The DUP is talking to Labour but leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson insists he is focussed on securing a deal with the current Government to allow his party to return to the Stormont Assembly.
The lead unionist party in Northern Ireland is refusing to participate in the Assembly until its concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements are addressed by the Government.
Sir Jeffrey said the Northern Ireland Protocol must be replaced with arrangements that “respect and protect” the region’s ability to trade within the UK and its internal market.
Talks have been ongoing between the DUP and the Government for months but speculation has heightened in recent weeks that they may be close to concluding.
Ahead of the general election, expected to take place next year, Sir Jeffrey confirmed his party has had “a number of conversations” with both Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow secretary of state Hilary Benn.
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He described them as “interesting discussions”, adding: “Labour does have a plan in terms of how it will deal with some of the issues that confront us, including on EU regulations and veterinary agreements”.
“If Labour were to proceed on the basis they have spoken of, for the United Kingdom as a whole, that would help to ease many of the difficulties that we have in moving goods, particularly from Great Britain to Northern Ireland,” he told the BBC on Friday.
But he insisted he is working to get an agreement now with the current Government.
“I don’t want to wait another year. If we can get this right now, if we can have measures that respect our economic rights as part of the United Kingdom, that restore our place in the UK internal market, why wouldn’t I take that now?” he said.
He added: “Realistically, if we reach the end of the year, we’re into the trajectory for a general election and I think it is likely in those circumstances Government are going to focus elsewhere. That’s why I’m keen to make every effort that we can to get agreement. I don’t know if that’s going to be possible but I will continue working at this to try and get that solution.”
Speaking before his party’s conference this weekend, Sir Jeffrey said he will update members on the talks with the Government.
Asked if they are close to a deal, Sir Jeffrey declined to speculate on a timeline, saying: “Nothing is certain when it comes to negotiations of this nature but we have made progress.”
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 a bid 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.
In an interview with the PA news agency this week, Sir Jeffrey said a lot depends on the progress made to close the gaps that remain but he would like to see an outcome within the next few weeks.