The British government insists there is no reason why power-sharing cannot be restored as it pursues protocol reform with the EU, with new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this week urging the DUP to find a compromise.
If the deadlock is not broken, Sinn Féin has demanded that Dublin be given joint authority with London to govern the region, rather than direct rule from Westminster, but union parties have ruled out such a prospect.
There is growing fear that the stalemate could reignite historic tensions, with a letter issued last week by the Loyalist Communities Council, a group representing loyalist paramilitaries, warning a number of political leaders of “serious consequences” if united. authority with Dublin would be imposed.
It also warned that Irish government ministers “should not go to Northern Ireland while the protocol is in force”.
For three decades, Republican paramilitaries waged war on the British state and loyalist gunmen fought to protect their British identity. But the changing demographics and the rise of Sinn Féin to become the largest party on both sides of the border have given impetus for reunification on the island of seven million.
Under the 1998 peace agreement that ended the conflict, London must hold a referendum on unity in Northern Ireland if there appears to be a majority in favor of reunification. A parallel poll was to be held in the republic.
The British government has urged British diplomats to settle the border dispute before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Easter Agreement, which could potentially lead to a state visit by US President Joe Biden to both Dublin and London in April.
Biden, who is an Irish Catholic, has made it clear that he wants the UK and the EU to negotiate a settlement on the protocol.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, said his party was ready to end the stalemate, but only after the British government established protocol.
“I say to all people in Northern Ireland that we want a Stormont built on solid foundations,” he told reporters on Friday.
“To do that, we must remove the rubble of protocol that has undermined our economy, that our ability to trade within our own country, that has changed our constitutional status without our consent.
Sinn Féin Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill has accused the DUP of leaving Northern Ireland “at the mercy of a heartless and dysfunctional Tory government”.
She said the largest trade union party was in “continuous confrontation with the public, the majority of whom do not speak for, or even represent”.
Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney told the… Financial times last week an election was “unnecessary” and called on the UK to reach compromises with Brussels on the implementation of the protocol by the end of the year.
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