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The government is hopeful that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) move to bring Stormont to a halt will prompt the European Union to make a compromise big enough to reach an agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol in the coming weeks.
A senior UK source on Wednesday said the DUP walkout last week, which saw Paul Givan resign as First Minister, showed that a solution for the Protocol that is accepted by the staunchly unionist party, was the only way of avoiding the province ending up without functioning Executive.
“We are hopeful of a big enough move from the EU in the next few weeks to convince unionists that things are moving in the right direction,” they said.
“If the Northern Ireland Protocol isn’t revolved by 5 May, the DUP probably won’t nominate a First Minister or Deputy First Minister, and that would put us in a very difficult place where we could have another long gap without an Executive”.
There is concern that Northern Ireland could be without a functioning Executive once again following the upcoming election if the DUP, in protest against the Protocol, refuses to form a government. Under power-sharing rules, the Executive must be comprised of the largest unionist and nationalist parties, which recent polling suggests will be the DUP and Sinn Fein, with the latter being the biggest of the two. In 2017 Stormont collapsed and was not restored until three years later in January 2020.
A separate government source said the DUP move last week “reiterates warnings we have been making for a while that this is where this would end up if no significant movement [on the Protocol]”.
They strongly rejected claims, however, that the government encouraged the DUP to walk away from Stormont in the belief that it would put pressure on Brussels to offer further compromises in talks.
UK sources are hopeful of striking a deal with Brussels – likely a temporary agreement – in the next few weeks. This way it could potentially be signed off at a Joint Committee meeting of UK and EU officials later this month, which is currently expected to take place on 21 February.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who leads on the Northern Ireland Protocol for the government, is due to host her European Commission counterpart Maros Sefcovic in London this week.
An EU source played down the chances of a major breakthrough in the coming weeks, however, and told PoliticsHome that “the ball is firmly in the UK court” in the negotiations. They said there was “no interest in or appetite” on the part of Brussels to make further concessions and that the bloc was still waiting for Truss to set out new proposals that she recently promised.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, which was agreed by Boris Johnson as part of Brexit negotiations and implemented at the beginning of 2020, was designed to avoid a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland. It did this by keeping Northern Ireland in line with EU trading rules.
However, both sides have since agreed that the post-Brexit treaty is resulting in undue levels of disruption to trade across the Irish Sea and are currently in the process of renegotiating it.
Givan’s resignation was an escalation of the DUP’s long-standing protest against the Protocol, which the party believes has cut Northern Ireland adrift from the rest of the UK.
Legislation being passed by Westminster this week means his resignation, which automatically triggered the resignation of Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein, means Stormont will not totally collapse. The Assembly can continue to meet and legislation already in motion can continue forward, but the Executive can neither meet nor approve new laws.
The legislation also states the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland cannot call an election within six weeks of a ministerial resignation. This all but kills speculation of an early election and means it will almost certainly go ahead on 5 May as planned.
Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is currently in the US where he is meeting politicians and others to discuss issues facing the province.
On Wednesday he was in Washington, where he was due to meet senior Democratic Congressman Richie Neal and Karen Donfried, who serves in the Biden administration as Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, among others.
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