BELFAST – The Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party blocked the restoration of a power-sharing administration in the British-led province on Friday when newly elected members of the Assembly met for the first time in the chamber of Stormont.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told reporters that his party had decided not to support the election of a president until the UK government and the European Union resolved the issues over Ireland’s protocol of the North which governs post-Brexit trade in the region.
British government ministers have repeatedly said that the European Union must make concessions on the protocol to win over the Unionist community. Irish officials countered that a clear majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly largely supported the protocol.
Under the 1998 Good Friday peace accord that largely ended three decades of sectarian bloodshed in the region, nationalists and trade unionists are required to agree on a president before elect a cross-community government.
The DUP’s decision means that the Assembly could not discuss the appointment of a prime and deputy prime minister. The party had already announced that it would block the formation of an executive.
In a symbolic breakthrough for Irish nationalism, Sinn Fein replaced the DUP last week as the region’s largest party after parliamentary elections.
In a statement posted on the DUP’s website, Donaldson said unionists’ concerns over the Northern Ireland protocol were not just a political squabble, calling the protocol “a direct challenge to the principles that underpin every agreement made in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years.”
When Britain left the EU, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government agreed to a pact that effectively left Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market and customs union given its open border with Ireland, a member of the EU.
This has created a customs border in the sea between the rest of the UK and the province, which pro-British communities in Northern Ireland say is eroding their place in the UK. Britain now says the bureaucracy required is intolerable.
Michelle O’Neill, leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, said the DUP, which supported Britain’s exit from the EU, was punishing the public with its actions.
“They’re shamefully holding the public to ransom for their Brexit mess,” she said on Twitter.
“Today is the day we should form an executive to put money in people’s pockets and start fixing our health service.”
(Reporting by Amanda Ferguson in Belfast and Graham Fahy in Dublin; editing by Toby Chopra and Frank Jack Daniel)