Europe is anxious to deal with concerns that unionists have over the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, Tánaiste Micheál Martin has insisted.
He was speaking after meeting the main five political parties in Belfast amid the continuing stalemate within the devolved government.
It came as DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson suggested that a deal between the EU and the UK over differences on the contentious post-Brexit trading deal could be reached within weeks.
But Sinn Féin highlighted the one-year anniversary of the collapse of the Stormont Executive, with party vice-president Michelle O’Neill accusing the DUP of “punishing the public”.
One year ago, former DUP first minister Paul Givan resigned as part of his party’s protest over the post-Brexit deal.
The DUP contends the protocol is a border in the Irish Sea and is undermining the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, as well as hampering trade.
Today marks one year since the then-First Minister of Northern Ireland resigned. Twelve months and one Assembly election later, it is disappointing that people in Northern Ireland still do not have the strong devolved government that they deserve.
— Chris Heaton-Harris MP (@chhcalling) February 3, 2023
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris spoke of his disappointment in a series of tweets at reaching the one-year anniversary of the impasse.
“Today marks one year since the then-first minister of Northern Ireland resigned. Twelve months and one Assembly election later, it is disappointing that people in Northern Ireland still do not have the strong devolved government that they deserve,” he said.
Negotiations between the UK and the EU on differences within the protocol are ongoing.
Mr Martin said the people of Northern Ireland deserved government.
An Executive should be sitting today, working to support workers and families as living costs rise, and fixing our health service.
I want to make politics work for everyone across society.
There should be no more excuses or delays, the blocking of an Executive must end now. pic.twitter.com/z5wUIHAFBY
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) February 3, 2023
“The context is there in terms of the negotiations and discussions that are under way between the United Kingdom Government and the European Union team.
“I made the point to the parties this morning, there is a significant degree of confidentiality surrounding those negotiations and discussions, and I am in agreement with the need to provide space to both the negotiating teams to see if they can bring about a resolution of the issues around trade.”
He added: “We believe the issues can be resolved but that is a matter in the first instance for the EU negotiating team and the United Kingdom.
“There are a lot of challenges, I would not understate the difficulties that both sides will face in trying to resolve the issues.”
Mr Martin also said the EU was sensitive to concerns unionists had about the protocol.
“I think Europe is very aware and sensitive of the points of view and concerns that the unionist community have put forward in respect of the protocol issue, and having that seamless trade within the UK single market,” he said.
“These are issues that have been advanced strongly by the unionist parties, both the DUP and the UUP, and other parties are clear that if issues of that nature can be resolved, they’re happy enough to see them resolved.
“I do genuinely believe that the European Union is very anxious to deal with those concerns that unionism has.”
Sir Jeffrey - "Protocol must be replaced with arrangements that unionists can support" https://t.co/230Dh2lk01 via @duponline @J_Donaldson_MP @little_pengelly @gordonlyons1
— DUP (@duponline) February 3, 2023
Speaking after his meeting with the Tánaiste, Mr Donaldson said progress had been made between the EU and the UK over the protocol.
He said: “My understanding is that on some of the technical issues, the UK and EU sides have reached a level of agreement, but there are still significant gaps to be bridged.
“We hope we can get an outcome over the next few weeks that unionists as well as nationalists can support. It depends on the level of progress. We don’t yet know the progress made.
“This could land within the next few weeks. I think, given that there are some major political issues still to be resolved, it could take longer.
“The important thing for me is the quality of the outcome, not the length of time taken.”
Ms O’Neill said she pressed on Mr Martin the need for the EU and UK to “close out” on a deal on the protocol as quickly as possible.
“I think he shares the same assessment, that there does appear to be good soundings coming from what is happening,” she said.
“People seem to have went quiet, I hope that that means that they’re working really hard, that they’re going to get to a point where there is a deal on the protocol.”
Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said her party had emphasised to Mr Martin an urgent need to reform the Stormont institutions after the latest period of collapse.
“He said that he is in support of reform but I don’t think that he has the same timescale as we would in that we should allow the negotiations with the EU to complete, get the institutions back up and then talk about how we reform the institutions,” she said.
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie expressed frustration at the lack of information he said local politicians were being given about the protocol negotiations.
He said: “It is becoming incredibly frustrating, we are not being kept in the loop as to what is happening in regards to the negotiations between the EU and the UK, and if we’re not involved, if they try to bounce unionism, it’s simply not going to work.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that despite “positivity” around the EU/UK talks on the protocol, it was still in “the DUP’s hands” whether the Executive would return if a deal was struck.
“We know all the problems in the health service and the economy and everything else, and we’re desperately in need of local politicians to take responsibility,” he said.