Northern Ireland protocol a barrier to forming government, says DUP

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BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - MAY 02: Democratic Unionist party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (R) chats with a stall owner as he canvasses for votes at the Holywood May Fair on May 2, 2022 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The province will go to the polls later this week to decide the outcome of the Northern Ireland assembly elections. - Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - MAY 02: Democratic Unionist party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (R) chats with a stall owner as he canvasses for votes at the Holywood May Fair on May 2, 2022 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The province will go to the polls later this week to decide the outcome of the Northern Ireland assembly elections. - Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The DUP will only enter into a power-sharing government in Stormont after elections this week if other parties agree that the Northern Ireland Protocol must be removed or replaced, party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said last night.

Sinn Fein accused the DUP of refusing to accept the democratic outcome of the election during a leaders’ debate of the five major political parties where Sir Jeffrey accused his nationalist rivals of plotting to hold a unification referendum.

The nationalists are predicted to displace the DUP as the biggest party in Northern Ireland for the first time. If polls are borne out, Sinn Fein will be entitled to the role of First Minister for the first time but will need the support of the largest Unionist party to form a government.

“We must deal with the protocol. We've got to get political stability back and all that and we have to have an executive forum on cases that can command cross community support and right now, there is not union support for the protocol. It is harming our politics,” said Sir Jeffrey.

Sir Jeffrey said Sinn Fein would use the elections to build support for a referendum on a united Ireland. Anyone who said otherwise was “deluded”, he said.

“I believe a border poll would be divisive and I certainly don’t think we should be focusing on that,” he said.

The protocol prevents the need for a hard Irish border by introducing customs checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland, which continues to follow some EU rules. Unionists believe it drives a wedge between them and the rest of the UK.

Democratic Unionist leader Jeffrey Donaldson after participating in an Audience with Northern Ireland's Political Leaders, organised by the CBI and chaired by BBC Northern Ireland's Economics and Business Editor, John Campbell, at Queen's University in Belfast, during campaigning for the 2022 NI Assembly election. Picture date: Thursday April 28, 2022. PA Photo. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has insisted he is looking forward to leading the DUP into a new Stormont Executive, but said the Brexit Protocol must be dealt with first. See PA story ULSTER Election DUP. Photo credit should read: Mark Marlow/PA Wire - Mark Marlow/PA Wire
Democratic Unionist leader Jeffrey Donaldson after participating in an Audience with Northern Ireland's Political Leaders, organised by the CBI and chaired by BBC Northern Ireland's Economics and Business Editor, John Campbell, at Queen's University in Belfast, during campaigning for the 2022 NI Assembly election. Picture date: Thursday April 28, 2022. PA Photo. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has insisted he is looking forward to leading the DUP into a new Stormont Executive, but said the Brexit Protocol must be dealt with first. See PA story ULSTER Election DUP. Photo credit should read: Mark Marlow/PA Wire - Mark Marlow/PA Wire

“We wouldn't have a protocol tonight if we didn't have Brexit, the hardest possible Brexit, which you can take a lot of responsibility for delivering,” said Michelle O’Neill, the vice-resident of Sinn Fein and former deputy first minister.

She said the protocol, which prevents a hard Irish border, was “mitigation against Brexit”.

What was now needed was to “make it work, to bring the certainty and stability that our business community really desire.”

Ms O’Neill said the “conversation” about a border poll was already underway but refused to put a deadline on when the vote to reunify Ireland could be held.

Her campaign has focused on the cost of living crisis rather than an immediate referendum on unification.

“I'm very fixated on the planning because Brexit is a case in point around how not to do a referendum,” she said to applause.

“We need to have something that works for absolutely everybody. We haven't done that,” said Doug Beattie, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, of the protocol.

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Mainland UK meat produce including Cumberland sausages is seen on a Northern Irish supermarket shelf on September 10, 2021 in Belfast, United Kingdom. Negotiations between the EU and UK have faltered on checks on some goods moving between the UK and Northern Ireland. The two trade bodies have agreed to continue the grace period indefinitely so talks can continue, this means that the flow of produce destined for Northern Irish supermarkets without checks will not, for now, be challenged thereby averting another so called sausage war over the sale of British meat including sausages, mincemeat and hams in the province which was due to be banned at the end of September. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images) - Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Mainland UK meat produce including Cumberland sausages is seen on a Northern Irish supermarket shelf on September 10, 2021 in Belfast, United Kingdom. Negotiations between the EU and UK have faltered on checks on some goods moving between the UK and Northern Ireland. The two trade bodies have agreed to continue the grace period indefinitely so talks can continue, this means that the flow of produce destined for Northern Irish supermarkets without checks will not, for now, be challenged thereby averting another so called sausage war over the sale of British meat including sausages, mincemeat and hams in the province which was due to be banned at the end of September. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images) - Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

He accused the DUP of “scare tactics” and added that “the border poll was not on this ballot”.

“You must be hearing the same thing that I'm hearing on the doors and they don't care about protocols or positions at Stormont. They want money in their pockets,” said the nationalist SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who said the border poll was “an issue for another day”.

Sir Jeffrey claimed the protocol was exacerbating the cost of living crisis, which led many of the other leaders to criticise him for pulling the DUP out of Stormont.

The Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in February when DUP First Minister Paul Givan quit in protest over the Protocol.

“All of the parties and brought forward proposals on the cost of living crisis. But the reality was we couldn't implement them because Jeffrey withdrew their First Minister,” said Naomi Long, the leader of the cross community Alliance.

UK-EU negotiations over to cut checks in the protocol on British goods entering Northern Ireland are yet to bring a significant breakthrough.

The DUP and Alliance Party are neck and neck in second place among voters, according to the latest Institute of Irish Studies/University of Liverpool/Irish News poll.

The survey of voter intentions has Sinn Fein on 26.6 per cent. The DUP is on 18.2 per cent, two percentage points lower than in the same poll last month.

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