Ireland’s premier has said Rishi Sunak is hopeful talks with the DUP on restoring powersharing in Northern Ireland are moving towards a positive conclusion.
Leo Varadkar said the Prime Minister briefed him on the status of the UK Government’s negotiations with the DUP during their bilateral meeting in Spain on Thursday.
Mr Varadkar, who remained in Granada on Friday for a meeting with EU leaders, said a window of opportunity to reach an agreement may be approaching.
On Thursday night, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson insisted gaps remain between Government and his party on the post-Brexit trade border impasse.
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.
Powersharing is unable to function without the participation of the region’s largest unionist party.
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.
Mr Varadkar was asked about his meeting with Mr Sunak as he spoke to reporters in Granada on Friday morning.
“Prime minister Sunak gave me a briefing on the talks and contacts that they’re having with the DUP at the moment,” he said.
“They’re ongoing. He didn’t go into the detail of those but very much said that they were bilateral discussions between the DUP and the UK Government, and that he hoped that they were moving towards a conclusion and that that would be a positive conclusion. But that remains to be seen.”
Mr Varadkar added: “There wasn’t any timeline given but you’ll be aware the DUP had an internal party meeting that happened there yesterday, and their conference is coming up at the weekend (October 13/14).
“So, you know, perhaps this is another window of opportunity to come to an agreement, an agreement between the UK Government and the DUP which enables the Assembly, executive and the North South Ministerial Council to start functioning again.
“So, you know, hopefully that’s the case but that remains to be seen over the next couple of weeks.”
He said he was not in a position to make a recommendation to party colleagues as he had not yet received the UK’s latest proposals.
“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,” he said.
“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”.