The Democratic Unionist party leadership is expected to signal its willingness to walk out of power-sharing in Stormont if the Brexit Northern Ireland protocol is not scrapped.
Just days after the Brexit minister, David Frost, announced the UK would not “sweep away” the controversial arrangements, which involve checks on goods crossing into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, the DUP’s leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, is expected to warn that the Stormont institutions could collapse unless more radical moves are made by the British government.
The remarks, in a speech on Wednesday morning, are the most serious threat by the DUP just 18 months after power-sharing resumed. The Belfast-based assembly was collapsed three years earlier after an acrimonious dispute with Sinn Féin.
Donaldson, the new party leader, will stress that the protocol was “not just a unionist problem” and that in the “absence of actual progress” to scrap the protocol as “we cannot remain in this political limbo”.
According to reports on the BBC, he will also harden the DUP’s present opposition to the protocol. A senior source told the broadcaster the speech would mark a “significant hardening of the DUP position and will place the onus on London and Brussels to act or run the risk of dragging Northern Ireland backwards, all the progress made from 2007 will be lost”.
His warnings come as political leaders in London and Brussels moved to take the heat out of the dispute, with the UK extending indefinitely a series of checks, including health checks on chilled meats such as sausages, that were due to come into force on 1 October.
They also coincide with the arrival in Belfast of the European Commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, Lord Frost’s counterpart in Brussels, for two days of meetings with political, business and civic leaders.
Speaking in advance of his speech, Donaldson said: “I will be using this speech to set out the next steps in our campaign to remove the NI protocol. It is not just a threat to the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, it is having real world impacts on our economy.”
He noted that Esmond Birnie, a senior economist at the University of Ulster, recently suggested the cost of the protocol could be in the region of £850m a year.
“That is money we simply cannot afford to lose. And though I am alarmed by the constitutional implications of the protocol, it is assuredly not simply a unionist issue.”
He added that the Marks & Spencer chairman, Archie Norman, recently warned that customers in Northern Ireland could face a “substantial reduction in food supply” and price increases this year.
Donaldson welcomed the UK’s demand that the EU work with London to come up with a new agreement but said Northern Ireland wanted Frost to go much further.
At the weekend Frost said he was seeking substantial changes to the protocol and wanted to trigger Article 13 (8) of the agreement, which allows for the agreement to be superseded.
But he said this did not mean axing the protocol, and in his vision the new arrangements would still include some checks in the Irish Sea.
“This is not simply a question of limiting checks at the border or moving the checks from the border. It must mean that, save for the most limited circumstances, EU law would not apply in Northern Ireland,” Donaldson said.