Northern Ireland news

Micheál Martin says EU wants to deal with unionist protocol concerns

Tánaiste Micheál Martin in Belfast. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

MICHEÁL Martin has stressed Brussels' desire to deal with unionist concerns over the protocol, .

The tánaiste was speaking in Belfast after meeting Stormont's main parties.

The meetings fell exactly a year since the DUP forced the collapse of the devolved institutions with the resignation of first minister Paul Givan in protest at the protocol.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson suggested that a deal between the EU and the UK over differences on the contentious post-Brexit trading deal could be reached within weeks. But Sinn Féin highlighted the one-year anniversary of Stormont's collapse, with party vice-president Michelle O'Neill accusing the DUP of "punishing the public".

Mr Martin said the issues of concern around the protocol could be resolved but that it was a matter for the EU and UK negotiating teams.

He said the EU was sensitive to unionist concerns about the protocol.

"I think Europe is very aware and sensitive of the points of view and concerns that the unionist community have put forward in respect of the protocol issue, and having that seamless trade within the UK single market," he said.

Ms O'Neill said she pressed Mr Martin on the need for the EU and UK to "close out" on a deal as quickly as possible.

"I think he shares the same assessment, that there does appear to be good soundings coming from what is happening," she said.

"People seem to have went quiet, I hope that that means that they're working really hard, that they're going to get to a point where there is a deal on the protocol."

Sir Jeffrey said he believed there had been progress on "technical issues" but stressed there were "still significant gaps to be bridged".

"This could land within the next few weeks. I think, given that there are some major political issues still to be resolved, it could take longer," he said.

Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said her party had emphasised to the Fianna Fáil leader an urgent need to reform the Stormont institutions.

"He said that he is in support of reform but I don't think that he has the same timescale as we would in that we should allow the negotiations with the EU to complete, get the institutions back up 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 being given about the protocol negotiations, while his SDLP counterpart Colum Eastwood said that despite "positivity" around the EU/UK talks, it was still in "the DUP's hands" whether the executive would return.

"We know all the problems in the health service and the economy and everything else, and we're desperately in need of local politicians to take responsibility," he said.