A government minister has said “nothing is off the table” during negotiations to address concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan was speaking ahead of Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis urging all political parties to form an executive as soon as possible after Sinn Fein’s historic election victory.
Mr Lewis will meet the leaders of Stormont’s five main political parties including Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on Monday as concerns mount within the government over the protocol.
The protocol governs trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Brexit.
On Saturday Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA, became the first nationalist party to win the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly in its 101-year history.
Ms Donelan told Sky’s Kay Burley: “Our priority is to deal with the priority head on. We have a duty to towards the people of Northern Ireland. They are a fundamental part of the UK.
“The Northern Ireland Protocol is not working and I believe the concerns about that were reflected in the recent results we saw in the election. We are working at pace to resolve this. Nothing is off the table.”
‘We will not shy away from taking further steps’
Ahead of today’s meeting, Mr Lewis said the people of Northern Ireland deserve “a stable and accountable devolved government”.
“We have to address the outstanding issues relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and we want to do that by agreement with the EU, but as we have always made clear, we will not shy away from taking further steps if necessary,” he said .
Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein’s vice-president, is now set to become the country’s first nationalist first minister.
Fixing protocol ‘cannot be put off’
Under the power-sharing model in Northern Ireland, the executive must have representatives from both nationalist parties that want Irish unity – Sinn Fein – and unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK – the DUP.
The DUP has said it will not take part in a power-sharing devolved government with Sinn Fein unless progress is made on the protocol.
Speaking after Sinn Fein’s win, Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, said the election results made it clear that fixing the Northern Ireland Protocol “cannot be put off”.
Some fear that progress on power sharing will remain stalled after last Thursday’s elections.
Mr Raab said: “It’s clear now: if anything the outcome in Northern Ireland from those elections makes it clear it cannot be put off.”
He added that stability was being “imperilled” by problems with the protocol, which governs Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol and why does it matter?
Who is Sinn Fein’s deputy leader Michelle O’Neill?
What is power sharing and why does Northern Ireland use it?
The UK and EU agreed to put the protocol in place after Brexit to avoid the introduction of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Previously the biggest party in Stormont, the DUP resigned from the first minister role in February in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Because of the power-sharing rules, the move forced Ms O’Neill to also step down.
Following Monday’s meeting, Mr Lewis will also speak with Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney to discuss the results of the election and the importance of forming a fully functioning executive as soon as possible.