The DUP has described comments from an NIO minister that the absence of a Stormont Executive is impeding people facing the cost-of-living crisis are “misguided and mistaken”.
Conor Burns, Minister of State for Northern Ireland, said there was “no reason” for the DUP not to be in Government and predicted that issues with the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol could be resolved.
But DUP MLA Emma Little-Pengelly said Mr Burns should focus on replacing the protocol rather than making “pointed attacks” on her party.
Northern Ireland is currently without a properly functioning Executive due to the DUP’s decision to block its operation in protest at the protocol.
Many unionists are vehemently opposed to the protocol, claiming the Brexit checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are undermining the region’s place within the UK.
Controversial Government legislation that would empower UK ministers to unilaterally override the protocol on Irish Sea trade, which it agreed with the EU in 2019, is currently making its way through Parliament.
The DUP has linked its return to Stormont with the progress of the Bill.
There is no excuse for the DUP not being back in government today
But in an interview with the BBC, Mr Burns said: “There is no excuse for the DUP not being back in government today.
“Not having a functioning Executive is an impediment for us getting the money that Northern Ireland has been allocated as a result of the decisions taken by Rishi Sunak to help families with the cost-of-living challenges in England.
“Unless we get an Executive we can’t help those families in Northern Ireland.”
He added: “We will sort the protocol, the DUP should be back in government.”
Mr Burns went on to say he wanted to see a situation where the protocol is “working for everybody in Northern Ireland” and where it commanded greater consent.
Conor Burns' comments are misguided and mistaken
But Mrs Little-Pengelly responded by stating that Westminster had to deliver on measures to tackle cost-of-living pressures.
She said: “Conor Burns’ comments are misguided and mistaken.
“He should focus on solving the fundamental problems which have created the situation we face today both in dealing with the protocol and ensuring the Government takes real action to tackle the root causes of the cost-of-living challenges we face.
“All the main levers to deal with the challenges of 2022 lie in Treasury, whether that is green taxes, energy bills, protocol costs or tax-free childcare.
“Just as Westminster is dealing with these matters in Scotland and Wales, they should deal with Northern Ireland too.
“With financial pressures in every department here, it is only Westminster that can, and must, deliver on cost-of-living measures.”
She added that her party was committed to a newly established Stormont Executive, but only when the protocol was “replaced by arrangements which unionists can support”.
But Finance Minister Conor Murphy said the DUP Assembly boycott was “punishing ordinary workers and families”.
The Sinn Fein minister added: “It’s clear that the DUP will continue with its boycott of government, despite the fact that people are struggling with rising energy bills.
“Hundreds of millions of pounds to help people cannot be spent because the DUP, aided and abetted by the Tories, are continuing with their refusal to form an Executive.
“I am calling on DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson to end this cruel boycott of the Executive and stop punishing ordinary workers and families who are struggling to pay their bills.”
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said the new prime minister would have to “move quickly” to deal with the protocol.
He said: “It continues to cause problems for business and consumers while uncertainty remains.
“It is also contributing to a toxic atmosphere in Northern Ireland politics with devolution still not having been restored almost four months on from the Assembly election.”