Assurance that the European Union in “solution mode” and willing to address trading difficulties caused by the NI Protocol has been welcomed by the DUP leader.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson hailed what he described as the “change in tone” from the EU.
Expanding on comments he made to the News Letter last week – when he said both Brussels and Dublin had “changed their tune” around the previously sacrosanct protocol in the face of sustained unionist opposition – Sir Jeffrey made his latest comments following a meeting with Irish premier Micheal Martin in Belfast yesterday.
They discussed the latest proposals by the EU to solve the impasse over the protocol.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic announced on Thursday that the EU will table “very far-reaching” proposals within the next fortnight.
Sir Jeffrey said: “I welcome the change in tone, I welcome the change in the language being used. People are now ‘solution-focused’.
“They’re now talking about negotiations. All of these things were off the table, even three months ago.
“I think that our actions have caused a sharper focus on the need to find a solution that removes the Irish sea border and restores Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.”
He said there are continuing concerns around the protocol and there is a need to remove the Irish Sea border so the business world “can resume its normal trading relationship”.
Commenting on his meeting with Mr Martin, Sir Jeffrey said they discussed the potential for an increase in co-operation between political leaders on both sides of the border.
“We talked about north-south relations in the current context [and] if we can resolve the issues around the protocol and see that Irish Sea border removed, then the potential to look at how we can increase co-operation on areas that are of mutual benefit to both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland,” he added.
Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill also met with Mr Martin to discuss the EU’s olive branch on Brexit.
Ms O’Neill said the cross-border meeting came at “a very important time”.
She added: “The EU have indicated that they’re going to lay some papers in terms of finding solutions.
“I think what the people here want, what the business community here want, what the farmers here want, is certainty and stability.
“I believe that the way to do that is with the EU side and the British Government working through the outstanding issues and finding solutions.
“That’s very much what I want to speak to the Taoiseach about, alongside obviously, the issue of the current political situation here in the north, with the DUP threatening to pull down the Assembly and the Executive while the rest of us are trying to get on with dealing with the issues that are important and weighing heavy on people’s minds.”
She said these shared issues include the recovery from Covid.
Ms O’Neill also criticised the DUP’s non-engagement in the North-South Ministerial Council.
“Firstly, it’s wrong for the DUP not to attend north south council meetings,” she said.
“They can’t cherry-pick which parts of our peace agreement that they want to work.
“Deirdre Hargey, the minister who was supposed to have a North-South Ministerial Council meeting last week, is now seeking legal advice and will take a legal challenge for breach of the ministerial code.
“I think that this meeting today is very important.
“It’s an ongoing engagement with the Taoiseach around issues of importance, particularly given the last number of years the implications of Brexit, trying to find solutions and trying to find a way forward.
“I think it’s timely that we have these discussions with them.”
In an interview with the News Letter last week, Sir Jeffrey said: “There is no doubt that Brussels and Dublin are changing their tune.
“They are talking more about solutions and they have moved away from the rhetoric that the protocol is immutable, and that is a reaction to the very strong stance that unionism is taking.
“There is now a recognition that if there is to be political stability in Northern Ireland then the issues of concern to unionism need to be addressed, and that includes the removal of the Irish Sea border.”
He added: “In the main, unionists are delighted see their leaders acting together.
“I think that kind of unionist cooperation is what people want to see.”