The DUP has been told to “dial down the rhetoric” over its threat to pull down the power-sharing institutions.
ir Jeffrey Donaldson, in a keynote address on Thursday said if there was no solution to the NI Protocol found within weeks, his ministers would pull out of the Executive and they would seek an election.
Reaction has been scathing to the proposal.
Sinn Fein branded it a “reckless, irresponsible, short-sighted election stunt”, Alliance said it was about putting the party first while the SDLP described the move as “naive”.
The UUP has said it will not pull out from the Executive with leader Doug Beattie saying he would look for “pragmatic solutions and engagement”.
No 10 said the DUP’s threat to collapse Stormont over the Northern Ireland Protocol showed the “real pressures” the agreement is causing.
A spokesman for the prime minister said without cross border support, the protocol was unsustainable.
“We’re engaging with talks with the EU to determine whether a constructive process can be established that addresses these issues,” he said.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic called on politicians to “dial down the rhetoric” over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
At the beginning of a two-day visit to Northern Ireland, Mr Sefcovic said politicians needed to be calm on work on the “concrete problems”.
“Let’s focus on the issues which are the most important for the people of Northern Ireland, let’s be constructive, let’s dial down the political rhetoric, let’s bring calm and focus on what is our task to accomplish,” he said.
“I know that Sir Jeffrey is a very experienced politician and I know that he wants the best for Northern Ireland and I can assure him that is my intention as well.”
Sinn Fein described the move as a “reckless, irresponsible and a short-sighted election stunt”.
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said the party was in “panic mode”.
In a speech, the DUP leader also made it clear that his party will boycott north-south ministerial meetings.
Sir Jeffrey accused the UK Government of “pandering” to Sinn Fein demands.
He said he was prepared for an election and to seek a fresh mandate from the Northern Ireland public should changes not be made.
Ms McDonald said: “They are threatening the stability of the political institutions when we are in the midst of the Covid pandemic, when the Tories are putting families and workers under pressure with more cuts, and when there is big work to do on the issues that matter to people’s everyday lives – on hospital waiting lists, on schools, on housing and on jobs, and on rebuilding our economy.
“The DUP is clearly in panic mode, driven by poor opinion polls they are focused on their own narrow self-interest ahead of the interests of workers, families and local businesses.
“We will remind Maros Sefcovic today that the DUP do not represent or speak for the majority of people in the north who opposed Brexit and leaving the EU and are now assessing the merits of re-entry to EU membership through constitutional change on the island.”
She added: “Jeffrey Donaldson and his party championed a hard Brexit along with the Tories regardless of its consequences for jobs, for workers and business.
“The protocol was painstakingly negotiated by both the EU and British Government and protects the Good Friday Agreement; all-island economy, and avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Donaldson must withdraw threat to devolution and engage with partners in government
The Foyle MP called on the DUP leader to reflect on the consequences of his statement and return to working with other political leaders to resolve challenges.
Mr Eastwood said: “People across Northern Ireland are sick of being held to ransom by political parties that put their own narrow self-interest above the interests of our communities and I do not believe that devolution could sustain another self-inflicted wound like this.
“I hoped that Jeffrey Donaldson’s leadership would be pragmatic, aimed at resolving the challenges that Brexit has created for all of our communities and acknowledging the need for compromise.
“Instead we have a return to the incendiary rhetoric and threats that got us nowhere for three of the last four years.
“I have listened to people from a unionist background who have concerns about the Northern Ireland protocol. Their fears are not about changes to trade routes or the availability of mince pies at Christmas.
“They are rooted in identity and while I may disagree, I believe those concerns are genuinely held and legitimate.
UUP Leader Doug Beattie MC MLA said there could be no collapse of the institutions.
“I certainly won’t be asking my party to withdraw from the Executive when we are still dealing with a Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences on a health service which is facing challenges on an unprecedented scale.
“We simply cannot afford to have the Stormont institutions collapse and people, not least those hundreds of thousands on waiting lists, won’t thank us for it.
“The UK Government’s Command Paper provides a potential pathway out of the Protocol mess and unionism should be using its influence within the democratic structures to hold the Government to account for delivering on it.”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long was critical of Thursday’s “political theatrics”, describing developments as both “cynical and exhausting”.
She continued: “It’s so obviously positioning ahead of elections, about putting party first.
“It’s certainly not about delivering better for our people and their priorities – health, schools, jobs, safety.
TUV leader Jim Allister welcomed “some fine words” but said “it is actions that count”.
“Mere tinkering is not an option,” he said, “Nor is repackaging it as something capable of being controlled through new Belfast Agreement institutions – such aids, not inhibits the Protocol and its building of the stepping stone of an all-Ireland economy.”