Northern Ireland faces political paralysis after DUP vows to block election of speaker3 min read


Northern Ireland faced political paralysis on Friday after the regions largest unionist party said it would block the election of a regional assembly speaker and boycott the formation of a new power-sharing executive over a row about post-Brexit trade rules.

As the UK government said it could have “no option” but to start the process to unilaterally rip up parts of the Brexit arrangements for the region as soon as next week, the Democratic Unionist party defended its decision that could mean months of political limbo and even, potentially, another election this winter.

The escalating tensions, which risk a trade war between London and Brussels, have alarmed Washington and US president Joe Biden is preparing to appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland. London says its actions are needed to protect a quarter century-old peace pact in Northern Ireland.

The DUP sees its tactics as a lever to force London to change the post-Brexit trade rules known as the Northern Ireland protocol that unionists say harm the region’s place as part of the UK by putting a customs border for goods in the Irish Sea.

Elected legislators will go to the assembly at Stormont at midday to sign the roll — designating themselves as “unionist”, “nationalist” or “other” under rules established by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of conflict and was designed to establish cross-community consensus.

But the DUP’s veto means the assembly will not be able to sit and business will be frozen. No executive will be able to be formed, leaving caretaker ministers in their roles but unable to enact new policy.

“Unionist concerns over the Northern Ireland protocol are not merely some political squabble which is impacting upon Stormont,” DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said in a statement.

“The protocol is a direct challenge to the principles that have underpinned every agreement reached in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years. It erodes the very foundations that devolution has been built upon.”

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.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Naomi Long, head of the Alliance Party which came third in the elections, told the BBC. “Who did the public endorse? Clearly those of us who wanted to see the executive and the assembly functioning.”

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 attacked indications that London would breach an international treaty it had signed, saying it was “increasing tension unnecessarily between the UK and the EU”.

He added in a BBC interview on Friday 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.

But Long 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,” she said.

Additional reporting by Andy Bounds in Brussels

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