Northern Ireland's First Minister Paul Givan Thursday handed in his resignation citing discrepancies regarding Brexit protocols. As a consequence of his decision, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill also leaves her position as Deputy First Minister, due to the existing power-sharing arrangements dating back to 1998.
After just eight months on the job, Givan has made a move which will result in snap elections. Givan stepped aside after one of his ministers tried to block the inspection of goods arriving from other parts of the UK – a move which violates the Brexit agreement between the UK and the European Union.
Today marks the end of what has been the privilege of my lifetime, First Minister Givan told reporters. His departure had been anticipated, as the leader of his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Jeffrey Donaldson, last year threatened to collapse the devolved government in Belfast in protest at the arrangements.
The so-called Northern Ireland Protocol is designed to prevent unchecked goods from the British mainland entering the European single market by the back door via neighboring Ireland, which the DUP and other pro-British unionist parties are against.
Sinn Fein looks poised to win local elections in May and critics have accused the DUP of growing increasingly desperate to shore up its own support. In the absence of a functioning executive, an early election must be called, with Sinn Fein already ahead in most opinion polls. Other ministers may stay in place, but the executive is now unable to make any significant decisions.
Pro-British unionists argue that Irish Sea border checks on goods arriving from mainland Britain threaten Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom.
The new developments might bring back the issue of a united Ireland back to the table, a century after Northern Ireland was conceived as a separate state in deference to its Protestant majority.
The UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, described Givan's resignation as extremely disappointing and called for him to rethink. We must not return to a state of political deadlock and inertia, Lewis said.
Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, of DUP allegiance, had ordered a halt on port checks of goods from mainland Great Britain, as UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is discussing reforming the protocol with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic.
A European Commission spokesperson said the border agreement was the one and only solution to safeguard the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. As part of that deal, an open land border was mandated between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland to the south.
My priority remains maintaining peace and stability in Northern Ireland, Truss tweeted, adding that further talks were pencilled in for next week in London.
Under the protocol, the UK agreed to inspect some goods entering Northern Ireland from England, Scotland and Wales, which has sparked anger locally because it creates a barrier between the region and other parts of the UK. Givan was a representative of the largest party of voters who want to retain close ties to Britain, the Democratic Unionist Party. He shared power with Michelle O’Neill, the deputy first minister who represents Sinn Fein, which seeks to strengthen links to the Republic of Ireland.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald immediately called for new elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Elections are scheduled to be held in May. “We cannot stagger on in the months ahead without a functioning executive, and Sinn Fein will not facilitate this,” McDonald said.
The Republic of Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said Poots’ decision was “effectively a breach of international law” because the protocol is part of an international treaty. The republic is an EU member, and the Northern Ireland frontier is the bloc’s only land border with the UK. “To deliberately frustrate obligations under that treaty would be a very serious matter indeed,” Coveney told Irish lawmakers late Wednesday. “It’s essentially playing politics with legal obligations.”
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