Unionists need to recognise that they will not get all they want from the Government in negotiations over post-Brexit trading arrangements, former DUP leader Peter Robinson has said.
Mr Robinson said he believed there is still a “gap” between the DUP and the Government but he hoped differences could be resolved in the next number of weeks.
The DUP has been blocking powersharing at Stormont for more than a year and a half in protest at the internal UK trade barriers created by Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
The party has been involved in negotiations with the Government about the Windsor Framework, which reformed the protocol and is seeking further assurances, by way of legislation, over Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has said the talks are in their final phase but DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has cautioned that there are still gaps between their negotiating positions and said he cannot be sure that powersharing at Stormont will return before the end of this year.
In an interview with the BBC Talkback programme, Mr Robinson, a former Stormont first minister, said that further changes to post-Brexit arrangements could be negotiated within the Assembly.
He said: “There’s a stage where unionists have to recognise that we really have pushed this one, we have got a good deal – not everything that we wanted but the rest that we do want I think we’re in position to argue for it and to achieve it using the Assembly as our base for doing it.”
Asked if he thought a deal was imminent, Mr Robinson said: “There is still a gap.
“I don’t believe at this moment in time we are quite there, but there are further steps that the Government can take and I hope they do.”
He added: “Nationalists and republicans look at what their objective is, each step they take they look to see – does that take us closer to our objective.
“Unionists and loyalists think they should clear the table in one visit, to use a snooker analogy, but that’s not always possible.
“What you want to do is make sure you have a sufficient score to enable you to clear the table when next you go to it.
“In my view, it is soluble so I hope it can be within the next number of weeks… because quite frankly, I don’t think you can go beyond the turn of the year without the Government having to look at some other way of governing Northern Ireland.”
Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy said the people of Northern Ireland had been left to suffer due to “dysfunctionality” within the DUP.
He told the BBC: “I think there is a degree of choreography going on, it (Peter Robinson’s comments) reflects the comments that Jeffrey Donaldson made at his own party conference.
“But meanwhile everyone sits and waits until this drama plays out within the DUP.
“Clearly one of their main problems is the level of disagreement and dysfunctionality within their own party.
“While the rest of us wait, programmes suffer and public services suffer, people have an uncertain economic future and the cost-of-living crisis is continuing to bite families and workers, the DUP continue to play this out.
“They really need to get to a decision, to face in to the party and tell them the time is now to get back into the executive and get back to work with the rest of us.”