Ideology must be taken out of negotiations around the Northern Ireland Protocol, the Stormont Finance Minister has said.
Conor Murphy also urged the restoration of the Executive following next week’s Assembly election, arguing that its collapse has had no impact on protocol negotiations but has halted the planned three-year Stormont budget.
Ministers have been working effectively in a caretaking role since the resignation of First Minister Paul Givan over the protocol, which is opposed by unionists as a border in the Irish Sea.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said his party will be at Stormont on day one after the election to negotiate a programme for government.
He described a 24-week period to discuss also concerns around the draft budget.
He reiterated his position that he wants to see action on the “very real difficulties of the protocol”, but insisted issues can be resolved quickly, and need not result in a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“We believe there are solutions that can be found to this, and they can happen quickly,” he said.
“What we’re looking for is a clear signal from the government that these issues are being addressed and we want to be in a position where the Executive is formed, but political stability means dealing with the problems, it means dealing with the challenges and we can’t run away from that.”
Mr Murphy said an Executive needs to be in place to address the cost-of-living and cost-of-doing-business crises as well as creating a fit for purpose economic strategy.
Responding to Sir Jeffrey, Mr Murphy said while he remains as Finance Minister it is on the care and maintenance basis, and he is unable to make significant decisions.
“We’re all basically sitting in a limbo and that’s the effect of withdrawing the First Minister … and that has zero impact on the protocol negotiations and the continued absence of an Executive will have zero impact on the protocol negotiations.
“They will be resolved between the EU and the British government and they need to be resolved and we want to see them being resolved in a pragmatic and practical way,” he said.
Mr Murphy said Stormont’s first opportunity in a long time for a three-year budget has been lost, with all departments currently operating on a care and maintenance basis.
“If people are going to continue to hang out over the protocol, there won’t be an Executive in place and what we will have is a treading water approach in terms of budgetary spend over the next number of months at least and that essentially loses us one year out of the three-year budget,” he said.
“What we have to do is take the ideology out of the negotiations and get into the pragmatic dealing of the solutions through the discussions through the British government and the EU, and some of that has already materialised in terms of medicines and other matters.
“An absence of an Executive here will not have any impact on those discussions.”
The arguments were made at a gathering of business leaders in Belfast organised by CBI Northern Ireland.
Adrian Doran, CBI Northern Ireland Chair, said local businesses have never faced a more challenging period at the Audience with Northern Ireland’s Political Leaders event which also heard from SDLP MP Claire Hanna, UUP Assembly candidate Mike Nesbitt and Alliance MP Stephen Farry.
Ms Hanna called for stability at Stormont, saying the “chronic nihilistic turbulence and instability” cannot continue.
She said her party wants to go into an Executive and work to negotiate a “decent meaningful programme for government”.
“It’s frustrating when you’re going round the doors, people don’t believe that a couple of weeks after the May election that we’re going to be in doing these things,” she said, adding they are up for talking about trying to change “some of the ugly scaffolding” of Stormont.
“These two parties (DUP and Sinn Fein), if they get their vote out can veto the formation of a government and that’s not proven to be healthy over the years.”
Mr Nesbitt said his party will “not collapse anything”, describing a “short-term tactic, and a bad one at that when what we all need is long-term strategic thinking”.
He described the protocol as a challenge, but stressed it did not have to be a crisis.
“Unfortunately, there are politicians who delight in turning challenges into crises because it’s actually easier to say bad people are imposing bad things upon us than to accept the challenge of turning this into an opportunity,” he said.
Mr Farry said the Executive needs to come back and agree a Programme for Government, a budget and an economic strategy.
He described a “big role” for the UK government, warning more confrontation around the protocol will not help political stability in Northern Ireland.
Mr Farry was applauded as he called for legal certainty for businesses operating amid the protocol, warning that scenarios where international law is potentially broken will leave businesses operating internationally “in a grey zone”.
He described his party as “protocol pragmatists”.