Taoiseach Micheal Martin has said there is “no substitute” for substantive negotiations between the UK government and European Union to resolve difficulties with the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The Taoiseach also said that an Assembly and Executive should be formed at Stormont while those negotiations continued and accused the UK of “moving the goalposts” over its approach to the protocol.
Mr Martin was in Belfast meeting with party leaders amid ongoing deadlock at Stormont over the post-Brexit trading arrangements.
The Taoiseach also met with a range of business representatives on a visit that was dominated by the political crisis over the contentious protocol.
The region’s main unionist party, the DUP, is currently blocking the re-establishment of Stormont’s powersharing institutions in protest at the protocol, which has created economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Taoiseach’s visit came in the wake of the UK government’s controversial move to act unilaterally to scrap parts of the protocol.
Liz Truss announced on Tuesday plans to legislate to override parts of the Brexit withdrawal treaty it struck with the EU.
But Mr Martin said: He said: “There is no substitute for a substantive series of negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom Government in respect of solving issues in relation to the protocol.
“We accept legitimate issues have been raised, but it is our view that they can be resolved. We believe there can be a resolution of issues around the protocol, but the only way to do that is through a negotiated settlement.”
Mr Martin added: “On the UK government side, we haven’t quite got a clear landing zone. The goalposts do keep moving in that respect.
“What was produced this week by the UK government again indicates a widening of the picture in respect of resolving the issues of the protocol.
“This was a deal that the UK government signed up to, ratified in their Parliament and they are now unhappy with aspects of it.
“Well, let’s try to resolve those aspects in a meaningful way and that means getting into the tunnel and negotiating in a serious way.”
The Taoiseach also called for the Stormont Assembly to be restored.
He said: “The Democratic Unionist Party were clear that they have no difficulty in taking up the deputy First Minister position but they have issues with the protocol.
“Our view is there should be parallel discussions.
“The Assembly and the Executive should operate parallel with the UK Government and the European Union engaging in substantive negotiations to resolve issues which have arisen in respect of the operation of the protocol.”
But, following his meeting with the Taoiseach, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said a “sticking plaster” approach to dealing with the protocol would not suffice.
He said: “We spelled it out very clearly to him the problems with the protocol, the harm it is doing to Northern Ireland and that we need a solution, we need decisive action to deal with these problems.
“We are not interested in a sticking plaster approach, or tinkering around the edges, it has to be fundamental change which respects Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market and nothing short of that will suffice.”
Mr Donaldson said he wanted to see the UK government publish its plans before making any decision on re-entering the political institutions.
He said: “My understanding is that the Government will bring forward the legislation early in June.
“We will note what the legislation says and we will take decisions based on the progress that is made.
— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney) May 20, 2022
“I want the people of Northern Ireland to see what the Government is proposing to do, that is why publishing the legislation is important and once we see that legislation, of course, we will consider what our next step will be.”
Mr Martin has also held meetings with Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP.
Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill accused the DUP of “denying democracy” by refusing to enter Government in Northern Ireland.
Ms O’Neill said: “At a time where democracy is being denied, at a time where the DUP are continuing to prevent the facilitation of an executive being formed, an executive that could start to deliver for the public, I think it is important that he is here to assert his role and to listen to all of the parties.
“There are parties here that want to be in Government together, there are parties that want to be in the executive but, unfortunately, the DUP, sponsored by the British Government, are holding back all of that progress and preventing us from being able to start to put money in people’s pockets.”
UUP leader Doug Beattie said it could be a lengthy process to revive the Stormont Executive, but said the Assembly could restart in a limited way in a shorter period of time.
“I get a sense that this legislation, this unilateral action, will probably be laid before Parliament in the first two weeks of June, and that may be enough for a (Stormont) speaker then to be nominated, and that allows us to do limited work, and what happens after that will depend on whether or not the DUP get the Executive up and running,” he said.
“This could be a lengthy process to get the executive up and running, but we could manage it in short time to at least get the Assembly moving in the next month, maybe two months.
“I have got nothing to suggest that that’s the case, this doesn’t sit with me, this sits with the Democratic Unionist Party.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has said it is not “sustainable” for the DUP to wait for the UK government to legislate on the protocol before entering the power-sharing Executive.
Mr Eastwood said: “It could take many months for that legislation to actually be enacted, so is Jeffrey proposing to wait until that has finished?
“Because people will be waiting for month, after month, after month, for a Government to be formed and for action to be taken.
“That is not a sustainable position, in my view.”
Meanwhile, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has met with British foreign secretary Liz Truss about ongoing concerns around the protocol.
He tweeted: “I made clear Ireland’s opposition to the UK breaching international law.
“The UK needs to get back to talks with the EU.”