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Taoiseach Micheal Martin says negotiation with EU is the only way forward on protocol

The Taoiseach Micheal Martin has repeated his call for the UK government to engage in dialogue over the Northern Ireland protocol.

Mr Martin was speaking in the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast following a meeting with Stormont’s main parties on Friday.

After urging for the Stormont Assembly to return, he said there was “no substitute for substantial serious negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom” to find a way forward.

“We accept that legitimate issues have been raised in the context of the protocol, but is our view that they can be resolved.”

He added that many businesses in Northern Ireland were successfully working with the terms of the protocol.

With many accusing the DUP of holding the Assembly to ransom, Mr Martin was asked if he supported changing the structures to avoid further crisis.

“This isn’t the first time this has happened…that’s not a satisfactory situation,” he said.

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As people have just voted for the current Assembly structures, he said it was not the right moment to change them.

Mr Martin also said he was completely opposed to the return of Direct Rule in the absence of Stormont returning.

“The people have voted and I think that there’s a huge responsibility on all involved to respond to the vote of the people,” he said.

“I have a passionate belief in the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement which were hard won….too much work has been put into this to allow the democratic institutions established in the Good Friday Agreement to just (end)”.

Asked about threats from loyalist paramilitaries against Irish politicians, he said: “I think there can be no room or any toleration for any threats of violence against anybody.”

He said people across the island of Ireland had voted for the Good Friday Agreement and a future of peace and reconciliation.

Mr Martin denied he had left unionists behind, as the protocol had only ever been implemented because of Brexit.

Earlier, the DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson called the meeting “useful” but said he was not interested in “a sticking plaster approach” to dealing with the protocol.

"We have had what I would describe as a useful meeting with the Taoiseach, we spelled it out very clearly to him the problems with the protocol, the harm it is doing to Northern Ireland and that we need a solution, we need decisive action to deal with these problems,” he said.

Speaking before her meeting with the Taoiseach, Sinn Fein’s vice President Michelle O’Neill said the DUP were “denying democracy” over their Stormont boycott.

She added that the Taoiseach had “a very significant role” to play as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.

"At a time where democracy is being denied, at a time where the DUP are continuing to prevent the facilitation of an Executive being formed, an executive that could start to deliver for the public, I think it is important that he is here to assert his role and to listen to all of the parties,” she said.

Outside pressure to resolve the stalemate has also come from US congresswoman and House speaker Pelosi, who said it was “deeply concerning” the UK government was seeking to act unilaterally.

She added that if the UK sought to “undermine the Good Friday Accords,” Congress would refuse to support a bilateral free trade agreement with the UK.

Meanwhile, Mr Donaldson responded to US congresswoman and House speaker Pelosi on the protocol, who said ensuring there is no “physical border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic “is absolutely necessary” for upholding the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Speaking earlier to BBC NI, Sir Jeffrey insisted that it was actually the protocol that was undermining the agreement.

“The protocol has changed some of the key principles of the Belfast Agreement. It has made it impossible to have power sharing on a cross community consensus,” he said.

“If Nancy Pelosi wants to see the agreement protected, then she has to recognise it is the protocol undermining the agreement. We will not re-enter the political institutions in full until we see decisive action on the protocol.”

The DUP is currently blocking the re-establishment of Stormont's power-sharing institutions in protest at the protocol, which has created economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

This week, Foreigh Secretary Liz Truss announced plans to legislate to override parts parts of the Brexit withdrawal deal.

She is expected to put forward a bill that includes “green” and “red” lanes for goods travelling from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.

Those in the green lane would no enter the EU single market in the republic, which would mean they were not subject to additional checks.

Sir Jeffrey said he understood the legislation would be brought forward in June and that he would wait to see the contents before choosing to re-enter Stormont.

"I want the institutions to operate as soon as possible but I am not going to telegram to the government what I am going to do until we see what this legislation says, that is fundamentally important,” he said.

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