Deepening chaos at the top of the Conservative government in London has increased uncertainty ahead of key talks on the north of Ireland.
Despite continuing speculation over the possible resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Britain’s foreign secretary Liz Truss will host European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic later today (Thursday). Two days of talks are aimed at breaking a year-long deadlock over Britain’s refusal to implement the Irish protocol of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
Questions are already circling about the value of the negotiations as the tory administration appears close to collapse. Following a stream of revelations about how Johnson held parties at Downing Street during the height of the Covid-19 lockdown, powerful figures have been jockeying for position ahead of an expected heave against him.
Despite grovelling apologies before the Westminster parliament on Wednesday, the disgraced Prime Minister could soon be on his way out along, with his unpopular cabal of hard Brexiteers.
Unionists are said to be divided over Johnson’s fate, and the DUP stands alone as the only Westminster party not calling for his resignation – even after an emotional speech this week by DUP MP Jim Shannon, in which he recalled the lonely death of his mother-in-law due to Covid restrictions.
Speaking ahead of what will be their first face-to-face meeting since she took over the talks, Liz Truss, who sat beside Johnson at Westminster as he delivered his apology on Wednesday, issued fresh demands for concessions from the EU. Earlier this week, she once again threatened to unilaterally collapse the Brexit deal, drawing criticism from the EU team for making “unhelpful” comments.
Although a clear majority in the north now support the protocol as an economic opportunity as well as a means of avoiding new border installations across Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and other hardline unionists have demanded changes to new procedures at ports in the north of Ireland.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who held a meeting with Truss earlier this week, called on the London government to show “imminent progress” or trigger Article 16 and collapse the deal.
Mr Donaldson complained that the talks had dragged on for months without London formally committing to renege on the protocol. He again threatened to collapse the Stormont Executive over the issue ahead of Assembly elections in May.
“I’ve been reasonable,” he said. “I’ve given time for these negotiations to make progress, but we need to see that happen. And the sooner that happens, the better for all of us, for everyone in Northern Ireland.”
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said “constructive, good-faith work” was required to resolve the differences, adding that the protocol was here to stay.
Ms McDonald said after an online meeting with Ms Truss that “stability, peace, jobs and prosperity must come first”. And she said that “political posturing and narrow electoral positioning” by the DUP “can’t hold progress back”.
The face-to-face talks Sefcovic will take place later today (Thursday) at a mansion in Kent, south of London.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Truss set out her position that said goods from Britain to Ireland should not be subject to checks if they are likely to remain north of the border, but those intended for south of the border should be checked.
The 26 County Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that he “wasn’t surprised” Truss had repeated the hardline Tory/DUP stance and was trying to “drive a hard bargain”.
He said the DUP’s stance on the protocol also needed to be seen in the context of the Assembly election and how the protocol was “a big part of that election”. He said any triggering of Article 16 to collapse the protocol would lead to “further tension and an undermining of trust”.
Ms McDonald said that the protocol is “here to stay”. She also said she spoke to Donaldson and told him that any move to walk his Ministers out of the Executive in protest at the protocol is irresponsible.
“To do so during a public health crisis is reckless,” she said.