Unionists have warned Liz Truss that there will be “major implications” if she fails to set a swift deadline to end negotiations with Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, said the foreign secretary had to provide a “clear date” for concluding the talks. The warning comes after Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s chief negotiator, said last week that London had “breached a great deal of trust” with Europe over the protocol.
Donaldson said: “We need a clear date now. We need a clear timeline in which there is an expectation of real progress or the government takes the action that is necessary.
“It is crucial that Liz Truss moves this process forward quickly and that we get real and meaningful progress on a range of issues, not least of which is removing the checks on the movement of goods within the UK internal market.”
Donaldson would not specify a reasonable deadline for progress but added: “January is going to be an absolutely crucial month. If we don’t get rapid and decisive progress, and one side or the other is kicking the can down the road, this will have major implications for the stability of the political institutions in Northern Ireland.”
Sefcovic told Der Spiegel, the German news website, that problems with the protocol, which maintains a freeflowing land border on Ireland, meant the UK “broke international law” in trying to circumvent the arrangement.
He said he was “pragmatic” after the foreign secretary took on responsibility for negotiations with the EU following Lord Frost’s resignation as Brexit minister last month.
Sefcovic warned that if Truss were to trigger Article 16, effectively suspending the treaty agreed between the UK and the EU, it would throw into jeopardy “the foundation of the entire deal”.
Truss has said that she remains prepared to invoke Article 16 if issues are not resolved. In a sign of further unrest, one of the architects of the Northern Ireland peace deal, Jonathan Powell, claimed that neither Boris Johnson nor Frost understood the fragility of the Good Friday agreement.
Powell accused them of jeopardising “all the work” the previous generation of politicians put into the 1998 deal that ended the Troubles.
He also questioned why Frost was “posturing” on the issue of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) during negotiations on the protocol.
“What worries me is the casual political vandalism,” Powell said. “They don’t seem to care. I mean the damage they are doing to the very fragile political settlements in Northern Ireland by posturing on things like the European Court of Justice, which do not matter to voters in Northern Ireland.
“Is it really worth sacrificing all the work that previous generations of politicians put into the . . . peace process on the ideological altar of the ECJ?”