DUP hopes for progress on Northern Ireland stalemate in weeks

BELFAST (Reuters) -The leader of Northern Ireland’s biggest pro-British political party hopes to receive a “definitive” response from the British government on its concerns over post-Brexit trade within weeks, but it could be months before that ends a political stalemate.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) collapsed the devolved executive 18 months ago in protest at the first post-Brexit deal with the EU. They then rejected a fresh agreement, the so-called Windsor Framework, struck in February to end many of the new trade checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

The British government subsequently pledged to introduce laws to further protect trade with Northern Ireland and placate the DUP, but has yet to table any proposals and it is unclear how they would be compatible with the revised EU-UK trade deal.

“I hope that within the next few weeks we will have a definitive response from the British government,” DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told reporters after meeting Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in Belfast.

“I don’t know if Stormont (Northern Ireland’s assembly) will be restored in weeks or months, that depends very much on the (British) government’s response to the concerns that we have raised about the Windsor Framework.”

Belfast’s power-sharing government was a key part of the 1998 peace deal that largely ended three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

But political progress has been held back in recent years by a series of disputes, most recently over how Britain’s departure from the European Union affects the border with EU member Ireland.

Varadkar said after the meeting that he thought there was an opportunity to restore the key Northern Irish institutions this Autumn, but added that London and Dublin would need to start holding talks about alternative arrangements if an agreement could be found.

“If it is 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,” he told reporters.

“There is drift, and that is not good for Northern Ireland.”

(Reporting by Amanda Ferguson, writing by Padraic Halpin and Kate Holton; editing by William James)