Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson has told him that taking up the role of deputy first minister “is not an issue and is not an impediment” for the Democratic Unionist Party.
Mr Martin intimated that Mr Donaldson is not resisting naming ministers for the new Northern Ireland Executive because Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill will be first minister, after her party won most votes in last week’s general election.
Speaking to chairmen/women of Oireachtas committees in Leinster House on Wednesday, Mr Martin said the big factor preventing the DUP going into the Northern Ireland Executive was its continuing resistance to the Northern Ireland protocol.
He said that he had spoken to all party leaders in the North this week and all said they wanted the Northern institutions – which have been in abeyance for three years – to be restored.
“The DUP were straight up. They said that they wanted the protocol resolved before they went into the Executive,” he said.
“They did make it clear to me that taking up the role of deputy first minister was not an issue and was not an impediment. I take all leaders in good faith . . . if there is a will there’s a way and I sincerely believe that there is a landing zone to resolving the issues.”
Mr Martin told the heads of the Oireachtas committees that he had frank discussion with British prime minister Boris Johnson this week. And he made it clear that any unilateral initiative by the United Kingdom to undermine or circumvent the protocol would have a destabilising impact on the Belfast Agreement.
He claimed the British Government was not consistent in its approach.
“The goalposts keep on changing,” he said. “I also said to the British prime minister that its government cannot continue to say that the EU is being inflexible and is not moving and now we must have a change of the mandate, whatever that means. That is not true There has been movement from the EU Commission. There has been consistent movement but it has not been reciprocated.
“Because of the lack of reciprocation there has been an erosion of trust on the EU side. No matter what is produced on the EU side it does not get reciprocated. There is an absence of clarity around what the British government’s landing zone is . . . Now we are into a new iteration of this, the idea of a unilateral initiative to row back on the implementation of the protocol in British law which would be a breach,” he said.
Mr Martin said that he believed that notwithstanding the difficulties an agreement was attainable.
“I believe it was close to being attained last autumn when Lord [David] Frost [former Brexit minister] made a very unhelpful intervention when he raised the European Court of Justice, almost the night before the vice president of the EU Commission was publishing his proposals . . . It was a terrible pity that Lord Frost intervened at that stage to essentially derail it,” he said.
Mr Martin said that in his telephone conversation with Mr Johnson – to discuss the outcome of the Assembly elections – he had reiterated the point that unilateralism was “not good”.
“What has underpinned the peace process before the Good Friday Agreement is both governments working hand in glove and together. That has been the anchor. Unilateralism flies in the face of that key point.”
Chairman of the committee on health Seán Crowe asked Mr Martin would he delay the decision on the National Maternity Hospital for longer? He said the two weeks delay did not give his committee sufficient time to explore fully the key issues.
Mr Martin replied that this proposal had now been going on for nine years.
Nobody had been able to tell him the difference, he said, between a leasehold of 300 years and freehold ownership of the site and the impact it would have on the clinical and financial independence of the hospital.
Signalling there would not be further delays, he said the process has been exhaustive.
Asked about the departure of deputy State chief medical officer Ronan Glynn, Mr Martin said that people go from the public to private sector. And during Covid-19, in particular, the private sector would have been aware of the “potential movers and shakers” within the public sector.
He added there was still “strong capacity with the public health division” of the Department of Health.