Alternatives should be looked at if Stormont not restored by autumn – Varadkar

The Irish premier said Northern Ireland has gone too long without devolved government during a visit to Belfast.

“Alternatives” should be discussed if Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government is not restored by the autumn, the Irish premier has claimed.

Leo Varadkar said there is an opportunity to restore the region’s institutions in the coming months, pledging the Irish Government “will do everything we can to assist that”.

However, he said Northern Ireland has gone too long without devolved government and conversations about alternatives should start if the opportunity is missed this autumn.

Mr Varadkar was speaking during a visit to Belfast during which he met with the leaders of the five largest Stormont parties.

He went on to visit Northern Ireland’s national football stadium at Windsor Park.

Speaking to the media, he said: “If it’s the case that the institutions can’t be re-established in the autumn, well, then I do think at that point we have to start having conversations about alternatives, about plan B.

“That’s very much a conversation that I’m keen to have with the UK Government. I don’t want to speculate too much at the moment, because I still believe it is possible to get the institutions up and running in the autumn.

“I do think the suspension has gone on for a long time. There is drift. And that’s not good for Northern Ireland.”

Asked by reporters about what those alternatives would be, Mr Varadkar said he did not want to discuss that on this occasion.

He added: “That’s kind of a conversation that we’re having with some of the party leaders today, a conversation that I think we need to have between the British and Irish governments, because we’re not the sovereign government in Northern Ireland – we accept that.

“We are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement and if the Good Friday Agreement isn’t working, if institutions aren’t functioning, well, then it makes sense that the British and Irish governments work together to talk about what arrangements could be put in place.”

The DUP collapsed the Stormont executive last year in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements in place under the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Windsor Framework struck by London and Brussels earlier this year sought to reduce the red tape on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK while maintaining the dual market access.

Stormont Assembly
Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill and MLA Conor Murphy speak to media in Belfast after meeting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Rebecca Black/PA)

However, the DUP has insisted the new accord does not go far enough to address its concerns around sovereignty and the application of EU law in Northern Ireland.

Amid pressure on the DUP to return to powersharing to respond to issues such as long healthcare waiting lists and the cost-of-living crisis, the party has argued the onus is on the UK Government to create the conditions to allow for Stormont’s revival.

Speaking after her meeting with Mr Varadkar earlier, Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said “public patience is wearing thin” with the DUP.

She said she agreed with the Taoiseach that the British and Irish governments need to be working together to revive the executive.

“I’ve heard more urgency from the Taoiseach today than I’ve heard from the British Government in terms of the need to restore the executive,” she said.

Stormont Assembly
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the Government knows more needs to be done (Rebecca Black/PA)

“Not acceptable, not good enough. Patience is just wearing thin with the DUP.

“We need an executive today. It’s long overdue, the public need it to be there fighting their corner, dealing with the budgetary situation that we have, fighting their corner in terms of good public services. There shouldn’t be any more delay as to that.”

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he spoke to Mr Varadkar about “matters of mutual interest and concern”.

“Our focus at the moment is on resolving the major problems that were created by the Northern Ireland Protocol, we continue to engage with the Government, that engagement has intensified in recent weeks, and I hope that within the next few weeks we will have a definitive response from the Government and we’ll be able to put a proposition forward,” he said.

“The Government knows that more needs to be done and we need to see that progress.

Stormont Assembly
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long warned a ‘window of opportunity’ may close (Rebecca Black/PA)

“I want to see the assembly and executive restored, properly functioning, but I am very clear: we need a solution that works for Northern Ireland that resolves the problems created by the Northern Ireland Protocol and that protects in law our ability to trade within the UK internal market with the rest of the United Kingdom.”

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said she is concerned that the window to restore the powersharing institutions before a UK general election is closing.

“I remain very concerned that as time passes the crisis that faces our public services and public finances is deepening,” she said.

“If we do not resolve this and resolve it quickly, then I think the window of opportunity to do so ahead of a general election that is coming in the UK, and a general election which will be subsequently coming in the south, will close.”

UUP leader Doug Beattie characterised his meeting with Mr Varadkar as a “neighbourly catch-up”.

Stormont Assembly
UUP leader Doug Beattie wants more contact with UK Government ministers (Rebecca Black/PA)

He also urged the UK Government to talk to the Stormont parties more.

“It’s all well and good the Taoiseach saying that the UK Government needs to talk to them [the Irish government] more, I would argue the UK Government needs to talk to us more,” he said.

“I want to be involved, I want to add value, I want to fix the problems at the impasse where we’re on now.”

SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole said most people in Northern Ireland are “frustrated” with what he described as a lack of engagement on DUP over devolution, which he claimed was “increasingly abetted by the British Government”.

“We need to see resolution to this quickly because devolution could be moving past a point of no return,” he said.

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