British prime minister Rishi Sunak is set to hold talks with Northern Ireland political leaders in Belfast.
Mr Sunak is also to meet with businesses and communities on the second day of his visit on Friday, including a shipyard following an announcement last month by the Ministry of Defence that British-led Team Resolute is its preferred bidder for a major contract to build the next generation of Royal Navy Solid Support Ships.
It will be Mr Sunak’s first visit since taking office, and is aimed at promoting the UK government’s investment in the prosperity and future of Northern Ireland.
The development came after the parties met with Britain's Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris earlier on Thursday.
The PM’s office described the talks as discussions on solutions to resurrect the Stormont executive.
Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill said any meeting with Mr Sunak had to have a political outcome, and that she did not want “tea and sympathy”.
Devolution has been in flux since February when the DUP withdrew its first minister from the ministerial executive in protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Another issue that featured in the cross-party discussions in Belfast on Thursday was the continued uncertainty over when £600 Treasury-funded energy support payments will be rolled out to householders in Northern Ireland.
Speaking after the meeting, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “We covered a wide range of issues, including the ongoing negotiations between the UK government and the European Union.
“There’s very little to report on that.
“We want to see progress made, we want to see a ramping up of these talks, to try and get to a solution.”
Mr Donaldson added: “I hope we will hear from the prime minister a renewal of his commitment to resolving the issues around the protocol, taking the decisive action that is needed to restore Northern Ireland’s places in the UK internal market.”
Ms O’Neill said the British government had no plan on how to restore Stormont.
She said: “I think he (Mr Heaton-Harris) is bereft of a plan.
“Even at this stage, we’re still left in political limbo.
“There was no concrete proposals as to how they’re going to reach an agreed way forward on the protocol.”
Speaking about Mr Sunak’s visit, Ms O’Neill said: “I want a political meeting with the British Prime Minister.
“I want to know what he’s doing to get the £600 into people’s pockets. I want to know what he’s doing to secure a deal on the protocol and negotiate a way forward.
“So I have no desire to have tea and sympathy with the prime minister, what I want to see is a political outcome to such an engagement.”
Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry said progress on talks about the protocol between the UK government and the EU had been “painfully slow”.
He said: “Much to our frustration the protocol has become the main obstacle to the restoration of an executive.
“The government needs to get its ducks in a row in that respect.”
SDLP Stormont leader Matthew O’Toole said: “Unfortunately, today’s meeting did not have any concrete actions or proposals around getting an executive formed.”
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said: “Nothing has changed, nothing has gone any further forward.
“We asked for an update on the protocol, we didn’t get it.”
The DUP, the region’s largest unionist party, has blocked the formation of a new administration following May’s Assembly election and prevented the Assembly meeting to conduct legislative business as part of its protest over the protocol.
It claims the protocol has undermined Northern Ireland’s place within the UK by creating economic barriers on trade entering the region from Britain.
The party has insisted it will not allow a return to powersharing until radical changes to the protocol are delivered.
Last week, Mr Heaton-Harris cut the pay of MLAs by 27.5 per cent to reflect the fact they are not doing their jobs as legislators.
If a new executive is not formed by January 19th, the British government assumes a legal responsibility to call a snap Assembly election by April 13th.
The meeting in Belfast came on the same day British foreign secretary James Cleverly held face-to-face talks with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic in Brussels to discuss the protocol deadlock.
The meeting at the Northern Ireland Office took place as nurses across Northern Ireland held a strike over pay and conditions.
Thank you, @MarosSefcovic - more important discussions today 🇬🇧🇪🇺
We are determined to find a solution to the Protocol that, above all else, protects the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
Our teams continue to meet and I look forward to speaking again soon. pic.twitter.com/XZZ8cIAprJ
— James Cleverly🇬🇧 (@JamesCleverly) December 15, 2022
A similar strike by the Royal College of Nursing in the region in late 2019 was seen as a factor in securing a return to powersharing after the political impasse at Stormont.
Meanwhile, the prime minister is expected to highlight the UK-wide nature of the Royal Navy shipbuilding project and that it demonstrates how intertwined Northern Ireland’s economy is with the rest of the UK.
Speaking ahead of his visit, Mr Sunak said: “Northern Ireland – its people and its future – are rightly at the centre of our shipbuilding ambitions.
“And completing the next generation of our world-class Royal Navy Support Ships – to strengthen our security at sea and across the globe – could not have found a better home than in Belfast, once the biggest shipyard in the world, with its proud tradition of skill and expertise.
“The thousands of high value jobs and the skills that are gained from delivering it now will help to lay the foundations of prosperity for tomorrow.”
The latest political discussions took place on the same day a judge in Belfast declared that a former DUP minister’s ill-fated bid to halt protocol checks at Northern Ireland ports was unlawful.
In February, ex-agriculture minister Edwin Poots ordered officials to stop the checks, claiming he required – and did not have – the approval of the wider Stormont executive to continue them.
This move was challenged in the High Court and checks continued pending the outcome of the judicial review.
On Thursday, Justice Colton ruled that Mr Poots had been legally obliged to carry out the checks and that he did not require executive approval to continue them.
The judge said his attempt to halt them was “motivated by political rather than legal considerations”.