The British government has provided a commitment that it will "work closely" with the Northern Executive as the UK begins the process of leaving the European Union, the North's First Minister Arlene Foster has stated.
The DUP leader whose party took a Brexit stance in the British EU referendum welcomed the announcement by British prime minister Theresa May that the formal procedure to quit the EU will begin before the end of March next year.
Ms Foster said on Sunday that she spoke with the British Brexit secretary of state David Davis on Saturday evening and they "agreed that it was important that the government work closely with us throughout this process".
Ms Foster said the DUP played a "key role" in the Leave campaign. "I believe the decision to leave the European Union is in the best interests of the United Kingdom. However it is important to collectively work to secure the best deal for Northern Ireland as the exit process commences next year," she said.
“It is important to maximise our opportunities as well as overcoming the challenges unique to Northern Ireland,” she added.
“I make no apologies for saying that I will be working to secure the best exit deal for Northern Ireland and I will work alongside other parties, despite our differences on the referendum outcome, to get that deal for our people,” said Ms Foster.
“There are huge opportunities for Northern Ireland and United Kingdom collectively and we want to make the most of them.”
In contrast, the Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who campaigned to remain in the EU, said the British government “has no idea what Brexit means”.
“The issue of when the British government will actually trigger Brexit continues to be a movable feast,” said Mr McGuinness.
“Theresa May has also made a U-turn on comments she made before the referendum when she said it was inconceivable to suggest a Leave vote would not have a negative impact on the border. The reality is that the British government is taking a leap into the dark with no plan and no idea what Brexit means,” he said.
Referring to how a majority of people in Northern Ireland - 56 per cent - voted to stay in the EU, Mr McGuinness added; “What is clear is there is no good outcome from Brexit. The people of the North voted to stay in the EU. That vote must be recognised and respected in any negotiations.”
The Ulster Unionist Party`s economy spokesman Steve Aiken said that the Northern Executive must "urgently pull a credible plan together" now that Ms May says she will trigger Article 50 to leave the EU before the end of March.
“The Executive now has nowhere left to hide and the clock has started counting down. Their approach so far has been lamentable, marked by mixed messaging and a complete lack of urgency. We need to exploit the opportunities presented by Brexit but if we’re not careful we could be left behind,” he said.
The Alliance deputy leader Naomi Long said the Northern Executive's response to Brexit "has been characterised by a lack of action, secrecy, ignorance and splits since the EU referendum".
“The complexities facing Northern Ireland are momentous, yet the Executive has not been clear about what it wants going forward. The DUP and Sinn Féin are also refusing to positively engage with other parties around the issue, when a combined effort could help get the best deal in the event of any withdrawal from the EU,” said Ms Long.
“Northern Ireland’s interests need to be fully represented in any Brexit negotiations. When compared with the coherent responses to date from other devolved regions, it is clear we are missing out. The prime minister’s announcement means that needs to change immediately,” she added.