The DUP will hold back on its threat to collapse Stormont over the Northern Ireland protocol for a few more weeks to enable post-Brexit negotiations between the UK and EU to continue, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said.
The party leader has faced questions at to why he has not followed through on his ultimatum to withdraw ministers from Stormont at the start of November – thus collapsing powersharing – if major changes to the contentious Irish Sea trading arrangements had not been secured by that date.
It comes as the hijacking and burning of a bus in Newtownards, a predominantly unionist area, was possibly timed to mark the DUP’s missed deadline.
Around 6.30 on Monday morning, two masked men boarded a bus and poured fuel over the vehicle before setting it alight.
Stormont’s infrastructure minister, Nichola Mallon, said the men who carried out the attack “muttered something about the protocol” while holding the bus driver at gun point.
The driver managed to get off the vehicle unharmed, but was left badly shaken by the incident. No passengers were onboard at the time.
A nearby bus shelter was also significantly damaged by the fire.
Condemning the “paramilitary elements” behind the attack, Sir Jeffrey insisted they would not influence his political strategy to remove the Irish Sea border.
He said it would be “churlish” to pull down Stormont at this point, claiming the UK government was making progress in efforts to slash the red tape burden imposed by the protocol. His comments come as negotiations between the EU and UK remain deadlocked.
The government has signalled it will move to unilaterally suspend elements of the protocol – by triggering a mechanism known as Article 16 – if an agreed outcome is not reached by the end of November.
The oversight role of the European Court of Justice in policing the operation of the protocol remains a key sticking point in the negotiations.
Sir Jeffrey said that he was prepared to give a few more “weeks” to enable negotiations to reach an agreement that would remove the Irish Sea border.
“If that doesn’t happen, I expect the government, as the prime minister said last week, to take unilateral action. The prime minister has said that the conditions exist to trigger Article 16 and I expect that to happen. If these things don’t happen, then I will act. I’ve made that absolutely clear,” he said.
The protocol is the mechanism agreed by the EU and UK to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland post-Brexit, which it has done by effectively keeping Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods – an arrangement that has led to checks on products crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain.
Brexit minister Lord Frost and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic are due to meet face-to-face on Friday.
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