By David Young, PA
British foreign secretary Liz Truss is on the same page as the DUP in her approach to securing major changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol, the party’s leader has claimed.
Jeffrey Donaldson said Ms Truss’s pledges to reform the contentious post-Brexit trading mechanisms needed to be backed up with actions.
He indicated a “pause” on the DUP threat to collapse the power-sharing institutions at Stormont over the protocol would remain pending the outcome of renewed negotiations between the UK and EU over the Irish Sea trading barriers.
Sinn Féin leaders Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill will also hold talks with the British foreign secretary. That engagement will be virtual.
Ms Truss has taken charge of the UK negotiations on the protocol after David Frost’s resignation from the British government last month. She will hold face-to-face talks with her EU counterpart – European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic – later this week.
Ahead of those discussions, she had insisted she will not sign up to any arrangement that involved checks on goods moving within the UK.
Checks on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland are central to the operation of the protocol in its current form.
Ms Truss also reiterated the British government threat to suspend elements of the protocol – by triggering its Article 16 mechanism – if a negotiated settlement with the EU proves elusive.
“When I see Maros Sefcovic this week for our first face-to-face talks, I’ll be putting forward our constructive proposals to resolve the situation,” she said in the Sunday Telegraph. “I am prepared to work night and day to negotiate a solution.
“But let me be clear: I will not sign up to anything which sees the people of Northern Ireland unable to benefit from the same decisions on taxation and spending as the rest of the UK, or which still sees goods moving within our own country being subject to checks.
“My priority is to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland. I want a negotiated solution, but if we have to use legitimate provisions including Article 16, I am willing to do that.”
Differentiating between Ms Truss’ comments and past statements from the British government, Mr Donaldson said Ms Truss had been more “specific” about the actions London would take to ensure Northern Ireland’s place within the UK market.
“Her focus on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is particularly welcome because that is obviously a key area for us,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
“We have argued consistently that whilst we recognise that there needs to be checks on goods moving into the European Union, there is no need for checks on goods staying within the UK internal market and moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that really has been at the heart of our opposition to the protocol.”
Challenged on whether his repeated threats to pull ministers out of Stormont would ring hollow if he failed to follow through, Mr Donaldson said: “Of course, our possession with regard to continued participation in the Executive remains on the table, but what I want is a solution, that is where my focus is.
“That’s why when others have been pushing for this or that, I’ve kept my nerve, I’ve kept my focus on what we need to achieve, which is an outcome on the protocol which removes the Irish sea border, takes away those checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“And now we have a clear declaration by Liz Truss who is negotiating on behalf of the UK government that she shares this objective so that represents progress, but we want to see that progress translated into action and if we get that action, then yes, of course, that will represent real progress. That’s what I want to see.”
Mr Donaldson said Ms Truss had brought a “renewed focus” to the talks.
“I think that she recognises the need to make progress and quickly,” he said.
The DUP leader added: “I believe that our strategy is working. I believe that we have focused minds of both the EU and the UK government in getting that solution. I welcome what Liz Truss has had to say. I think that she is now on the same page as us in terms of what a solution might look like.
“Of course, there are other matters that need to be addressed but I believe that the way in which we brought a focus on to this issue has ensured that progress is made. Not as much as I would like, not as quickly as I would like, but in the end getting the solution is what really matters.”
Ms McDonald accused the UK government and DUP of “sabre rattling”. She said there was a need to “knuckle down” and resolve the outstanding issues with the protocol.
“If Jeffrey Donaldson is harbouring some ambition of wrecking the protocol, dispensing with the protocol, or having an effect of a whole renegotiation and years again of uncertainty then I think he is mistaken and I have to say he is very, very wrong, not least in the context of a pandemic and everything that society is going through, to be threatening and to pull his ministers or pull down the (Stormont) institutions,” she told Radio Ulster.
She added: “To be really direct and to sum up what needs to happen now, the hard work needs to start and the bad faith from the British government and from a section, and it is only a section, of political unionism needs to stop.”