DUP leader Arlene Foster has appealed to unionists not to turn against each other amid frustrations over Brexit and the implementation of the NI Protocol.
he First Minister said there had been a “coming together of unionism” in recent days to oppose the protocol but asked them to “not turn in on ourselves” and blame each other as community tensions escalate.
Mrs Foster was speaking at a press conference where the latest Covid-briefing was due to be delivered with Finance Minister Conor Murphy standing in for Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, who is self-isolating.
But the discussion quickly became dominated by questions on Brexit and circumstances surrounding it in recent days, with Mr Murphy denying the Executive had become embroiled in a row over differences of opinion relating to the protocol.
Mr Murphy said the Executive is determined to iron out problems with the protocol “in a calm fashion using the mechanisms agreed”. “There are measures in place to work through that,” he said.
“We have to advise and support people here who are affected by this. Let’s work our way calmly through these difficulties,” he said.
But Mrs Foster said she was disappointed neither Dublin nor the EU had acknowledged the difficulties currently being faced in Northern Ireland.
“We do want everyone to stay calm but if they’re being ignored they become more angry and more tense.
“I think the way forward is to scrap the protocol. The government sleepwalked into the Protocol thinking they would sort it out later. Now the Protocol is coming home to roost,” she said.
Both ministers were asked about comments from David Campbell, the chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), who said it may be necessary “to fight physically to maintain our freedoms within the UK”. It led to calls from PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne for this rhetoric to be “de-escalated”.
Mrs Foster said she was shocked by these comments and called for people to stick to “constitutional politics” when frustrated.
The ministers were united in praising the community’s adherence to coronavirus restrictions recently, which has led to the latest drop in the R (reproduction) number to 0.75-0.85.
Mr Murphy said there had been good progress on the vaccination front, with more than a quarter of a million people (263,735) now having received their first vaccine according to figures from Mrs Foster.
“In real terms this means thousands of people have been protected from this deadly virus,” she said, urging people to “push on” with restrictions.
Hospitals and intensive care units are still under significant pressure, she warned.
Over the last two weeks the Executive has approved a further £420m for its Covid-19 response, Mr Murphy said. 40,000 Northern Ireland students will now receive £500 each for “the hardship that the pandemic has caused”, while mental health provision will also receive funding.
Further funding has also been approved for blended learning and support for childcare.
But Mr Murphy said he’s conscious there’s businesses that still have not received support and encouraged ministers to bring forward schemes to get that support to those businesses.