A warning by UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss she is willing to trigger Article 16 of the NI Protocol if a deal cannot be struck has received a mixed response from the local parties.
Ms Truss made the remarks in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, suggesting “constructive proposals” will be forwarded to the EU during her first meeting with counterpart Maros Sefcovic in the coming week.
However, the Foreign Secretary issued a warning that she is "willing" to trigger the safeguard mechanism of the protocol which would suspend parts of the treaty designed to prevent a hard border with the Republic, if a deal cannot be struck.
In response to the comments, unionist parties here issued a cautious welcome, with DUP leader branding Ms Truss’ position as a “welcome statement of intent”, while Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie hoped “constructive engagement” could be achieved between the two sides.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the “threat” by Ms Truss was “tired” and argued it “solves nothing” and “will only make things worse”.
While Alliance Party MP Stephen Farry said the focus must remain on “pragmatic solutions”.
Mr Beattie said the comments “outline a way forward in dealing with trade issues with the EU”.
He said an arrangement based on where goods are destined to stay in NI “would go a long way to easing a difficult situation” and condemned threats by the DUP to pull down Stormont over the issue.
“Multiple engagements with businesses and business representative bodies see this as a pragmatic and sensible solution. Common sense is needed to de-escalate this issue,” said Mr Beattie.
“Further engagement and negotiations are the way forward. We do not need threats to pull down the Stormont institutions in the middle of a pandemic, but instead we need sensible, clear thinking.
“Constructive engagement will always work better than megaphone diplomacy.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said the Foreign Secretary’s “strong words” needed to be matched with “actions”.
“Empty rhetoric, like empty threats from some in unionism, only buy more time for the Union-dismantling Protocol to bed in further,” added Mr Allister.
The protocol was negotiated to avoid a hard border with Ireland, by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the EU's single market for goods.
It is worth stressing that a clear majority of the people of NI and virtually business organisation does NOT want #Article16 triggered. It just means more talks, but greater and damaging instability. Instead, the focus must remain on pragmatic solutions. https://t.co/O2t2YPJMFI— Stephen Farry MP (@StephenFarryMP) January 9, 2022
Unionists have consistently been pressuring for it to be scrapped because of the trade barriers it has created on products crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has repeatedly threatened to withdraw his party’s ministers from the Stormont Executive if the UK Government does not act on the protocol.
Other parties in Northern Ireland have taken a different position on the issue, including the Alliance Party.
Last week, their North Down MP Stephen Farry described his party as “protocol pragmatists”, with a wish to turn the protocol “from a solid line down the Irish Sea to a dotted line”.
He argued that he does not foresee controversial post-Brexit arrangements becoming the defining issue in this year’s Assembly election.
In response to Ms Truss’ latest remarks, Mr Farry claimed the “clear majority” of businesses and people in Northern Ireland do not want Article 16 triggered.
“It just means more talks, but greater and damaging instability. Instead, the focus must remain on pragmatic solutions,” he added.
The Foreign Secretary was handed responsibility for the negotiations after Lord Frost resigned as Brexit minister last month.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Ms Truss said it is her "absolute priority" to resolve the "unintended consequences" created by the protocol to maintain peace in Northern Ireland.
"I am prepared to work night and day to negotiate a solution," Ms Truss said.
"But let me be clear: I will not sign up to anything which sees the people of Northern Ireland unable to benefit from the same decisions on taxation and spending as the rest of the UK, or which still sees goods moving within our own country being subject to checks."
In response to the threat by Ms Truss, the EU swiftly claimed they were "not too impressed”.
Joao Vale de Almeida, the bloc's ambassador to the UK, said it is unhelpful to "keep agitating the issue" of triggering Article 16, ahead of discussions this week.
"We still believe it's not very helpful that we keep agitating the issue of Article 16. I think what we should focus on - at least that's where we are focused on - is trying to find solutions for difficulties in the implementation of the protocol."
He called for "new momentum" in the talks, adding: "We are eager to reconnect but we are even more eager to find compromises because we need to move on. It's been too long."