The DUP has rejected claims it is whipping up tensions over Irish Sea trade in an effort to get Brexit’s contentious Northern Ireland Protocol ditched.
Party leader and Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster said it was “absolutely ridiculous” to suggest her party was inflating concerns around trade disruption to pursue a political objective.
Physical inspections on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, which are required under the protocol, have been suspended amid threats and intimidation of staff.
Police have insisted there is no evidence that loyalist paramilitaries are involved in the sinister campaign, instead blaming disgruntled individuals and small groups.
On Tuesday, the DUP announced a series of political moves aimed at frustrating the operation of the protocol amid mounting unionist and loyalist concerns that Northern Ireland’s place within the UK is being undermined.
Its strategy includes opposing any protocol-related legislation at the Stormont Assembly and refusing to participate in any exchanges with the Irish Government related to the operation of the protocol.
Mrs Foster’s partner in government, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, has accused the DUP of reckless behaviour, claiming political unionism was trying to whip up “tension and fear”.
Irish MEP Barry Andrews accused the DUP of “catastrophising” the protocol and its outworking.
“I am absolutely astounded by this allegation that I am trying to raise tensions, when I am simply representing the interests of the people of Northern Ireland,” Mrs Foster told BBC Radio Ulster on Wednesday.
Ms O’Neill told the same station: “I think the position adopted by the DUP is reckless and I think it’s not driven by the best interests of the people in the north and I would urge them to pull back from that position.”
She said much of the trade disruption witnessed since the protocol came into operation on December 31 was as an “inevitable consequence” of Brexit.
Ms O’Neill said there were issues with the protocol but insisted the focus should be on resolving those, rather than scrapping the arrangements designed to avoid a return of a hard border in Ireland.
“The DUP needs to step back from throwing the baby out with the bathwater, what we need to do is be calm, be steady and work our way through these issues,” she said.
Earlier, Fianna Fail MEP Mr Andrews said: “I think the DUP are catastrophising and whipping up divisions in circumstances where there are enormous opportunities for Northern Ireland.”
The exchanges unfolded ahead of crunch talks on the protocol between Northern Ireland’s leaders and the UK and EU.
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic will hold a virtual meeting with Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill on Wednesday evening.
Ahead of the meeting, Mr Gove has urged the commission to consider extending a series of grace periods currently in place that limit the extent of red tape on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The Government wants short-term grace periods, such as those related to health check requirements on supermarket food, customs declarations on parcels and regulatory restrictions on medicines transportation, extended for longer.
Mrs Foster and senior DUP colleagues had a separate virtual call with Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday ahead of the engagement with Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic.
Graffiti warning off inspectors has appeared close to ports in recent weeks.
Police have stepped up patrols at the ports following the spate of intimidatory incidents.
Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic chair the UK/EU Joint Committee tasked with implementation of the protocol.
The meeting comes after Mr Johnson said “urgent action” is needed to resolve outstanding problems.
The protocol is a mechanism agreed by the UK and EU as part of the withdrawal talks to ensure a free-flowing Irish border.
It achieves that by moving regulatory and customs processes to the Irish Sea, focusing on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The inspections and added bureaucracy are required because, under the protocol, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market for goods and also applies EU customs rules at its ports.
Unionists and loyalists are deeply unhappy with the new arrangements, which came into force on December 31, believing the protocol has created a barrier between the region and the rest of the UK.
Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney said issues over the protocol needed to be addressed, but he insisted the mechanism was here to stay.
“When you have a significant minority of politicians now saying they will not actively co-operate with the protocol, then that poses real difficulties,” he told RTE.
“Those who are calling for the doing away of the protocol entirely, I think, are completely unrealistic.”
Tensions have been heightened following the controversial events of last Friday, when the European Commission was forced to backtrack on a threat to suspend part of the protocol.
The botched move by the EU would have struck at the heart of the protocol’s main function – to facilitate a free-flowing Irish border – by placing restrictions on vaccines moving into Northern Ireland from the bloc.
While the EU stepped back from the brink, after an evening of frantic diplomacy, the episode further angered loyalists and unionists and emboldened them to press their demands for an end to the protocol.