BELFAST — The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will not return to government in Northern Ireland until its concerns over post-Brexit trade deals are resolved, the party leader has said.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was among party leaders to meet NI Secretary Brandon Lewis in Belfast on Monday. Thursday’s historic election saw Sinn Féin become Stormont’s largest party.
Future prime minister Michelle O’Neill said there could be no attempt by the DUP to “punish the public”.
O’Neill and Sinn Féin chair Mary Lou McDonald spoke to Lewis, who also met leaders of the Alliance Party, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Social- Democrat and Labor (SDLP).
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is resisting pressure from the British and Irish governments, as well as other main parties in Northern Ireland, to appoint ministers after the dramatic election result.
For months the DUP has been protesting the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the UK’s Brexit deal with the European Union, which maintains free trade across the Irish border.
This has angered some trade unionists for introducing new checks on certain goods crossing the Irish Sea. They also say it undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.
In his Monday meetings, Lewis urged party leaders to respect Thursday’s election result and restore Stormont as soon as possible.
He said the government should resolve issues with the protocol and “continue to press the EU to agree to the crucial changes that are urgently needed”.
The NI secretary said he would stay in close contact with all party leaders over the next few days.
Sinn Féin, whose ultimate goal is for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and become a country with the Republic of Ireland, won the most seats – 27 out of 90 – after Thursday’s vote.
This means the party can appoint Northern Ireland’s premier, an unprecedented move for a nationalist party, but it is dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) taking up the post as deputy premier.
The roles form a common office, with equal responsibility; however, the awarding of titles is considered symbolically important.
Sir Jeffrey said his party would not appoint ministers until there was “decisive action” on the protocol.
“They (the UK government) are strongly committed to protecting our place in the UK internal market,” said Sir Jeffrey.
“They didn’t, they failed over the last two and a half years to honor that commitment.”
But O’Neill said the DUP and the UK government must respect the election result and that it was up to Boris Johnson and the EU to resolve differences over the protocol.
“The tightrope strategy will not be tolerated where Northern Ireland becomes collateral damage in a game of chicken with the European Commission,” she said.
“Make no mistake, we and our business community here will not be held hostage.”
While some members of the assembly (MPs) were in Stormont on Monday, the legislative body will hold its first sitting on Friday, when members register and nominate themselves as trade unionists, nationalists or otherwise. —BBC