DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said there are “still gaps” between the Government and his party on a potential resolution to the impasse over post-Brexit trade.
Emerging from a meeting of the DUP’s ruling executive in Lurgan, Co Armagh, Sir Jeffrey said he was not yet in a position to make a recommendation to party colleagues on whether to return to powersharing at Stormont, as he was awaiting final proposals from the UK.
The DUP leader said he was not going to set any deadlines on the engagement with London but he indicated the Government was now in a position to respond to his party’s latest requests. He said that was expected in the coming weeks.
Sir Jeffrey insisted there was unanimity among party members at the executive meeting.
The DUP withdrew first minister Paul Givan from the Stormont executive in February 2022 in protest at the internal UK trade barriers created by Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
The UK and EU agreed the Windsor Framework earlier this year in an attempt to address unionist concerns about the protocol but the DUP has indicated it will not return to the Stormont Assembly until the UK Government provides further assurances over Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.
One of the main parts of the framework – the green/red lane system for the movement of goods – became operational at Northern Ireland ports on Sunday.
Sir Jeffrey said the meeting of his party’s executive was “very positive”.
“I was able to report to our party executive on where we are at the moment in relation to our ongoing discussions with the Government,” he said.
“Clearly there are still gaps between us and them in terms of the shortcomings of the Windsor Framework, the areas where we believe it does not go far enough in delivering for Northern Ireland and our ability to trade within the United Kingdom on its internal market.
“And the party is very clear – we’re focused on what we need to achieve and over the next few weeks we’ll continue that engagement with the Government to try and get to the solution that we need.
“A solution that both unionists and nationalists can support, that provides the strong foundations that Stormont needs to get back up and running.”
Earlier, Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said the coming weeks would be “critical” in efforts to restore the Stormont Assembly and Executive.
Addressing a meeting of party activists in Co Armagh, Sinn Fein’s vice president said a pragmatic approach was required by all political parties to “get down to business”.
As Ms O’Neill was delivering her speech, DUP party members were gathering at Brownlow House in Lurgan for a meeting of their party executive.
After the DUP meeting, Sir Jeffrey said the engagement process with the Government remained a “work in progress”.
“We’re waiting on the Government to come back to us with the latest set of proposals to address the concerns that we have raised with them, concerns that are not just those of the DUP but concerns that we have picked up from the business community and from people right across Northern Ireland,” he said.
“Even right up to the moment issues that have arisen since the first phase of the Windsor Framework began in implementation.
“So this is work in progress. I reported on that to the party executive but we’re not in a position yet to make any recommendations.”
Asked if he believed the gaps with the Government could be bridged in the coming weeks, Sir Jeffrey said: “I do believe it is possible to get an outcome here that works for Northern Ireland.
“We’ve spelled out to the Government what that looks like both in terms of legislation that is required to safeguard Northern Ireland’s ability to trade within the United Kingdom, our Article Six rights (of the Acts of Union), our economic rights as part of the UK, and also the practical measures that are required to live up to the declarations that the Prime Minister made after the Windsor Framework that goods can flow freely from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that are staying within the UK internal market.”
“There was I think a strong united approach tonight to how we deal with these issues,” he said.
“And in terms of taking soundings, I talk to my party all the time. I am out and about across Northern Ireland, I visit constituencies on a regular basis, I hold town hall meetings with people. I listen to what people have to say and their concerns. And indeed many of those concerns are at the heart of the proposals we have put to the Government.”
Asked if he believed the institutions could be back before Christmas, the DUP leader said: “Well, we’re waiting for the Government to come back now with the latest set of proposals. We’ll keep working at this.
“It would be great to see an outcome that works for Northern Ireland. It would be great to see a situation where Northern Ireland and our place in the United Kingdom was properly respected and protected in UK law and, yes, to see Stormont back up and running, but I have never set deadlines on this. I’ve continued to work at this and we will engage with the Government until we get the right outcome.”
Responding to a suggestion that the Government might table final proposals next week, Sir Jeffrey said: “That has certainly not been communicated to me that there is a final offer.
“We know that the Government are in a position to respond to our latest proposals, we expect that may come in the next couple of weeks. But as to whether that’s a final offer, that has certainly not been said to me.”
Earlier, Ms O’Neill said for “not a month longer” should the powersharing institutions be in shutdown while families carry the burden of a cost-of-living crisis.
She said: “Where inflation and higher mortgage interest payments are stretching household budgets, where energy costs and food prices all remain outrageously high.
“Where public services we all rely on are in crisis with people crippled as they wait for basic treatment and surgery but can’t get off a waiting list.
“It is unacceptable there is nobody at the wheel and no ministers running departments.”
Ms O’Neill referred to a US trade delegation being brought to Northern Ireland later this month by special envoy Joe Kennedy.
She said: “This includes American investors from different sectors who want to create jobs here and give our young people new opportunities.
“We must not allow these opportunities to be squandered.
“Political stability, maturity and a pragmatic approach is required by all political parties at Stormont to work together to get things moving and get down to business.”
She added: “Time and space has been given by everyone, but there are clear limits to the public’s patience and the end point to that is upon us.
“The next short number of weeks are therefore critical to efforts to restore the Assembly and Executive.”