DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said he would like to see a successful resolution to his party’s negotiations with the Government over the post-Brexit trade impasse within weeks.
Sir Jeffrey said he is focused on working with the current Government to achieve a deal which could restore the powersharing institutions at Stormont, rather than waiting for the outcome of a general election, but he did state that a future Labour government might “open up other opportunities”.
In an interview with the PA news agency ahead of the DUP conference this weekend, he also said there has been “absolutely no dissent” within his party over the tactic of trying to secure concessions from the Government over the operation of the Windsor Framework.
The DUP withdrew first minister Paul Givan from the Stormont executive in February 2022 in protest against the internal UK trade barriers created by Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
Powersharing is unable to function in Northern Ireland without the participation of the largest unionist party.
The UK and EU agreed the 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 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 earlier this month.
Sir Jeffrey said the negotiations between his party and the Government are continuing. He said progress has been made but there are “still gaps to be closed”.
Asked when the negotiations might conclude, he said: “A lot depends on the progress which is made to close the gaps that are there at the moment, but certainly we would like to see an outcome within the next few weeks.
“We have identified what the outstanding issues are, we are clear about what is required to both protect in law and respect our ability to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom.
“That goes to our rights under Article 6 of the Acts of Union, our economic rights as part of the UK, and this is what needs to be resolved, so we believe that can be done relatively quickly provided there is the will on the part of the Government to bring forward the legislation that is needed and to introduce the additional measures required to safeguard our ability to trade with the rest of the UK.”
Sir Jeffrey said he is not working to any deadline, despite the prospect of a general election next year.
“I am working to get this done,” he said. “I want to see an outcome which works for Northern Ireland, I want to see proposals and agreements that both unionists and nationalists can support, because that is the basis upon which Stormont can operate effectively, that cross-community consensus that is absolutely essential for our executive and Assembly to function properly.
“I am focused on getting an outcome that works for Northern Ireland, that unionists as well as nationalists can support, rather than looking at a general election which might take place in six months’ time or a year’s time.”
The DUP leader denied he is waiting in the hope that a future Labour government might deliver a better deal for Northern Ireland.
He said: “I am not looking to who might form the next government, I want to work with the current Government to deliver what is best for Northern Ireland.
“I am very conscious that we need to see those political institutions back up and running again, which is what I want to see happening.
“But of course that means getting agreement with the Government, so I am not waiting on a change of government, I am not waiting in the hope that a Labour government might deliver a different outcome that would be more beneficial for Northern Ireland.
“Every day and every week that passes there are trade difficulties, businesses in Northern Ireland, consumers in Northern Ireland experiencing difficulties in bringing products and goods into Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom, so the sooner we get that resolved the better.
“I don’t know what a new Labour government might do if Labour won the election and rather than have all of that uncertainty run on for months and months, I want to try and get to a point of agreement with the current Government that sees the progress made that we need to make to have Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom both respected and protected in law.
“That is what I want to achieve and if I can get that from the current Government, then we can make progress more quickly, if we have to wait because the current Government isn’t capable of delivering what is needed, then those are the circumstances in which a change of government in the future might open up other opportunities.
“But I would much rather get the agreement now and get Northern Ireland’s place within the UK protected and respected, our ability to trade with the rest of the UK restored and get our political institutions back up and running.”
Sir Jeffrey said the position his party has adopted has been based upon unanimous consent from party officers.
He said: “Our party officers drew up proposals which were agreed by all the officers and have been presented to the Government.
“That is the basis upon which we are negotiating.
“There was absolutely no dissent around that document and at our party executive meeting last week when I updated our members of the executive, almost 130 members present that evening, again there was no dissent.
“There is full support for the position that the party officers have been taking and the negotiating stance we have been taking.”