UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will travel to Belfast on Monday as his government prepares to start the process to unilaterally rip up a post-Brexit trade deal for Northern Ireland that could trigger a trade war with Brussels.
Regional politics were paralysed on Friday after Northern Ireland’s biggest unionist force blocked the election of a candidate backed by nationalist legislators as assembly speaker — a necessary pre-requisite for forming a new executive at Stormont.
Democratic Unionist party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said his hardball actions were necessary to force Westminster, after months of “dithering and delay”, to abolish a customs border for goods in the Irish Sea imposed after Brexit that unionists say diminishes the region’s place in the UK.
But Maros Šefčovič, the EU’s Brexit commissioner, warned London that it could endanger peace and stability if it went ahead with its plans.
“I don’t see how this is promoting peace, stability and predictability for Northern Ireland and for the island of Ireland,” he told the Financial Times, urging London to intensify talks to find a solution.
Michelle O’Neill, first minister-in-waiting from the nationalist Sinn Féin party, which emerged as the region’s biggest political force for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history in elections last week, blasted the DUP’s “antics”, which prevent legislators from tackling the cost of living crisis.
“I regret the fact that we are being a pawn in the middle of a battle between the British government and the EU,” she told reporters, calling the DUP’s strategy “shameful”.
She spoke to Johnson earlier in the week. “He himself will be here on Monday. I intend to put it to him directly that they need to stop pandering to the DUP,” she said.
The decision to abandon large parts of the regional Brexit deal, known as the Northern Ireland protocol, is expected to take place at a high-level meeting in Westminster on Tuesday, according to government officials.
It will be made by a cabinet subcommittee called “Global Britain (Strategy)”, which includes the most senior figures in the government, including Johnson, his deputy Dominic Raab, chancellor Rishi Sunak and foreign secretary Liz Truss, and then announced publicly.
The plan has prompted concern among senior government figures, including Sunak, given the potential for a trade war with the EU — which makes up almost half the UK’s exports and imports.
“The Treasury has always had a longstanding caution against unilateral action on the basis that they’re nervous about retaliatory measures from the EU,” said one official. “Rishi has raised that frequently.”
The escalating tensions have alarmed Washington and members of Congress have said that US president Joe Biden is preparing to appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland. London says its actions are needed to protect the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the three decades-long Troubles in Northern Ireland.
“We need to send a very clear message to our government and the EU that we are very serious about getting this protocol sorted out,” Donaldson told reporters. He called for decisive action “in the days, weeks and months ahead” before he would countenance a return to Stormont.
That will leave caretaker ministers in place, but with limited functions and no oversight, and the assembly unable to meet until a speaker is elected.
The Stormont executive is a mandatory coalition between the region’s two traditional unionist and nationalist communities. Sinn Féin’s election victory on May 5 means it is now entitled to nominate the first minister — a historic shift in a region created for unionists in 1921.
The Guardian reported that a delegation of senior US congressional representatives was flying across the Atlantic for urgent talks in London, Brussels, Belfast and Dublin. Washington and Dublin are guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said the protocol “needs to be implemented with flexibility and pragmatism” and warned in a BBC interview that Ireland could become “collateral damage” in a trade war between the UK and EU over Northern Ireland.
The DUP says the protocol is causing economic damage but the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, a UK think-tank, said Northern Ireland’s economy was slightly outperforming the rest of the UK, in part because the protocol granted dual access to UK and EU markets.
However, Naomi Long, whose Alliance Party came third in the elections last week, said the row could alienate investors. “The American government flying in because of a crisis in Northern Ireland will not say to American investors that this is a place to invest.”
Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London