DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said that he cannot be certain that Stormont powersharing will return by the end of the year.
Sir Jeffrey had said in recent weeks that the UK Government was “moving closer” to addressing his party’s concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland, and that the coming weeks would be “vital”.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said that talks had moved into a “positive space” after “long” discussions over the summer months.
But the party leader said on Wednesday there were still “significant” gaps that require a resolution before a proposal could be presented to his party.
When asked if Stormont would return by the end of the year, he said he could not be sure.
“I don’t know if that is going to be the case, I can’t be certain that we’re going to get an agreement,” he said.
“But we’ll keep working at this because we want to see Stormont restored, but it has to be on the basis that unionists as well as nationalists can support, and that means restoring Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and its internal market.”
The DUP withdrew from Northern Ireland’s assembly in February 2022 in protest against the internal UK trade barriers created by the post-Brexit protocol.
Powersharing is unable to function in Northern Ireland without the support of the largest unionist and nationalist parties in Northern Ireland.
The UK and EU agreed the Windsor 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.
“We’re working on those issues and I hope we can make further progress in the weeks ahead, but we don’t yet have an agreement,” Sir Jeffrey told Cool FM.
“We’re not yet at the point where I can take back a comprehensive proposal to my party.
“We were engaged with the Government today, and will continue to talk to them to close those gaps, there are significant issues that need to be resolved and we’ll keep working at it until we get solutions.”
Asked whether the UK Government would have other priorities next year as it prepares for a general election, Sir Jeffrey said: “We don’t have a deadline and we’ll keep working at this until we get the right outcome, I hope that that can happen sooner rather than later.
“In terms of where those gaps are that I’ve spoken of, they deal with significant issues, we’ve made progress on those issues, and I welcome that, and we need just to press on to get to the final outcome.”
Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said that the Labour Party “will not change” the Windsor Framework and will look to strengthen ties with the EU if in government.
A UK general election is due before January 2025, with speculation abound that it could be held as soon as next autumn. The Conservatives continue to be almost 20 points behind Labour in most opinion polls.
Mr Beattie said that the “clear message” from a meeting with Welsh Labour MP Nick Thomas-Symonds, a shadow minister without portfolio, is that the Windsor Framework is about global relations as well as a protocol solution.
“What was also clear is that Labour will not change the Windsor Framework and will aim to move closer to the EU if they form the next government,” he said on Wednesday.
“On the back of the Labour leader saying similar in regards the Framework, as well as the UK Government outlining no intention to make change, what next?
“I fail to understand what a boycott of the devolved institutions is actually achieving. It is now doing more harm to Northern Ireland’s place in the union than it is protecting it.”
Mr Beattie said he outlined the UUP’s concerns with the Framework to Mr Thomas-Symonds, including the “unacceptable checks and bureaucracy on green lane goods”.
He added: “The trajectory continually points to restoration of our devolved government with mitigations to how the Windsor Framework may operate internally. If that’s the case, we need to get on with it before our services become irretrievable.”