Sir Jeffrey Donaldson insists DUP executive meeting is 'literally routine'
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has insisted Thursday night's DUP executive meeting has been called to deal with "routine business".
Up to 130 DUP members are due to meet in Lurgan amid speculation that the British government is finalising its response to the party's demands that Northern Ireland's place in the UK internal market be safeguarded, leading to the potential restoration of devolution.
Sir Jeffrey earlier this week rebuked a threat from loyalist activist Jamie Bryson of mass protests should the DUP return to Stormont while the Irish Sea border remains.
TUV leader Jim Allister spoke on Tuesday of "hyped speculation" that a deal to restore the institutions was afoot.
Speaking after meeting recently-appointed shadow secretary of state Hilary Benn at Parliament Buildings, Sir Jeffrey said the executive meeting, which takes place little over a week before the DUP party conference, was "literally a routine meeting, planned in advance".
He said discussions with the British government were "ongoing" and unresolved issues remained.
"We are not yet in the space where we have an outcome, where we have got a solution to the very real problems that have been created by the Northern Ireland Protocol, that are harming our economy and that fail to respect our place within the United Kingdom and its internal market," the Lagan Valley MP said.
He said "some progress" had been made but that assurances which "both respect and protect Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom and its internal market" had not yet been forthcoming.
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The DUP leader said he wanted to "find a solution and was "not planning for failure".
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane, who met Mr Benn alongside deputy leader Michelle O'Neill, said their message to the shadow secretary of state was the need to restore the institutions.
"We are in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, we have a health service that demands action to begin to tackle the crisis in our waiting lists and the many other problems in our public services.
"But we were also keen to stress that we don't want to miss the opportunities of the economic potential that we now have here. We also have a very significant and sizeable delegation coming from America in a couple of weeks led by the US president's special envoy Joe Kennedy."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the public was more concerned with the state of public services than the implementation of the Windsor Framework.
"So I hope that all of the space that Jeffrey and the DUP have been given over the past number of months is going to finally be used at some point, but that's a question for the DUP," he said.
"When you're charged with leadership, sometimes you just have to go ahead and lead, and we're all waiting."
Alliance leader Naomi Long also raised the issue of Stormont's restoration with Mr Benn.
"We also did raise our concerns about issues such as reform, both of our finances and public services, and about the need for us to be able to do that in a way that reflects the fact that Northern Ireland does have higher levels of need," she said.
"I was very impressed both with his levels of interest and also his levels of knowledge. I would have expected nothing else and it was a very good meeting."
UUP leader Doug Beattie said he believes the DUP meeting on Thursday will be "their stock take" in terms of negotiations with the British government.
"I don't think much will change this week," he said.