Jonathan McCambridge, Grainne Ni Aodha and Cate McCurry, PA
The EU and the British government are not “anywhere close to a deal” on issues surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said.
The comments came as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste Micheál Martin and UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer are all set to hold talks in the North on Thursday as part of efforts to resolve the dispute over the post-Brexit trading arrangements.
The Taoiseach and Mr Starmer are to meet with Stormont's political parties to discuss the deadlock over the protocol, which the DUP has cited as its reason for boycotting the power-sharing Executive since May.
Mr Starmer began his two-day visit to the North by meeting business leaders in Belfast.
Mr Martin will hold talks with Britain's Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.
Meanwhile, a row over the exclusion of Sinn Féin’s leader from political meetings with Britain's foreign secretary James Cleverly rumbled on, with Mary Lou McDonald confirming she has raised the issue by letter with British prime minister Rishi Sunak.
The row led to Sinn Féin and the SDLP refusing to join roundtable talks with Mr Cleverly and Mr Heaton-Harris on Wednesday.
“It was a bad move, it was a bad decision,” Mrs McDonald said.
“I’ve written to the British prime minister to air my concerns and I can only hope that lessons will be learned and we don’t have a repeat of this distraction politics, which was most unhelpful.
“But we crack on today and we get some work done.”
Hopes of a deal over the protocol were raised this week when the EU and UK reached agreement on sharing customs data.
But Mr Donaldson said his understanding after meeting with Mr Cleverly was that a deal was still some way off.
He told the BBC: “At the moment, while some progress has been made on some technical issues, there are major political issues in those negotiations that have not yet been addressed.
“I don’t think we are anywhere close to a deal.
“That was clear yesterday from James Cleverly’s report to the political parties that we aren’t close to a deal at this stage.
“There is still a lot of ground to be covered before we get to that point.”
Regarding the exclusion of Mrs McDonald from Wednesday’s meeting, Mr Donaldson said it was protocol that Mr Cleverly would meet with his counterpart in Dublin, before meeting with Mrs McDonald.
He added: “This is the Northern Ireland parties that were invited to the talks.
“Michelle O’Neill, as the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, was invited to those talks.
“If we are into a situation where Michelle O’Neill can only attend meetings with UK government ministers if she is accompanied by the leader of Sinn Féin in Dublin, if she has to have a minder with her, that has very serious implications for future arrangements in Northern Ireland if Michelle O’Neill were to become the first minister.”
The protocol has become a contentious political issue, with the DUP refusing to engage with the powersharing institutions until it is dramatically altered or removed.
Mr Varadkar’s visit to the North on Thursday is his first since taking over from Mr Martin as Taoiseach.
The Government has emphasised that scheduling the visits by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste on the same day is a sign of its commitment to resolving the row over the protocol.
Pressure to restore the Stormont Assembly are particularly pronounced ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April.