A senior British official meets the leaders of rival parties in Northern Ireland to urge them to restore a power-sharing government amid uncertainty after Irish nationalist Sinn Fein won a historic local election victory
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis spoke to the leaders of the five parties that formed the last executive, or devolved government, before it collapsed in February.
It was a milestone for a party long associated with the Irish Republican Army paramilitary group, which sought to use violence to wrest Northern Ireland from British rule.
But it is unclear what role Sinn Fein will now play within the executive, which has been paralyzed for two months by disputes over post-Brexit arrangements.
While Sinn Fein is now entitled to the post of Premier of Northern Ireland, a functioning executive can only be formed if the DUP, as the largest Unionist party, agrees to take on the role of Deputy Minister in under the region’s mandatory power-sharing rules.
The DUP has claimed it will not return to the government until its demands for post-Brexit customs arrangements are met.
Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said on Monday he had made it clear to Lewis that the DUP would not appoint ministers to the executive unless the UK government took ‘decisive action’ on new customs rules of Brexit known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“They are strongly committed to protecting our place in the UK internal market. They didn’t, they failed over the last two and a half years to honor that commitment,” Donaldson said.
“We are looking at what the government is going to say now, but what is more fundamentally important is what the government is going to do,” he added.
Unionists are strongly opposed to new customs and border checks on certain goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK which were introduced after Britain left the European Union.
The special arrangement was intended to prevent the return of a land border with the Republic of Ireland. But unionists argue the new checks have created a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK that undermines their British identity and want them removed.
Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government since February, when then-DUP leader Paul Givan resigned as premier in protest at post-Brexit rules.
Britain’s Conservative government is trying to get the EU to agree to major changes, but negotiations have failed. Officials have acknowledged that they must address post-Brexit challenges to bring stability to Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has a week to meet and allow newly elected lawmakers to take their seats. Members of the Assembly will then choose a president and ministers, starting with the prime and deputy prime ministers.
If, as seems likely, no executive can be formed, ministers from the previous government will remain in power as an interim administration. A new election must be held if there is still no executive after 24 weeks.