Creation of Executive needs weeks of work on NI protocol, Coveney says

Minister counters Sinn Féin claims election result brings Border poll much closer

Weeks of intensive work may be needed to resolve the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol to help in the establishment of a new Stormont Executive, according to Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.

The next six weeks will be used to try and get a power sharing agreement in place, with the row over the protocol viewed in Government Buildings as the main obstacle to this happening.

Speaking at the weekend, Taoiseach Micheál Martin urged the parties in the North to “deliver on their mandate” and enter a new executive, saying this was “vital for progress and prosperity for all in Northern Ireland”.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the election had obviously been a good one for Sinn Féin but the big winners were undoubtedly the Alliance Party.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said his party will not enter an executive unless the British government takes action to address unionist concerns about the protocol.

Lead negotiators

Talks on the protocol take place between the UK government and EU directly. Mr Coveney said he had been in touch with both lead negotiators, British foreign secretary Liz Truss and EU commissioner Maroš Šefcovic, and the aim of these discussions had been “to work towards a basis for agreement”.

He said he hoped "that by doing that we can assist the parties in coming together because the last thing we need now in Northern Ireland is a collapse of the institutions and all the tension and polarisation that would flow from that".

He told RTÉ intensive work was needed in the coming weeks to "allow an executive to be re-established on the basis of acceptance that both sides have worked towards maximum flexibility on the protocol". He insisted, "It doesn't need to take months and months."

Mr Coveney said the EU had shown flexibility with proposals that would reduce checks on goods coming into the North from Britain and that London needed to compromise too.

Time frame

On Friday, in an initial response to her party’s success in the Assembly elections, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald suggested a Border poll on a united Ireland “would be possible within a five-year time frame” and preparation needed to “start now”.

Mr Coveney said he did not see the result as bringing a Border poll any closer, saying “The balance between the nationalist vote and the unionist vote hasn’t changed hugely.”

Ms McDonald later said the election result had brought about “change” not just in Sinn Féin’s success in becoming the largest party in the Assembly but also that of the Alliance Party.

She said, “The appetite to work together in partnership and to plan for our future is just a matter of plain common sense.”

Ms McDonald called on the Government to “lead from the front” and said a citizens’ assembly was needed to discuss a potential united Ireland.