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Northern Ireland cabinet formation in jeopardy over post-Brexit trade agreement

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refuses to form a coalition with Sinn Féin, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and to appoint a Deputy First Minister, until post-Brexit trading rules are overhauled.

The so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, a part of the Brexit agreement, created a customs border in the sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK to preserve the province’s open land border with EU member state Ireland. The UK and the EU have been in a deadlock for months over this deal.

Britain demands a full overhaul of the existing agreement and appears to be ready to unilaterally suspend it if it cannot reach a deal with the EU. But lifting the inter-UK customs border and setting up one between Northern Ireland and the Republic would violate the peace agreements which brought about the end to The Troubles, the ethno-nationalist conflict which plagued Northern Ireland for three decades straight until the late 1990s.

Changing the current customs arrangement could spark trouble, and so the British side pledged during a press briefing on Tuesday, May 10, to “continue to talk with the EU”, yet at the same time said that the UK “will not let that stand in the way of protecting peace and stability in Northern Ireland,” suggesting that any trouble brewing in Ulster will be the outcome of Brussels’ obstinacy on the subject. “We urge our partners in the EU to work with us, with new imagination and flexibility, to deliver that,” stated the British officials in a formal document.

Sinn Féin may have scored a historic win in the recent elections granting it the plurality of seats in the Legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland. But to form a government in Stormont, the power-sharing agreement requires that whoever wins the election, Irish Catholic nationalists, or British Protestant Unionists, the coalition and cabinet must include representatives of both communities. And the DUP has made demands that are hard to meet in face of the failure of the Westminster government and EU authorities in Brussels to agree on the trading rules.

While Sinn Féin has no problem with maintaining the protocol which brings it closer to the Republic of Ireland, and which they appear to hope can be used as leverage for the reunification, the Democratic Unionist Party, previously the top dog and senior partner in all previous elections and coalitions, have now put their foot down and demand that there will be no coalition unless Northern Ireland can trade with the rest of the United Kingdom freely.

DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, told BBC Radio in an interview, that he had spoken to UK PM Boris Johnson on Tuesday and that Downing Street agrees that the current situation cannot be sustained any longer. Having talked to Taoiseach Micheál Martin, his Irish counterpart, Prime Minister Johnson said that the situation with the protocol was now “very serious”, and accused the European Commission of failing to take steps to address the economic and political disruptions the protocol is causing. The PM’s spokesperson said that the British cabinet pledged, again, that it “would take action to protect peace and political stability in Northern Ireland if solutions could not be found.”

Taoiseach Martin, as well as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, have warned Johnson and his cabinet not to take any unilateral steps, however. Chancellor Scholz, during a press conference following his meeting with Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, said that the current arrangement was “a good way for Northern Ireland and no one should unilaterally override the arrangement which we have agreed together.” Mr De Croo likewise said: “Our message is quite clear: Don’t touch this.”


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