Rishi Sunak must deal with the Northern Ireland Protocol if he wants to see Stormont restored, the DUP’s leader has warned the incoming prime minister.
Northern Ireland has been in a political crisis for months with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refusing to return to power-sharing since losing its status as the nation’s largest party to Sinn Fein in May – as it opposed the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Fresh Assembly elections will be called if Stormont institutions are not restored by midnight on Friday, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has pledged.
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But on Sunday, Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney said “political instability” in Westminster caused by two prime ministers in as many months means it is “impossible” for the EU and UK to strike a deal on the protocol before then.
He said the “sensitive” thing is for power-sharing to resume while negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol continue instead of holding another election in just seven months.
The protocol has effectively placed a sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland after Brexit and has meant businesses have struggled.
Shortly after Mr Sunak became Conservative Party leader on Monday, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “There may be a focus on the unity of the Conservative Party, but the unity of our United Kingdom must be protected.
“The protocol is incompatible with the restoration of returned government in Northern Ireland.
“If the prime minister wants to see a fully functioning Stormont, then he must deal with it once and for all.
“Delivering that solution would be a very powerful signal that he is focused on building a better future for everyone.”
Read more: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol and why does it matter?
Naomi Long, leader of the cross-community Alliance Party, called on Mr Sunak to take a “fresh approach” to Northern Ireland’s political problems.
“Northern Ireland needs stable and sustainable government,” she said.
“Rishi Sunak needs to recognize, even if a solution to the protocol can be agreed with the EU, there remains an inherent instability at the heart of our institutions.
“The protocol is only the latest in a long line of grievances to have collapsed Stormont.
“Until the institutions are reformed to remove the vetoes the largest parties wield over Executive formation, the crisis-collapse cycle will continue.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood called Mr Sunak’s appointment a “farce” and called for a general election, in which he said a Labour-led government would end “the circus that has surrounded British politics”.
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said Mr Sunak must prioritize “resolving the political impasse and dealing with the issues caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol”.