Weeks of intensive work may be needed to resolve the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol, according to Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.
The row between London and Brussels over the protocol is perhaps the main issue that may delay the establishment of a new Stormont executive following last week’s Assembly election.
Mr Coveney said: “What’s needed now is for us to work intensively over the weeks ahead so that we can allow an executive to be re-established on the basis of acceptance that both sides have worked towards maximum flexibility on the protocol.”
He also said: “It doesn’t need to take months and months.”
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson has also said his party will not enter a future executive unless the British government takes action to address unionist concerns about the protocol.
The protocol is part of the EU-UK Brexit withdrawal agreement which guarantees a special post-Brexit trading status for the North to avoid a hard Border in Ireland.
Unionists are deeply unhappy about the requirement in the protocol for increased checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland from Britain.
Talks on the protocol take place between the UK government and the EU directly but Mr Coveney said he has been in touch with both lead negotiators: British foreign secretary Liz Truss and EU commissioner Maroš Šefcovic.
He said the aim of these discussions has been “to work towards a basis for agreement in the coming weeks,” adding: “I certainly hope 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.”
Mr Coveney told RTÉ Radio: “There’s a responsibility I think on us all to respect how the people have voted and find a way of working with the parties to put an executive and Assembly that can work back in place.”
The UK’s Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis argued on Sunday that the EU has not shown the flexibility needed to get a resolution to the row over the protocol.
He told the BBC the UK wants the “right resolution” in the form of an agreement with the EU and it is why Britain has not triggered article 16.
This is the mechanism in the Brexit deal that allows either side to act unilaterally to address “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.
However, Mr Lewis also said the protocol was putting stress on the Belfast Agreement and “we can’t let that continue”.
He said: “We’ve always said we take nothing off the table and that hasn’t changed. We will do what we need to do to resolve these issues for the benefit of people in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Coveney said the EU will not change the language of the protocol which is enshrined in an international treaty but it can talk about “flexibilities and the pragmatism” in its implementation.
He said the EU had made proposals that would significantly reduce checks on goods last October but these weren’t accepted as enough by the British government.
Mr Coveney said: “What’s needed now is for us to work intensively over the weeks ahead so that we can allow an executive to be re-established on the basis of acceptance that both sides have worked towards maximum flexibility on the protocol, that the impact on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is absolutely minimised and I think that is possible.”
He said this would only be possible “on the basis of compromise coming from both sides, not just one.
“This isn’t just about the EU compromising over and over again.”
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald responded to the result of the Assembly election – where her party won the largest number of seats – saying 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 does 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” and it was the “middle ground” Alliance Party that saw the increase in seat numbers.
He said people have a right to aspire to have a Border poll and that is just as legitimate as people who want to maintain the union with Britain and that both sides have to be respected.
Mr Coveney said his focus in the coming weeks and months is to build trust between the parties and “resolving the obstacles to devolved government functioning again, the protocol being the main one of those”.
He also said: “I think if people remind ourselves of that and if we have a partnership approach towards the protocol issues we can find a way of getting this done.
“And by the way it doesn’t need to take months and months and months to do that.
“It took us three years the last time to get… an executive back up and running after it collapsed. I think we owe it to everybody to move far quicker this time”.
Ms McDonald was asked on the same RTÉ broadcast about Mr Coveney’s remarks on a Border poll and is she really envisaged one taking place in a five year time frame.
She said: “The fact of change should now be apparent to one and all and even the result for Sinn Féin… but also that result for the Alliance Party who had a very strong day out.
“The appetite to work together in partnership and to plan for our future is just a matter of plain common sense.”
Ms McDonald said: “It is really for the Government in Dublin now to lead from the front.
“We need a Citizens’ Assembly because whatever about the date of a Border poll – that’s a speculative exercise – the fact is that in the here and now we need to start dialogue and we need to start planning for change”.
She said that change needs to be “peaceful, orderly and democratic” and the conversation should involve nationalists, unionist and people that don’t describe themselves as either.