“Unhelpful comments” from Dublin are resonating with unionists in Northern Ireland while the UK Government continues its efforts to restore the Stormont powersharing institutions, Chris Heaton-Harris has said.
The Northern Ireland Secretary said he would not abandon efforts to bring back the Executive, but said it was impossible to put a timeframe on when the devolved Assembly would return.
However, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the stalemate cannot be allowed to continue forever, and added that “alternative arrangements” may need to be considered if the DUP does not agree to end its boycott.
The powersharing institutions have been collapsed for more than a year as the DUP seeks further assurances from the UK Government about post-Brexit political and trading arrangements following the signing of the Windsor Framework.
The framework, negotiated by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak earlier this year and approved by Parliament, proposes reduced checks on goods travelling directly to Northern Ireland from Great Britain, to reduce trade barriers within the UK.
Mr Heaton-Harris and Mr Varadkar were in Belfast, with European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic, to launch a new joint peace funding programme.
The DUP were not represented at the event.
Last week Mr Varadkar said he believed he would see a united Ireland in his lifetime, and has previously discussed the potential for a “plan B” if devolved government in Northern Ireland was not restored by the autumn.
Mr Heaton-Harris said work to get Stormont running again was his priority.
“There’s a responsibility, actually, to kind of allow this process to continue. Getting an executive up and running is the most important thing for me in my role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland,” he said.
“There are always plenty of people who are willing to point out when obstacles are put in the way.
“The Taoiseach’s got a lot of domestic politics on his plate, but occasionally unhelpful comments down in Dublin do resonate up here amongst the unionist community, and I need the clearest picture possible to get the executive up and running.”
He added: “I think devolution can be restored and, to be frank, I don’t think it would be a Plan B because, whatever was happening, we’d be constantly trying to make sure that the executive got back up and running.
“So it would be an evolution of process rather than an alternative to try and get the executive. But both those two things can run together.”
He added that it was “impossible” to put a timeline on when Stormont would be functional again.
“I’m keen to make sure that we come to a conclusion and the executive is up and running in the shortest period of time,” he said.
“And as I just said, talk of Plan B is unhelpful.”
Mr Varadkar said he had discussed with Mr Heaton-Harris the “lack of progress” being made in restoring the Assembly.
He said: “We want powersharing to be restored here in Northern Ireland. People voted for an Assembly and an Executive, most people here in Northern Ireland want it up and running.
“I want it to so I can work with them as we have done in the past.
“I did say to the Secretary of State that there is going to come a point where we can’t keep waiting and we have to start talking about alternative arrangements within the confines of the Good Friday Agreement.
“I will be seeing Prime Minister Sunak in Spain in early October and that will be the next opportunity to talk about that.”
He added: “I don’t want to put an artificial deadline on it, work is ongoing, talks are still ongoing.
“But I think we all appreciate they can’t be ongoing forever.
“I think if it is advancing at all (efforts to bring Stormont back), it’s advancing at a snail’s pace, and I know from talking to all five main parties here that confidence is starting to wane about whether it is going to be possible to get the Assembly and the Executive up and running.
“I am worried about that, I am certainly not giving up on it.
“But there does come a point at which the stalemate can’t go on forever.”
Meanwhile, Mr Sefcovic said that the Windsor Framework is the “definitive solution” to trading issues created by the Northern Ireland Protocol.
He added: “We have been working very, very closely with the UK Government.
“For us it was a definitive solution to the outstanding issues and indeed we saw that it got overwhelming support in the UK Parliament.
“I think that we have delivered on what we have promised, that we would listen to the worries, the concerns about how the protocol is impacting the daily lives of people in Northern Ireland.
“I think we have provided the best possible answer to all outstanding issues.”
He added: “On both our sides, with the UK Government and on the side of the European Union, we know that that’s as far as we could go.”
Mr Sefcovic said it was a matter for the Northern Ireland parties when the Stormont powersharing institutions would return.