Unionists are launching legal challenges to overturn the Brexit protocol for Northern Ireland claiming it breaches the Good Friday Agreement and 1800 Act of Union.
DUP leader Arlene Foster is spearheading a judicial review bid as she ramps up pressure for trade arrangements that do not create barriers between the province and the British mainland.
The move comes amid ongoing loyalist fury at new regulatory and customs processes required to bring goods into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Nationalists, the Irish Government and the EU have insisted there can only be minor tweaks to the protocol negotiated as part of the divorce deal – and intended to ensure free-flowing trade on the island of Ireland.
But there have been warnings of rising sectarian tensions that could undermine the delicate peace.
DUP leader Arlene Foster (right) is spearheading a judicial review bid as she ramps up pressure on Boris Johnson (left) for trade arrangements that do not create barriers between the province and the British mainland
The move comes amid ongoing loyalist fury at new regulatory and customs processes required to bring goods into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK
Mrs Foster said: ‘Fundamental to the Act of Union is unfettered trade throughout the UK.
‘At the core of the Belfast Agreement was the principle of consent yet the Northern Ireland Protocol has driven a coach and horses through both the Act of Union and the Belfast Agreement.’
Nationalist SDLP leader and Foyle MP Colum Eastwood said: ‘The DUP’s legal action against the Ireland Protocol is ill-judged and will only further entrench the febrile political environment as well as creating further uncertainty for people and businesses.
‘There will be few with sympathy for the argument that the protocol, which prevents a hard border in Ireland and guarantees dual market access for local businesses, breaches the Good Friday Agreement.’
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, the party’s Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and chief whip Sammy Wilson are backing Mrs Foster’s action in response to disruption of business through Irish Sea ports.
A separate group of DUP members has also engaged senior legal counsel to prepare for a series of challenges to the protocol.
Mrs Foster said: ‘Neither the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive nor the people of Northern Ireland consented to the protocol being put in place or the flow of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland being impeded by checks.
‘They certainly did not consent to the arrangements for those checks being determined by a power over which we have no democratic say.’
They are joining the legal challenge by peer Baroness Kate Hoey, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister and former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib.
The Ulster Unionists are also challenging the protocol.
Leader Steve Aiken said: ‘The very cornerstone of our democracy stands on foundations based on an individual’s right to legally challenge what they believe to be unjust.’
The separate DUP group has sought the legal opinion of constitutional law experts ahead of several potential High Court challenges in Belfast and London against the Government over the post-Brexit Irish Sea trading arrangements.
A party source involved in the initiative said preparatory work on a ‘series of very significant legal challenges’ is at an ‘advanced stage’.
‘No stone will be left unturned in the pursuit of justice for the people of the Union,’ the source said.
Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin has urged the DUP to dial down the rhetoric and focus on smoothing issues with the protocol.
Unionists have argued that the arrangements undermine the Act of Union and the Northern Ireland Act, which gives legislative effect to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that established devolved powersharing.
The DUP leadership has rolled out a five-point plan in recent weeks aimed at frustrating the operation of the protocol.
There have been complaints that many firms face huge red tape moving products into Northern Ireland from mainland Britain. Pictured, trucks at Larne Port this month
That campaign includes a boycott of North-South ministerial engagement on issues related to the contentious trading arrangements.
The party also initiated an online petition to secure a parliamentary debate on the protocol – the debate is due to take place at Westminster on Monday.
The protocol was agreed by the EU and UK to overcome one of the main sticking points in the Brexit withdrawal talks – the Irish border.
It keeps that frontier free flowing by Northern Ireland remaining in the single market for goods and applying EU customs rules at its ports.
The protocol instead moved the regulatory and customs border to the Irish Sea, with a series of checks, certifications, inspections and declarations now required on many goods being shipped into the region from Great Britain.
This has led to some trading disruption since the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.