Jonathan McCambridge, David Young, Rebecca Black and Cate McCurry, PA
It would not have been wise to invite Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald to a meeting about the Northern Ireland Protocol because she is a “representative of a parliament in an EU member state”, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has said.
The row over the exclusion of Ms McDonald from a political meeting with Britain's foreign secretary on Wednesday rumbled on as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste Micheál Martin and UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer were all holding talks in the North as part of efforts to resolve the dispute over the post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Mr Varadkar and Mr Starmer are meeting with the main Stormont parties to discuss the deadlock over the protocol, which the DUP has cited as its reason for boycotting the North's power-sharing assembly since May.
Mr Starmer began his two-day visit to the North by meeting business leaders in Belfast before travelling to Stormont.
Mr Martin held talks with Mr Heaton-Harris in Hillsborough.
However, the row over Ms McDonald’s exclusion, which led to Sinn Féin and the SDLP refusing to join roundtable talks with Britain's foreign secretary James Cleverly and Mr Heaton-Harris on Wednesday, has continued to overshadow the meetings.
Asked about it following a meeting with Mr Martin on Thursday, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “Sinn Féin were invited, it is a shame Michelle (O’Neill) didn’t come along because it was an update on the protocol discussions.
“There are many factors which go into the thought process. One, to be quite frank, is that the UK government is negotiating with the European Union.
“We wanted to update Northern Ireland parties on that negotiation and, with the greatest of respect, Mary Lou is a representative of a parliament in an EU member state.
“That might not have been seen as a wise thing to do.”
Mr Heaton-Harris said he had extended an invitation to dinner to Ms McDonald.
Ms McDonald confirmed she has written to British prime minister Rishi Sunak over the issue.
One of the reasons given for the failure to invite Ms McDonald to the talks was that Mr Cleverly could not meet with her until he had met his Irish counterpart, Mr Martin.
Asked if he would have had any issue with Mr Cleverly meeting with Ms McDonald, Mr Martin said: “We certainly got no heads-up in relation to that at all, and I think it needs to be stated.
“I would have had no difficulty that Mary Lou McDonald was at that meeting, but that’s a matter for the foreign secretary.”
Hopes of a deal over the contentious protocol were raised this week when the EU and UK reached agreement on sharing customs data.
Mr Heaton-Harris said: “There has been a tiny bit of progress made in talks with the European Union.
“There is still a way to go, but we are talking in good faith, and as I stand here now there are talks going on, so let’s see where they get to.
“We have another assessment next Monday where I will be with the foreign secretary and Maros Sefcovic going through the progress that has been made this week.”
Ms McDonald said her party had a “very constructive” meeting with Mr Varadkar in Belfast.
“We have reflected our absolute determination that government must be restored here in the North … it’s unacceptable that we stagger on without an executive,” she told media.
“We have also shared our strong view that a deal on the protocol is possible … and we believe that the window we now have has to be grasped with both hands.”
But DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he believed 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.”
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.