The DUP has set February 21 as a fresh deadline for when the UK Government needs to deliver progress in its negotiations with the European Union over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss met Stormont leaders on Thursday, with First Minister Paul Givan warning that the Government must take unilateral action if an agreed position cannot be reached with the EU.
But Sinn Fein has warned that any attempt to trigger Article 16 of the protocol would cause more uncertainty in Northern Ireland.
Ms Truss, who is leading UK negotiations with the EU over the protocol, and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis met Mr Givan and Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill at Stormont House in Belfast.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Givan said there has to be progress made “imminently” in negotiations.
He said: “Liz Truss has indicated that she is making progress with the European Union and obviously February 21 is a very significant date in terms of what progress will have been made or not made.”
A meeting of the Joint Working Committee on the Withdrawal Agreement takes place on that date.
He added: “I pressed the Foreign Secretary about the need to take action in the absence of there being progress and an agreed outcome with the European Union.
“The Foreign Secretary indicated that the UK Government does stand ready to take action, she mentioned the use of Article 16, but she prefers to get an agreed position with the European Union.”
He added: “I have emphasised the absolute critical nature of that progress being made, because the protocol is causing instability to these institutions, it is damaging our economy and this is having a real impact on Northern Ireland.
“So, we need to see that progress, we need to see that imminently and we also need to see action taken by the UK Government if there isn’t an agreed outcome.”
The meeting came a day after DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson warned he could not guarantee Mr Givan would still be in position next week.
Sir Jeffrey has repeatedly threatened to withdraw ministers from the powersharing Executive – a move that could collapse devolution – if major changes to the Irish Sea border trading arrangements are not secured.
Mr Givan said: “I hope that I am still in this position next week because there are huge issues that we need to deal with as an Executive.
“That is why it is critical the UK Government take action, why it is critical they get an agreed position with the European Union, and if they don’t get that then let the UK Government take action because the people of Northern Ireland need us to be here delivering.”
Ms O’Neill said: “Liz Truss repeated her words that there is a deal to be done, that she is working to find solutions.
“But that is yet to be seen in terms of striking an agreed way forward.
“I encouraged her to listen very carefully to the views of those in the community and voluntary sector that she will meet with.
“She needs to hear loud and clear that the DUP do not speak for the majority here.
“She needs to hear loud and clear that triggering Article 16 serves no purpose other than to cause more uncertainty and she needs to hear the reality on the ground that the majority here want the protocol to work and they want solutions to be found.”
The coming days may also bring developments on another DUP attempt to frustrate the workings of the protocol.
Earlier this week, DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots formally asked the Stormont Executive for permission to continue carrying out Brexit port checks, in a move that could see him ultimately attempt to halt them.
He claims recent court rulings related to the functioning of the devolved institutions at Stormont mean he must gain the approval of the wider Executive for the checks required under the protocol.
Officials in his department are currently carrying out the contentious checks and inspections on goods arriving from Great Britain.
He has asked the Executive for retrospective approval for carrying out checks from the date the protocol came into effect in January 2021 and ongoing permission to continue doing them.
If the matter had been brought to a vote at the Executive, the DUP could have used its veto to block the continuation of the checks.
However, Sinn Fein has used its own veto to stop the issue getting on the agenda of Thursday’s meeting.
That could see Mr Poots take unilateral action to halt the checks.
He has already signalled he would make that move in the absence of Executive sign-off, contending that he would not have the legal authority to continue them.