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Northern Ireland first minister quits over post-Brexit trade rules

Northern Ireland first minister quits over post-Brexit trade rules

Edwin Poots arrives at the DUP ruling executive meeting to ratify Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader designate Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as party leader, in Belfast, Northern Ireland on Jun 30, 2021. (Photo: REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff)

BELFAST: Northern Ireland's first minister resigned in protest at post-Brexit trade rules on Thursday (Feb 3), a day after another minister tried to halt some checks on agri-food goods coming from the rest of the United Kingdom, drawing European Union anger.

Paul Givan's decision may 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 its exit from the EU two years ago.

The protocol kept Northern Ireland in the EU's single market for goods in order to preserve a politically sensitive open border with EU member state Ireland. In so doing, though, it created an effective border in the Irish Sea, angering pro-British, pro-Brexit unionists in the province and spurring the British government to seek to rewrite the deal it signed up to.

Tensions over the arrangements flared again on Wednesday when Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, like Givan a member of the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), ordered a halt to checks on the agri-food goods.

Poots' order was not immediately implemented. His department said officials had not refused the instruction but were "considering the wider implications of fulfilling the minister's request." Trade bodies reported that goods were still being inspected at Northern Irish ports.

"Now is the moment when we say 'Enough'", DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, a member of the British parliament, said in a speech.

"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."

The DUP had for months 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.

A slim majority of Northern Irish voters view the protocol as being on balance a "good thing", a regular poll on the issue showed in October, a sharp rise on four months earlier.

EARLY ELECTIONS?

Poots' attempt to stop some goods checks at customs points drew warnings to desist from Ireland, Germany and the European Commission, the EU executive.

"It's an absolute breach of international law," European Union financial services commissioner Mairead McGuinness, Ireland's representative on the executive, told national broadcaster RTE.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that government wanted Northern Ireland politicians to resolve the issue of the checks in the first instance, but that it was keeping the legal position under review.

Johnson added that it was "crazy" to have any checks and that a sensible solution was required.

London and Brussels have been in talks for months to resolve the impasse over the protocol. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Thursday that 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.

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 upheaval will not necessarily lead to an early election, Sinn Fein called for one. Opinion polls suggest Sinn Fein will pass the DUP to become Northern Ireland's largest party for the first time.

Britain voted 52-48 per cent to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum, though in Northern Ireland the margin was 56-44 per cent in favour of remaining in the bloc.

Source: Reuters/ec

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