THE leader of the DUP has threatened to collapse the Stormont Executive within weeks if changes to Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol are not delivered.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also announced his party’s immediate withdrawal from cross-border political institutions established on the island of Ireland under the Good Friday peace agreement.

He claimed that the Tories’ Brexit deal had “fundamentally undermined” the Good Friday Agreement, despite repeated claims from the UK Government that it would do no such thing.

The moves are part of an intensification of the DUP’s campaign of opposition to post-Brexit arrangements that have created trading barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In response, the European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic (below) called on leaders to “dial down the political rhetoric”, while a spokesperson for Boris Johnson said the threat showed the “real pressures” his protocol is causing.

The National: Maros Sefcovic

Donaldson issued the warning on the future of Stormont in a keynote address in Belfast on the same day as Sefcovic began a two-day visit to Northern Ireland.

Ahead of any move to pull ministers out of the coalition administration, a step that would bring down the power-sharing institutions, Donaldson said his party was first seeking to challenge the legality of checks on GB to NI trade introduced under the protocol.

The DUP leader also said they will seek to establish whether the protocol’s implementation requires the approval of the Stormont Executive.

“In the final analysis those who are democratically elected by the people of Northern Ireland lack the power to prevent such checks, if that is the case, if our ministers cannot in the end prevent these checks taking place and if the protocol issues remain then I have to be clear, the position in office of DUP ministers would become untenable,” he said.

READ MORE: PROFILE: Who is Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the new DUP leader?

“If the choice is ultimately between remaining in office or implementing the protocol in its present form then the only option, the only option for any Unionist minister would be to cease to hold such office.”

Donaldson added: “Within weeks it will become clear if there is a basis for the Assembly and Executive to continue in this current mandate, and I want that to happen.

“But, equally, we will also need to consider whether there is a need for an Assembly election to refresh our mandate if action is not taken to address and resolve the issues related to the protocol and its impact, its damaging impact on Northern Ireland each and every day.”

While Donaldson said the DUP was withdrawing from north/south political bodies, he said his party would seek to ensure continued cross-border co-operation on health issues.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol and Article 16?

The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU as a way to maintain a free-flowing land border on the island of Ireland. It achieves that by moving many of the checks and processes required on goods to the Irish Sea.

Under the arrangements, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market for goods and continues to apply EU customs rules.

Unionists in Northern Ireland have been vehemently opposed to its terms, which see additional checks on goods arriving to the region from the rest of the UK, claiming the arrangements have undermined Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

A Number 10 spokesperson said: “We believe that the challenges the DUP and others have set out illustrates that the protocol in its current form is simply not sustainable.”

How can the DUP collapse power-sharing?

The institutions created through peace process agreements can only operate with the participation of both the largest Unionist party and the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland.

As such, only Sinn Fein and the DUP have the ability to unilaterally collapse devolution.

If either withdraws from the structures, they can no longer function.

That is how devolution imploded in 2017 when the late Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest at the DUP’s handling of a botched green energy scheme.

That political impasse lasted three years, with devolution only restored in 2020 after the main parties signed up to a new accord, New Decade, New Approach, to resolve a series of long-standing sticking points.

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How is the party justifying the move?

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has claimed the new economic barriers on trade between GB and NI are disrupting the lives and livelihoods of everyone in Northern Ireland while also risking the constitutional integrity of the UK.

Since becoming leader in June, he has toured Northern Ireland meeting Unionists and Loyalists. He has said grassroots discontent at the protocol has informed the party’s ramped-up strategy.

Donaldson has cautioned against tinkering around the edges of the arrangements and has insisted wholesale changes are required.

He has characterised his approach as an attempt to inject urgency into stalled efforts to secure changes to the protocol, warning that his party will not accept years of slow negotiations or repeated moves to extend protocol grace periods in lieu of permanent solutions.

With the fate of the protocol in the hands of the EU and UK Government, collapsing devolution is one of the few levers the DUP can pull. Donaldson hopes the threat to pull it will bring matters to a head and secure the changes he desires.

Are there other factors in play?

DUP HQ has been rocked by a series of shocking polling results this year.

The latest saw the region’s largest party trail in joint fourth place, with public support rated at just 13%. In the last Assembly election in 2017 the party was backed by 28% of the electorate.

Significantly, in last month’s poll, the party lagged behind both of its main Unionist rivals, the Ulster Unionists and the TUV.

The party is also facing the uncomfortable prospect of Sinn Fein emerging from the next Assembly poll as the largest party.

The republican party taking the First Minister’s role in Northern Ireland would represent a sizable symbolic blow for the DUP and Unionism in general.

The disastrous polling was undoubtedly a factor in the chaos that engulfed the DUP earlier this year when two leaders, Arlene Foster and her successor Edwin Poots, were ousted in successive internal revolts that occurred within weeks of each other.

What could this move do to the wider political dynamic within Unionism?

The protocol has thrown political Unionism into flux as the main parties attempt to position themselves ahead of the scheduled Assembly election in May.

Doug Beattie (below) took over the leadership of the Ulster Unionists in May with a pledge to move the party back to its moderate, centre ground roots.

The National: UUP leader Doug Beattie

In the wake of Donaldson’s speech, Beattie was quick off the mark to distance his party from threats to pull down Stormont. In so doing he has created further clear blue water between the parties.

It is in keeping with his attempt to woo back moderate Unionists who in recent years have switched allegiances to the centrist, non-affiliated Alliance party.

Donaldson’s rhetoric on Thursday was more in line with the approach advocated by the harder line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party.

Critics have previously derided the party as a one-man band that relies solely on its formidable leader Jim Allister for an identity.

However, as the latest opinion polls suggest, the party could be poised for a breakthrough in the next election, with the potential to mop up many disaffected DUP voters.

Why will the DUP face difficulty defending its position?

It is yet to be seen whether the DUP follows through with its threat and pulls down the administration. If it does push the nuclear button the party would undoubtedly find itself in an awkward political position.

In so doing, the DUP would be left open to the very same accusations it has aimed at Sinn Fein for the last four years, namely, jeopardising public service delivery for narrow political interest.

Northern Ireland has the worst waiting list times in the UK and the DUP has consistently blamed this situation on Sinn Fein and the three-year power-sharing impasse.

The National: Edwin Poots

Short-lived DUP leader Poots (above) was again highly critical of Sinn Fein during the summer when the republican party threatened not to re-enter the coalition alongside his choice of first minister without a firm assurance on a timeline for legislation for Irish language protections.

Poots insisted he was a devolutionist and claimed any Sinn Fein move to collapse the institutions would threaten vital health service reforms.

How much of a political risk is the DUP strategy?

It would be a high stakes move to pull down Stormont at any time but particularly when Northern Ireland is still dealing with the Covid-19 crisis. However, as it stands, DUP strategists believe they are facing a potential electoral battering in the next Assembly poll.

They fear many within the Unionist electorate will blame the party for the Irish Sea border, accusing it of squandering its unprecedented influence in the Brexit process during the two-year confidence-and-supply deal with the Conservatives at Westminster.

The DUP knows it needs to change this narrative and quickly.

Its move represents a bid to position itself firmly at the forefront of the campaign to scrap the protocol.

If he ultimately follows through with the threat to collapse the executive, Donaldson will be banking that Unionist fury over the Brexit border will trump the inevitable anger that will be directed at a party that brings down devolution in the middle of a pandemic and at a time when 335,000 are stuck on waiting lists.

Moreover, it is a bet that many in the Unionist and Loyalist community have reached the conclusion that a Stormont overseeing the implementation of an Irish Sea border is a Stormont not worth saving.