECJ should not have an arbitration role.
He said the EU had “gone the extra mile” with its own reform proposals, but that the bloc had “limits”.
But Lord Frost, writing for the Policy Exchange think tank, said the EU had “destroyed cross-community consent” in Northern Ireland with an “overly strict” enforcement of the trading arrangements.
He condemned the EU for behaving “without regard to the huge political, economic and identity sensitivities” in Northern Ireland.