The Unionist Party refuses to form a new Northern Ireland government
LONDON (AP) — Northern Ireland’s largest Unionist party, which lost local elections last week, refused on Monday to return to a power-sharing government, saying it would not do so until his demands for post-Brexit customs arrangements would not be met.
Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson was among political leaders who met British Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis who urged them to come together to resuscitate a crippled Northern Irish government.
The talks came after nationalist Sinn Fein, which seeks to unite with Ireland, won a historic victory in last week’s elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Sinn Fein overtook rival DUP to become the first Irish nationalist party to win the vote in Northern Ireland’s history.
It was a milestone for a party long associated with the paramilitary Irish Republican Army, which sought to use violence to wrest Northern Ireland from British rule.
But while Sinn Fein is now entitled to the post of First Minister of Northern Ireland, a functioning executive can only be formed if the DUP, as the largest unionist party, agrees to take on the role of deputy minister. under the region’s mandatory power-sharing rules.
Donaldson said on Monday he had made it clear to Lewis that the DUP would not appoint ministers to the executive unless the UK government took ‘decisive action’ on new Brexit customs rules known as the Protocol from Northern Ireland.
“They are strongly committed to protecting our place in the UK internal market. They didn’t, they failed over the last two and a half years to honor that commitment,” Donaldson said.
“We are looking at what the government is going to say now, but what is more fundamentally important is what the government is going to do,” he added.
Unionists are strongly opposed to new customs and border checks on certain goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK which were introduced after Britain left the European Union.
The special arrangement was intended to prevent the return of a land border with the Republic of Ireland. Keeping this border open to the free movement of people and goods is a key pillar of the peace process in Northern Ireland which ended decades of bloody conflict.
But unionists say the new checks have created a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK that undermines their British identity and want them removed.
Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government since February, when then-DUP leader Paul Givan resigned as premier in protest at post-Brexit rules.
Britain’s Conservative government is trying to convince the EU to agree to major changes, but negotiations are deadlocked.
Speaking after Monday’s meetings with party leaders, Lewis said London “will not take anything off the table” in its negotiations with the EU.
“The UK government’s top priority remains the preservation of peace and stability in Northern Ireland,” he said. “The current situation with the protocol fundamentally undermines the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement and creates an unacceptable situation in Northern Ireland.”
Sinn Fein deputy chair Michelle O’Neill stressed she wanted to serve as “first minister for all” and work in partnership with other parties.
“I accept that this election represents a moment of very significant change,” O’Neill said. “As Prime Minister for All, I intend to work with those with different political perspectives through partnership, not division.”
The Northern Ireland Assembly has a week to meet and allow newly elected lawmakers to take their seats. Members of the Assembly will then choose a president and ministers, starting with the prime and deputy prime ministers.
If, as seems likely, no executive can be formed, ministers from the previous government will remain in power as an interim administration. A new election must be held if there is still no executive after 24 weeks.