Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will meet Stormont leaders later amid intensifying DUP attempts to stymie the operation of Brexit’s contentious Northern Ireland Protocol.
Ms Truss, who is leading UK negotiations with the EU over the protocol, and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis will meet DUP First Minister Paul Givan and Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill at Stormont House in Belfast.
The encounter comes 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.
The DUP leader has insisted his party cannot tolerate trade barriers with the rest of the UK that, he claims, are costing the Northern Ireland economy millions of pounds every day.
Critics claim the DUP is electioneering ahead of May’s scheduled Assembly ballot amid recent poor opinion poll ratings.
Ms Truss has said a deal can be done with the EU on the protocol to reduce the number of checks required on goods entering the region.
Thursday 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.
It is understood that in the paper Mr Poots circulated to Executive colleagues this week, he said that if approval is not forthcoming by January 27, he would have to reconsider whether he has the legal authority to continue the checks.
Sinn Fein has challenged Mr Poots’s legal interpretation of the issue.
Under Stormont rules, issues deemed “significant and controversial” should be dealt with by the powersharing Executive as a whole.
Issues that cut across the responsibilities of multiple departments should also be brought to the Executive under the terms of the ministerial code.
However, Sinn Fein insists the Executive took a decision on the issue in 2020, when it says ministers agreed Mr Poots would take on the legal responsibility to implement the checks.
Ms O’Neill has said any unilateral move by Mr Poots to halt the checks would be unlawful and civil servants in his department would not be able to comply with such an order.
The stand-off has the potential to put Department of Agriculture civil servants in a very awkward position, with different Stormont ministers offering contrasting views on whether officials are able to follow any direction from Mr Poots to halt checks.
If checks were to stop, it would put the UK Government at odds with its international obligations under the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
In such circumstances, the Government could use its authority to direct that the checks resume.
However, that could place it in an uncomfortable position politically, given Ms Truss is currently involved in intensive negotiations with Brussels in a bid to significantly reduce the number of checks required under the protocol.