The DUP has called for 'cool heads' after its former leader Peter Robinson warned the party it won't get all it wants in talks with government aimed at resolving issues around the Northern Ireland protocol.
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 former East Belfast MP also said Northern Ireland could benefit from having the “best of both worlds” with access to the United Kingdom and European Union markets. "I think we are coming very close to the period when decisions have to be taken, not just by the DUP, but by the Government if the DUP does not go back,” he told Times Radio. "I would hope within the next number of weeks that Sir Jeffrey will get sufficient to allow him to return to the Assembly. "I think it’s important we deal with those issues; many of them are constitutional, others are economic. "While it seems a long period now in the fullness of time, waiting until you get things right could serve the country very well and we could have virtually the best of both worlds with having access in a seamless way both to the UK market and the European market.”
The DUP said Mr Robinson was speaking for only himself and talks continued with the government and no agreement had been reached. It called for "cool heads".
“Peter Robinson is giving a series of interviews promoting his new book and his own views and analysis are shared by him on the basis of years of experience," the party said.
"He has not claimed to be speaking on behalf of anyone other than himself. “The party’s position is a matter of record. “Our discussions with the Government continue and agreement has not yet been reached. This is a time for cool heads. “We will judge any outcome against our clearly declared objectives of restoring our place in the Union and our ability to trade within the UK and its internal market.”
The DUP has been blocking power sharing in Northern Ireland 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.” However, DUP MP Sammy Wilson disputed the contention that his party was close to a deal which would bring Stormont back. He said: “Peter knows and the public know we have set out certain objectives that we believe are necessary for the stability of the Assembly and the safety of the union and if those conditions are not met it is pointless going back into the Assembly. “You have to see the nature of the deal to decide whether it is a good deal or not. “The objectives we set out were to restore Northern Ireland’s place in the union. We are a unionist party and you would expect us to do that.” He added: “I certainly don’t get the impression we are close… he (Peter Robinson) must have different information than I have.” Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy said the people of Northern Ireland had been left to suffer due to “dysfunctionality” within the DUP. He said: “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.”
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill has spoken to First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford ahead of this week’s British-Irish Council summit. No Stormont ministers are in post to attend the event which is set to focus on child poverty.
Ms O’Neill, who would hold the post of First Minister of Northern Ireland if the Stormont executive was sitting, spoke of her regret that no Stormont ministers would be in attendance. She added on the social media network X, formerly known as Twitter: “It’s now decision time & I am hopeful agreement is close.” Ms O’Neill is due to meet Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf on Wednesday ahead of the summit in the Republic of Ireland later this week.
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