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DUP to seek snap Northern Ireland election if Brexit protocol isn’t axed

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Democratic Unionist leader Jeffrey Donaldson warned Thursday that his party will exit the Northern Ireland Assembly and force a snap election if the post-Brexit trade protocol isn’t scrapped within weeks — a threat other parties dismissed as self-destructive.

Donaldson issued his challenge hours ahead of meeting European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič at Stormont, the Belfast base for a fragile power-sharing government of British unionists and Irish nationalists.

Šefčovič, who started a two-day visit to Northern Ireland by visiting businesses on the border with the Republic of Ireland, said he hoped to have “constructive discussions” with Donaldson and other local party chiefs.

But Donaldson made clear, during a 40-minute speech accompanied by a barrage of social media posts, that the DUP expects the British government to invoke Article 16 of the protocol agreement soon or risk seeing Stormont collapse via a DUP withdrawal. Article 16 allows either side to unilaterally override the arrangement in the event of serious economic or social disruption.

“A choice has to be made between the political institutions and the protocol. The [British] government can’t have both and the EU can’t have both,” Donaldson said.

“If the choice is ultimately between remaining in office or implementing the protocol in its present form, then the only option for any unionist minister would be to cease to hold such office,” he said.

Later, when asked on BBC Radio Ulster whether Northern Ireland could face an election before Christmas, Donaldson called that “a strong possibility.”

The U.K. government, eager to secure big changes to the protocol in the face of EU opposition, said the DUP leader’s comments show “the real pressures that the protocol is causing in Northern Ireland and the lack of cross-community support for the current arrangements.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said: “Without this support, the protocol cannot be sustainable for the long term.”

‘Instability’

Underscoring Donaldson’s threat is the current arithmetic at Stormont. The DUP holds four of the Northern Ireland Executive’s 10 posts, the most of any party. Were the DUP to walk out, London would be obliged to suspend the Assembly and bring forward elections currently scheduled for May 2022.

But political rivals and analysts forecast that, in such a scenario, the DUP would be voluntarily demoting itself from pole position to a minority unionist role or the opposition benches.

While the DUP is currently the biggest unionist voice at Stormont, recent polls suggest it’s seeing supporters defect because of its backfiring support for Brexit, dropping it to third place among pro-U.K. voters.

Many are shifting to the less strident Ulster Unionists, who opposed Brexit and have published their own plans to overhaul how the protocol works, not block it. And its leader, Doug Beattie, sought to draw a stark line between Donaldson’s tactics and his own.

“Where we absolutely differ is that the UUP will provide pragmatic solutions and engagement, while the DUP will provide threats leading to instability and further harming our people here in Northern Ireland,” Beattie said.

“We will engage constructively and put forward practical solutions as we seek to replace the protocol. We continue to lobby rather than threaten,” he said.

The Ulster Unionists currently have only one Executive minister, who oversees health policy and Northern Ireland’s management of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I certainly won’t be asking my party to withdraw from the Executive when we are still dealing with a COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences on a health service which is facing challenges on an unprecedented scale,” Beattie said.

‘Panic mode’

All polls in recent years forecast that the DUP’s arch-rival atop the Belfast coalition, the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party, will be the big winners in the next Northern Ireland election. Sinn Féin has already overtaken the DUP in Assembly seats.

And Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, due to meet Šefčovič separately, said the EU shouldn’t take orders from a DUP “in disarray” and “in panic mode driven by poor opinion polls.”

She said an increasing number of Northern Ireland residents would vote to leave the U.K. and join the Republic of Ireland — Sinn Féin’s decades-old objective — as the easiest path back to EU membership. Britain would have to permit such a referendum.

“We will remind Maroš Šefčovič today that the DUP do not represent or speak for the majority of people in the north who opposed Brexit and leaving the EU,” she said.

Šefčovič also met Thursday with retail and manufacturing chiefs in Northern Ireland, many of whom support the protocol and its principle permitting local firms to export freely both to Britain and the 27-nation EU.

“First and foremost we have to change the optics a little bit. It’s not fair to look at the protocol as a problem. The problem is Brexit,” he told journalists after meeting business leaders in the border town of Newry, a staunchly Irish nationalist town where support for the protocol is strong.

Northern Ireland, he said, was “actually dealing with the consequences and the cost of Brexit. The protocol is the only viable solution to what we’ve been negotiating for a very long time. Therefore I’m here to explore all the possibilities to solve the practical problems, because they’re the most important for the people of Ireland.”

Cristina Gallardo contributed reporting. This story has been updated to include the latest comments from Maroš Šefčovič.

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