European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic has held “constructive” talks with Stormont leaders over the difficulties in implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The meetings came at the end of a dramatic day when the DUP leader signalled that his party will collapse the Executive within weeks if changes to the protocol are not delivered.
The speech from Sir Jeffrey Donaldson brought a furious reaction from other Stormont parties, with Sinn Fein describing it as a “reckless and irresponsible election stunt”.
The controversy coincided with the visit by Mr Sefcovic to Northern Ireland to gather information about the post-Brexit agreement. He met business leaders near the Irish border before travelling to Stormont.
Both the UUP and Sinn Fein said that Mr Sefcovic had told them the EU would legislate to resolve any difficulties caused to the supply of medicines because of the protocol.
“I promised them that I’m ready to engage with all of them, bilaterally and collectively, because we really want to resolve all the issues linked to the protocol and to turn it into the opportunity which really we believe that it is.”
However, the DUP has stepped up its campaign of opposition to the protocol, which was agreed by the UK and EU as a way to maintain a free-flowing land border on the island of Ireland after Brexit.
It achieves that by moving many of the checks and processes required on goods to the Irish Sea.
Under the arrangements, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market for goods and continues to apply EU customs rules.
Unionists in Northern Ireland have been vehemently opposed to its terms which see additional checks on goods arriving to the region from the rest of the UK.
They claim the arrangements have undermined Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.
“In the final analysis those who are democratically elected by the people of Northern Ireland lack the power to prevent such checks, if that is the case, if our ministers cannot in the end prevent these checks taking place and if the protocol issues remain then I have to be clear, the position in office of DUP ministers would become untenable,” he said.
“If the choice is ultimately between remaining in office or implementing the protocol in its present form then the only option, the only option for any unionist minister would be to cease to hold such office.”
Sir Jeffrey added: “Within weeks it will become clear if there is a basis for the Assembly and Executive to continue in this current mandate, and I want that to happen.
“But, equally, we will also need to consider whether there is a need for an Assembly election to refresh our mandate if action is not taken to address and resolve the issues related to the protocol and its impact, its damaging impact on Northern Ireland each and every day.”
While Sir Jeffrey said the DUP was withdrawing from north/south political bodies, he said his party would seek to ensure continued cross-border co-operation on health issues.
“And let me be clear, as part of the proper functioning of all aspects of the political institutions I want the north/south institutions to work,” he said.
“Post Brexit, north/south and east/west relationships are, if anything, more important than ever.
“But they cannot operate in isolation or while strand three (of the Good Friday Agreement), the east/west relationship, has been undermined.
“There can be no dispute that the fabric of strand three has been fundamentally undermined by the protocol.
“In such circumstances, unionists cannot be expected to operate strand two as though nothing had changed.”
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald responded: “The position set out by Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP today is a reckless, irresponsible and short-sighted election stunt.
“They are threatening the stability of the political institutions when we are in the midst of the Covid pandemic, when the Tories are putting families and workers under pressure with more cuts, and when there is big work to do on the issues that matter to people’s everyday lives – on hospital waiting lists, on schools, on housing and on jobs, and on rebuilding our economy.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also criticised the DUP stance, accusing the party of holding the people of Northern Ireland to ransom.
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said his party is also opposed to the protocol, but said he wanted to provide “pragmatic solutions and engagement” and would not be pulling out of the Executive.