The First Minister of Northern Ireland has quit after it emerged Brexit border controls on British goods had continued despite a DUP order that the protocol checks should be stopped.
Paul Givan’s resignation will also force Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill to quit as the Deputy First Minister, leaving the Northern Ireland Assembly paralysed ahead of elections on May 5.
Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Fein leader – whose party has opened up an eight per cent lead over the DUP, according to a recent poll, said: “In the absence of a functioning executive an early election must be called.
“The DUP actions have consequences, real consequences, for people struggling with the cost of living, consequences for businesses trying to rebuild after Covid, consequences for our health service, for waiting lists.”
Speaking at a press conference to announce his resignation, Mr Givan said: “Our institutions are being tested once again, and the delicate balance created by the Belfast and St Andrew’s agreements has been impacted by the agreement made by the United Kingdom Government and the European Union which created the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“The consent principle is a cornerstone of the Belfast Agreement, and it is my earnest desire that all sections of the community will soon be able to give consent to the restoration of a fully functioning executive, through a resolution to the issues that have regrettably brought us to this point.”
The announcement was made less than 24 hours after Edwin Poots, the DUP agriculture minister, said he had legal advice that protocol checks needed approval by the Northern Ireland executive.
Boris Johnson said it was “crazy” that British goods meant for Northern Ireland faced checks, and “common sensical, practical steps” could be taken to ensure only goods at risk of crossing into EU member Ireland were checked.
“Now we can do that, but without having a full panoply of checks on the GB/NI coast and at the airport, and that’s the way forward. I think practical common sense is what’s needed,” he said.
Mr Poots’ order only concerns SPS – sanitary and phytosanitary – checks on agrifood, which are to ensure they meet EU animal and plant health standards. Eighty-five per cent of goods sent to Northern Ireland are not subject to checks. Of the remaining 15 per cent, 12 per cent are subject to lorry checks.
“As we speak checks are continuing to take place at ports in Northern Ireland, as they have done before,” a Downing Street spokesman said. “We are monitoring the situation closely and keeping the legal position under review.”
Sinn Fein, Dublin and the European Commission argue that the Northern Ireland Protocol supercedes the order by the DUP minister because it was agreed by the UK Government and is international law.
The EU ordered the UK to override Stormont after the DUP announced the halt to Irish Sea border checks, raising the prospect of legal action.
Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, held pre-planned talks on the protocol with her counterpart in Brussels, Maros Sefcovic and the pair will meet again in London next week. She said: “My priority remains maintaining peace and stability in Northern Ireland. We need urgent progress. Our teams continue intensive talks.”
Ms Truss told Mr Sefcovic the Government had no advance warning of the DUP’s actions, but said the situation proved that the protocol was not working.
The commission said the gambit was “unhelpful” as it attempts to negotiate a number of fixes to end the trade chaos caused by the protocol, adding: “It creates further uncertainty and unpredictability for businesses and citizens in Northern Ireland.”
Addressing the Commons, George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, said agri-food controls were a “devolved matter”, insisting it was “entirely unnecessary at this stage” for the Government to intervene.
Julian Smith, a former Northern Ireland secretary, said: “We cannot be a country that agrees an agreement and then doesn’t stand behind it.”
Mr Givan was appointed first minister in June 2021, eight months ago, after the DUP, which is narrowly the largest party in Stormont, had three different leaders, in a matter of weeks.
The power-sharing arrangement means neither leader of the joint office shared by the two biggest parties in Stormont can stay in power if the other resigns.
Although other ministers will stay in their posts, the executive will be unable to make any new policy decisions. Legislation in Westminster is due next week to allow the Assembly to continue without early elections.
The resignation is likely to prevent the Assembly agreeing a three-year budget. An official state apology to victims of historic abuse in institutions by Mr Givan and Ms O’Neill , which was planned for March, could also be at risk.
The DUP has previously threatened to collapse the Assembly and trigger early elections over its opposition for the protocol, which prevents a hard border with EU member Ireland.