Britain is preparing to unilaterally override the post-Brexit border arrangement to avoid the Northern Ireland crisis “dragging on and on”, Government sources have claimed, as Sinn Fein won the largest share of seats in Stormont for the first time last night.
Liz Truss has concluded that negotiations with the EU have almost “run out of road”, after Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, told her that Brussels will “never” back down on its refusal to overhaul the Northern Ireland Protocol, according to Government sources.
A source close to Ms Truss described the remark as “alarming”, after she repeatedly called for member states to redraw Mr Sefcovic’s mandate in order to allow for a breakthrough in the talks.
Ministers are concerned about disruption being caused to businesses by customs checks on British goods sent to Northern Ireland, and the Democratic Unionist Party has indicated that it will refuse to form an executive with Sinn Fein until the problems are resolved.
Sinn Fein had won 27 of the 88 Stormont seats announced by 7pm on Saturday, putting it ahead of the Democratic Unionist Party which fell by three seats to 24.
It is the first time a party seeking a united Ireland will have topped the poll in the elections for the Northern Ireland executive, with a unionist party until now the largest in government since Northern Ireland was formed in 1921.
Writing in The Telegraph, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, piled pressure on Ms Truss and Boris Johnson to act, saying: “Every unionist candidate standing in the election stood in opposition to the protocol and attracted some 360,000 votes. 40 per cent of all cast votes were explicitly for parties who opposed the Protocol.
‘It’s time for action’
“Given that the political institutions in Northern Ireland operate on the basis of cross-community consensus, the lack of any unionist support for the protocol means that it is unworkable as it does not command sufficient consensus.”
He adds: “The electorate has spoken. The view of unionism is clear. Now is the moment for the Government to act. No more words. It’s time for action.
“The Irish Sea border must go and the Protocol must be replaced by arrangements that restore Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom internal market. ”
Sir Jeffrey sets out seven tests for any plan to override the protocol, including that any new arrangement must avoid a border in the Irish Sea.
Government sources indicated that ministers were drawing up proposals for such a move – despite the Conservatives denying reports that a bill setting out a replacement arrangement would be included in this week’s Queen’s Speech.
‘We can’t let this drag on and on’
In a telephone call with Ms Truss on April 28, Mr Sefcovic, vice president of the European Commission, is said to have “made clear … that the EU did not have, and in his view would never have, a mandate to renegotiate the Protocol or to go beyond their existing proposals, ”according to a Government source.
A source close to Ms Truss said: “The admission Sefcovic made on the call is alarming. Liz’s first, second and third priority in all this is protecting peace and stability in Northern Ireland. Clearly the situation is getting increasingly urgent, and the feeling is we can’t let this crisis drag on and on.
“It feels like we have run out of the road with negotiations unless something significant happens in terms of the EU changing its position.”
Mr Sefcovic is understood to insist that unilateral action by the UK would not solve the problems on the island of Ireland, and that the threat of such a move would not help to strengthen Ms Truss’s hand in the negotiations.
Theresa Villiers, the former Northern Ireland Secretary, said: “We must deal with the Protocol. It must be radically changed or replaced. We can’t continue as we are. The people who really need to listen and wake up as a result of this election result are the EU and the Commission.
“If negotiation is not going to do the business we need unilateral legislation. We need to be getting on with it even if we don’t implement it straight away. ”
‘Rigid and hard-line negotiating’
A Foreign Office source added: “It is incredibly disheartening that despite the political and economic damage the Protocol is causing in Northern Ireland, the Commission continues to adopt such a rigid and hard-line negotiating position.
“The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is being undermined and the situation is now very serious. Both the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have always been clear that action will be taken if solutions cannot be found.
“The Assembly elections are now over and we need to see the EU move significantly. Our focus has been, and will continue to be, preserving peace and stability in Northern Ireland. ”
On Saturday, Sinn Fein called for an immediate resumption of the power-sharing executive.
Mary Lou McDonald, the party’s president, urged unionists “not to be afraid”, saying “the future is bright for all of us”.
Ms McDonald said there was a collective responsibility to get the government “up and running quickly”.
She added: “This is not a time for theatrics, this is not a time for playing games, this is a time for grown up sensible partnership politics, that’s what people want.
“The idea, at a time of a cost of living crisis, that people would stand on the sidelines and allow people to struggle, and struggle badly for us is unthinkable, so we would appeal to everybody to take stock.”