BELFAST — The Democratic Unionist Party resisted Irish and U.S. pressure Friday to stop blocking the Northern Ireland Assembly, a position the Irish prime minister decried as “unheard of in the democratic world.”
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson also dismissed as “entirely unhelpful” U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s call for the post-Brexit trade protocol to stay in place as an essential support for Northern Ireland’s U.S.-brokered peace accord.
Speaking after meeting Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin at a Belfast hotel, Donaldson said Dublin and Washington were wasting their time trying to isolate his party, the largest on the British unionist side of the Northern Ireland divide.
Donaldson said his party would keep wielding its veto on political progress in Belfast until Britain publishes its promised bill to impose unilateral changes on the protocol treaty, part of the U.K.’s 2019 Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.
Even then, Donaldson said, his party — which has 25 seats in the 90-seat assembly — may still not allow the newly elected legislature to reopen for business.
“I am not going to telegram to the [British] government what I am going to do until we see what this legislation says. That is fundamentally important,” said Donaldson, who rejected the Good Friday agreement for nearly a decade before his party’s stunning 2007 U-turn to form a power-sharing government alongside Sinn Féin.
Their cross-community coalition has fallen into disarray since February, when the DUP abandoned the top post of first minister in protest against the protocol. It requires EU checks on British goods arriving in Northern Irish ports, a condition that keeps trade flowing freely with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, but angers unionists for driving an economic wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
Martin said he urged Donaldson to stop blocking the election of an assembly speaker. That move means the assembly itself cannot operate. Without a functioning assembly, a new power-sharing government cannot be formed.
“It’s unheard of in the democratic world that a parliament would not convene in the aftermath of an election,” Martin said. “We can’t have a situation where one political party determines that the other political parties can’t convene in the parliament.”
Earlier, Martin accused the U.K. government of undermining the “spirit” of the Good Friday agreement by preferring unilateral threats to cooperating with Ireland, which worked alongside London to produce the pact after 22 months of negotiations.
He welcomed Pelosi’s announcement overnight that the U.S. Congress would not support any new trade agreement with Britain if the protocol was scrapped to meet DUP demands.
But Donaldson said the protocol “has made it impossible to have power-sharing on the basis of consensus, because of course not a single unionist MLA [member of the legislative assembly] supports that protocol. So if Nancy Pelosi wants to see the agreement protected, then she needs to recognize that in fact it’s the protocol that is harming and undermining the agreement.”
He won support from his moderate rival for unionist votes, Doug Beattie of the Ulster Unionists, who unlike the DUP opposed Brexit and wants the DUP to stop blocking government formation.
Beattie called the Pelosi statement “not just deeply regrettable and misinformed, but completely wrong. The protocol does not protect the Belfast agreement; it does the exact opposite.”
The Irish republican who would lead the next government, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, had no time to speak to reporters in Belfast after meeting Martin — because she was running late for a flight to Scotland to promote common ground with its Scottish Nationalist first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
Sturgeon slammed the British government’s plans to override its protocol agreement with the EU at a moment when runaway energy prices were forcing many households “to make a choice between heating and eating.”
Breaking treaty obligations and halting checks at Northern Ireland ports would have “incredibly damaging effects,” Sturgeon said. “In a cost of living crisis and teetering on the edge of recession, pitching us into a trade dispute with the EU could be what tips us over.”
Andrew McDonald contributed reporting.