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Northern Ireland: DUP leader-to-be Jeffrey Donaldson calls for 'decisive action' on Brexit protocol

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By Alasdair Sandford with AP
In this file photo taken on May 03, 2021 Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP Jeffrey Donaldson poses for a photo at the party's headquarters in Belfast.
In this file photo taken on May 03, 2021 Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP Jeffrey Donaldson poses for a photo at the party's headquarters in Belfast.   -   Copyright  PAUL FAITH / AFP
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Northern Ireland's largest political party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is to choose Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as its new leader -- after a turbulent period in which it has had three chiefs in as many months amid the turmoil over the impact of Brexit.

The 58-year-old, an MP in the UK parliament at Westminster, was the only candidate to throw his hat into the ring by the deadline on Tuesday. The new leader will be confirmed by the unionist party's central executive committee on Saturday.

Donaldson will replace Edwin Poots, who resigned last week over an internal dispute a mere three weeks after being elected. This followed a previous revolt within the party that saw Arlene Foster, leader since 2015, ousted in April.

The new leader-to-be warned that the power-sharing assembly in Belfast would be at risk if post-Brexit trade rules as they relate to Northern Ireland are not changed.

“Make no mistake, this is the number one issue facing our country, our people and our place within the United Kingdom,” he said.

The delicate political balance in Northern Ireland -- where some people identify as British, others as Irish -- has been further shaken this year by Britain's economic split from the European Union which took effect at the New Year.

The unionist community is angered by the Northern Ireland Protocol which they say weakens ties with the rest of the UK. Part of the divorce deal that Boris Johnson struck with the EU to seal the UK's exit, this keeps Northern Ireland subject to EU trade rules.

The deal keeps an open land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, but creates a trade barrier with the rest of the UK -- with customs and border checks imposed on some goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Unlike his short-term predecessor Edwin Poots, Donaldson has not demanded the protocol's withdrawal, while still calling for changes.

“If elected, I will ensure that the government doesn’t just listen, but recognises the need to take decisive action to deal quickly with the protocol," he said.

He added that a failure to act will "undoubtedly have consequences for the stability of our political institutions and the prosperity of our economy.”

London angered Brussels earlier this year when it unilaterally extended a grace period delaying many border inspections on goods sent from Britain to Northern Ireland. Amid a recent so-called "sausage war", the UK has threatened to extend this action to include chilled meats, which won't be allowed into Northern Ireland from July 1 unless the two sides strike a deal.

EU leaders from national governments as well as the bloc's institutions have called on the Johnson government to respect the terms of the accord it signed. Britain has accused the EU of taking an unnecessarily “purist approach” to the new rules.

UK Brexit minister David Frost has again called for more "pragmatism" from the EU, while acknowledging that some progress has been made in negotiations on the implementation of the protocol.

He told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that he and the government were "considering all our options", saying the current situation is "hard to see as sustainable".