The leader of Northern Ireland’s largest British unionist party has heightened political tensions by threatening to collapse the power-sharing government in Belfast unless post-Brexit trade rules are rewritten urgently.
Jeffrey Donaldson of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) said the EU-UK accord known as the Northern Ireland Protocol "fundamentally undermines … the economic integrity of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’s position in it".
His comments came on the day that Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission's chief Brexit official, visited Northern Ireland on a two-day trip to meet with businesses and politicians including Donaldson.
"We are totally opposed to the protocol as it presently exists," the DUP leader said, adding that problems must be resolved "in weeks and not months or years". Otherwise, DUP ministers would quit Northern Ireland’s administration -- effectively collapsing the government jointly run with Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein.
His warnings of further trouble were not "a threat" but "a matter of political reality", said Donaldson, who was elected DUP leader two months ago.
Referring to tensions over the new rules that contributed to a spate of street violence in April which has since died down, he added: "I fear that unless we grapple with this issue, this will prove to be merely a pause, rather than an end to the disorder".
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald called Donaldson's stance a “reckless, irresponsible and short-sighted election stunt.” Doug Beattie of the Ulster Unionist Party, the DUP's rival for unionist votes, said Donaldson's “threats” were counterproductive.
Sefcovic, also an EU Commission vice-president, urged all sides to "dial down the political rhetoric" and "work on the concrete problems".
Earlier this week the British government said it was again postponing checks on goods sent from Britain to Northern Ireland. Grace periods had been due to expire at the end of September, which would have meant more trade fiction across the Irish Sea.
In response, the Commission again ruled out a renegotiation of the protocol -- the UK's latest proposals amount to a demand for a complete overhaul -- but has not relaunched its legal action against the UK which was put on pause during the summer.
Under the protocol -- one of whose aims is to prevent a land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, an EU member -- Northern Ireland continues to follow EU rules in areas such as customs, agriculture and product standards.
It was negotiated as part of the Brexit divorce agreement at the end of 2019 by Boris Johnson, whose government has accused the EU of "legal purism" over its troubled implementation, which has plagued EU-UK relations this year.