Northern Ireland’s first minister has resigned in protest over post-Brexit trade rules.
The development comes in the wake of another minister trying to halt some checks on agri-food goods coming into Northern Ireland from the UK, without following Brexit protocols.
Paul Givan’s decision to quit could complicate talks between the EU and Britain to rework a politically divisive Northern Ireland protocol governing such trade that was agreed by London as part of Brexit.
The protocol keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods and preserves a politically sensitive open border with Ireland, a EU member state.
However the protocol effectively created a sea border in the Irish Sea, angering pro-British, pro-Brexit unionists in the province who have spurred the British government to seek to rewrite the deal negotiated and signed by it.
Tensions over the protocol mounted earlier this week after Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, from the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), ordered a halt to checks on the agri-food goods.
Poots’ order was not immediately implemented. Although his department had not refused the instruction but said it was “considering the wider implications of fulfilling the minister’s request.”
According to trade bodies, goods were still being inspected at Northern Irish ports.
“Now is the moment when we say ‘Enough’”, said DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson. “We are clear that the protocol represents an existential threat to the future of Northern Ireland’s place within the Union (of the UK’s four nations). The longer the protocol remains, the more it will harm the Union itself.”
For months, the DUP had threatened to frustrate the checks and the regional governance over its vehement opposition to the protocol, which it believe drives a wedge between the region and the rest of the UK across the Irish Sea.
Northern Irish voters view the protocol as being on balance a “good thing”, according to the results of a poll on the issue which was taken in October 2021, a sharp rise on four months earlier.
“It’s an absolute breach of international law,” said European Union financial services commissioner Mairead McGuinness, Ireland’s representative on the executive.
In a statement, a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, the government wanted Northern Ireland politicians to resolve the issue of the checks in the first instance, but it was also keeping the legal position in view.
London and Brussels have been in talks for months to resolve the impasse over the protocol.
On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said, urgent progress was needed after speaking to her negotiating counterpart, European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic.
In Belfast, Givan’s move will once more paralyse decision-making in Northern Ireland three months before elections.
It quickly triggered the automatic resignation of Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill of the DUP’s Irish nationalist and pro-EU rivals Sinn Fein, which backs Irish unification.
In a statement, the British government’s Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis said, he was extremely disappointed by Givan’s resignation and urged the DUP to reinstate the first minister “immediately”.
While the development may not necessarily lead to an early election, Sinn Fein has called for one.
Going by the results of opinion polls, Sinn Fein will pass the DUP to become Northern Ireland’s largest party for the first time.
In the 2016 Brexit referendum, Britain had voted 52-48% to leave the EU although in Northern Ireland the margin was 56-44% in favour of remaining in the EU.