Northern Ireland’s unionist chief minister quit on Thursday in a row over post-Brexit trade, prompting calls for early elections in the tense British province.
“Today marks the end of what has been the privilege of my lifetime,” First Minister Paul Givan told reporters, as a new dispute over the post-Brexit movement of goods between northern Ireland and mainland Britain broke out.
Givan’s departure had been anticipated with the leader of his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Jeffrey Donaldson, threatening to collapse the devolved government in Belfast in protest at the trading arrangements agreed between London and Brussels.
The so-called Northern Ireland Protocol is designed to prevent unchecked goods from the mainland entering the European single market by the back door via neighbouring Ireland, which is a member of the European Union.
But the DUP and other pro-British unionist parties are implacably opposed to it, arguing that an effective Irish Sea border has weakened Northern Ireland’s affiliation with the UK.
With Givan gone, his deputy Michelle O’Neill, from the pro-Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, is also forced to resign under the terms of a 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of sectarian violence in northern Ireland.
The development comes not long before local elections in May that Sinn Fein looks poised to win, and critics have accused the DUP of growing increasingly desperate to shore up its own support.
– ‘Political deadlock’ –
“We cannot stagger on for months without a functioning executive. Sinn Fein will not facilitate this,” said the party’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald.
“In the absence of a functioning executive, an early election must be called and the people must have their say,” she told reporters.
Northern Ireland’s upcoming polls are being keenly watched given Sinn Fein’s lead in opinion polls, which could make it the biggest party by popular support in the whole island of Ireland.
It would also put the issue of a united Ireland back on the table, a century after Northern Ireland was carved out by Britain as a separate statelet in deference to its Protestant majority.
Other ministers in the devolved administration in Belfast can stay in place. But the executive is now unable to make any significant decisions, including on its budget.
The UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, described Givan’s resignation as “extremely disappointing” and called for him to rethink.
“We must not return to a state of political deadlock and inertia,” Lewis said, referring to previous rows that saw the executive suspended.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Givan’s decision was “deeply regrettable”, urging all leaders in Northern Ireland to avoid “any new cliff edges or instability”.
But the DUP’s Donaldson reaffirmed his position that the protocol was an “existential threat” to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, and was harming business.
“The longer the protocol remains, the more it will harm the Union itself. I think now is the moment when we say, ‘enough’.”
– ‘Unhelpful’ –
Edwin Poots, a DUP minister who holds the assembly’s agriculture portfolio, triggered a fresh row about the protocol on Wednesday night by ordering a halt on port checks of goods from mainland Great Britain.
Poots’ move came ahead of UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s latest talks with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic about reforming the protocol.
Brussels described the Poots directive as “unhelpful”, saying it “creates further uncertainty and unpredictability for businesses and citizens in Northern Ireland”.
A European Commission spokesperson said the border agreement was “the one and only solution” to safeguard the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
As part of that deal, an open land border was mandated between Northern Ireland and Ireland to the south.
Truss said she had had a “good discussion” about proposed changes to the protocol with Sefcovic.
“My priority remains maintaining peace and stability in Northern Ireland,” Truss tweeted, adding that further talks were pencilled in for next week in London.