The British government is in the “final stages” of engagement with the DUP over its concerns as further changes of the Windsor Framework come into effect on Sunday, including the green/red lane system for the movement of goods, the Northern Ireland Secretary has said.
Chris Heaton-Harris added there is “still more work to do” and called for the restoration of Northern Ireland’s institutions.
The DUP has been blocking powersharing for more than a year in protest at the internal UK trade barriers created by Brexit’s Northern Ireland protocol.
The party says the deal struck by the European Union and the UK to reform the protocol – the Windsor Framework – does not sufficiently address its concerns and has made clear it will not accept a return to devolution until the government provides further assurances, by way of legislation, over Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.
Talks between the DUP and the British government have been ongoing over the summer.
Britain’s prime minister Rishi Sunak said on Thursday that the agreement of the framework removed the major stumbling block to the return of the Stormont Assembly.
However, DUP MP Sammy Wilson said on Friday that the changes will “confirm” a border in the Irish Sea, adding that his party would not return to the powersharing institutions at Stormont as it would be legally required to implement the framework.
On Thursday, Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill said patience had run out with the DUP blockade of the Assembly.
She called on the UK and Irish governments to work together on a plan to restore the institutions.
Writing in the News Letter on Saturday, Mr Heaton-Harris said the government had engaged with the DUP “extensively” over the summer and that the party’s proposals had improved the green-lane system.
He added that work is ongoing to address the party’s concerns to restore Northern Ireland’s executive.
“We are also in the final stages of a period of constructive engagement with the DUP. We are pulling together a comprehensive package of proposals that we hope will address their concerns.
“I have no doubt that it is their genuine desire to focus on concrete improvements and to create a situation that will enable the Executive to be restored.
“I firmly believe that restoration of the institutions is right for Northern Ireland and right for the future of the Union.
“To address concerns about divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, we have to not only show that goods trade is working, we also have to show we are tackling worrying disparities on healthcare waiting lists, on childcare, on environmental pollution, on pay for our teachers, nurses and hardworking public servants, and on hundreds of smaller decisions being taken every day.
“To do that we need a devolved government here.
“Over the coming weeks we have a chance to move forward, to move on from Brexit and get Northern Ireland moving again.
“Together we can make this work for everyone in Northern Ireland.”
One of the main parts of the framework, the green/red lane system for the movement of goods, will become operational at Northern Ireland ports on Sunday.
Goods coming into the region which are travelling to the Republic or elsewhere in the EU will use the red lane, which includes customs declarations and some checks.
Goods to be sold in Northern Ireland will use the green lane with minimal paperwork and no checks.
Companies that use the green lane will be signed up to a trusted trader scheme.
Writing in the News Letter, Mr Heaton-Harris said the vast majority of Northern Ireland’s economic life remains “umbilically connected to the rest of the UK”, with most of the economy untouched by anything in the Windsor Framework.
He said Northern Ireland already enjoys the same VAT, alcohol duty and energy tax rules as the rest of the UK under the Windsor Framework, which it did not under the Northern Ireland protocol. – PA