Europe is trying to address the concerns of unionists about the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, insisted Tánaiste Michael Martin.
Ireland’s deputy prime minister was speaking after meeting the five main political parties in Belfast amid the ongoing stalemate within the devolved government.
It came as DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson suggested a deal could be reached between the EU and the UK over differences on the contentious post-Brexit trade deal within weeks.
But Sinn Féin drew attention to the one-year anniversary of the collapse of the Stormont Executive, with the party’s deputy president Michelle O’Neill accusing the DUP of “punishing the public”.
A year ago, former DUP First Minister Paul Givan resigned as part of his party’s protest over the post-Brexit settlement.
The DUP claims the protocol is a border in the Irish Sea and is undermining the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, as well as interfering with trade.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris spoke of his disappointment in a series of tweets on 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 the people of Northern Ireland still do not have the strong devolved government they deserve,” he said.
Negotiations are ongoing between the UK and the EU regarding differences within the protocol.
Mr Martin said the people of Northern Ireland deserved a government.
“The context is there in terms of the negotiations and discussions that are underway between the Government of the United Kingdom and the staff of the European Union.
“I made the point to the parties this morning, that there is a significant amount of secrecy involved in those negotiations and discussions, and I agree with the need to provide space for the two negotiating teams to see if they can find a solution in accomplished. the issues related to trade.”
He added: “We believe the issues can be resolved but that is primarily a matter for the EU negotiating team and the UK.
“There are many challenges, I would not underestimate the difficulties that both sides will face in trying to resolve the issues.”
Mr Martin also said the EU was sensitive to unionists’ concerns about the protocol.
“I think Europe is very aware and sensitive to views and concerns that have been put forward by the union community around the issue of the protocol, and having that seamless trade within the UK single market,” he said.
“These are issues that have been strongly promoted by the unionist parties, both the DUP and the UUP, and other parties are clear that if such issues can be resolved, they are quite happy to resolve them.
“I really believe that the European Union is very anxious to address the concerns of unionism.”
Speaking after his meeting with the Tánaiste, Sir Jeffrey said that progress had been made between the EU and the UK in relation to the protocol.
He said: “My understanding is that the UK and EU sides have reached a level of agreement on some of the technical issues but there are still significant gaps to fill.
“We hope we can get a result over the next few weeks that unionists and nationalists can support. It depends on the level of progress. We do not yet know the progress that has been made.
“This could come to fruition within the next few weeks. I think that since there are still some major political issues to be resolved, it could take longer.
“The most important thing for me is the quality of the result, not the length of time it takes.”
Ms O’Neill said she pressed Mr Martin that the EU and the UK needed to “close” on agreement on the protocol as quickly as possible.
“I think he shares the same assessment, that there seem to be good sounds coming from what’s happening,” she said.
“People seem to have gone quiet, I hope that means they are working really hard, that they will get to the point where there is an agreement on the protocol.”
Paula Bradshaw, Alliance MLA, said her party had highlighted the urgent need to reform Stormont’s institutions after the latest collapse.
“He said he supports the reform but I don’t think he has the same timescale as we would have in that we should let the negotiations with the EU come to an end, get the institutions back 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 bringing to the protocol negotiations.
He said: “It’s getting really frustrating, we’re not being kept up to date with what’s going on with the negotiations between the EU and the UK, and if we’re not involved, if they try to bounce, it simply won’t work.”
The leader of the SDLP, Colum Eastwood, said that despite the “positive” EU/UK talks on the protocol, it was still “in the hands of the DUP” whether the Executive would return if an agreement was reached.
“We all know the problems in the health service and the economy and everything else, and we really need local politicians to take responsibility,” he said.