By Rebecca Black, PA
The Stormont parties have met with the head of the Northern Ireland civil service Jayne Brady amid the continuing impasse over forming a new Executive.
A future programme for government and a budget were discussed by the parties, which are entitled to nominate ministers following last month’s Assembly election.
A new Executive has not yet been formed, with the DUP saying it will not nominate ministers until the UK government takes action over its concerns around the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The post-Brexit trade arrangements have been opposed by unionists as a border in the Irish Sea.
While ministers remain in place in a caretaker role, they cannot take new decisions.
A LucidTalk poll in Tuesday’s Belfast Telegraph found that three-quarters of unionist voters believe the DUP should not return to government at Stormont until there are at least “significant changes” to the protocol.
Further detail on proposed legislation which may override sections of the protocol is expected to emerge later this week.
Sinn Féin Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said she regrets that, five weeks after the Assembly election, the DUP is “still boycotting” the Executive.
She said issues with the protocol can be “worked on in tandem” with talks on smoothing the protocol while the Stormont Executive functions and urged the DUP to nominate ministers.
“The parties met this morning with the head of the civil service. We were discussing the need to agree a programme for government, agree a budget, agree a work plan for the year ahead,” she told media at Belfast City Hall.
“You only can take those things so far, of course, because we do not have a functioning Assembly and an Executive.
“I regret that, that we’re five weeks post election where the people voted for parties to work together and here we are today, where the DUP are still boycotting the formation of an Executive which would allow us to actually respond to the things that really troubling people right now, the cost of living crisis, the things that are really worrying people about the difficult months that we have ahead.
“So even at this stage I still again today call on the DUP to join the rest of the parties who actually want to agree a programme for government, agree a budget, prioritise our health service, prioritise putting money in people’s pockets.
“Because even as we speak today, whilst there has been announcements from Treasury over the course of recent weeks, we still don’t know, and Conor as our Finance Minister, still doesn’t know how that money is actually going to get into people’s pockets because we do not have an Executive.
“I don’t think that’s a tolerable situation and I encourage the DUP to join with the rest of us and make politics work.”
Ms O’Neill welcomed an announcement by DUP Education Minister Michelle O’Neill of grants for families of children entitled to free school meals over the summer months.
However she said the move is “no substitute for having a fully functioning Assembly and Executive”.
“We should not spend any energy trying to find workarounds or trying to push the boundaries of ministerial responsibility. What we should have is fully functioning ministers in post around an Executive table,” she said.