Sinn Fein has told the British government it must not “hold the people and society” of Northern Ireland “to ransom” by delaying the formation of an executive to govern the country.
Michelle O’Neill, who stands to become first minister of the Stormont Assembly if a government can be formed, urged ministers in Westminster to get the “executive up and running today”.
Sinn Fein became the largest group in the Northern Ireland assembly in last week’s elections but attempts to form a government – which must include a first minister and deputy first minister from Republican and Unionist parties under the Good Friday Agreement – still have to be resolved.
It comes as DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson led a delegation to meet Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis to reiterate that the Northern Ireland Protocol must be removed before any executive can be formed.
Ms O’Neill, Sinn Fein’s vice president, told a news conference in Belfast that the people of Northern Ireland cannot be “used as a pawn between the British government and the European Union”.
She added: “Our interests must be respected. We received mitigation in the form of the protocol… we now expect that to be implemented…
“I worry Brandon Lewis, the British government and the DUP are holding society here to ransom. And that is not acceptable.”
Flanked by the president of Sinn Fein, leader of the opposition in Ireland Mary Lou McDonald, Ms O’Neill said she wanted to get on with the job of improving things for people in the region.
She added: “There should be no delay. There’s no reason for a delay. Anything that happens in this executive and this assembly will not change the protocol.
“There are things in the protocol that can be ironed out, a smoother implementation and we are up for that… but what I’m not up for is the DUP’s approach of holding society to ransom, preventing us spending money to help people… cope with the cost of living crisis… That’s what the public expect.”
Earlier, UK government universities minister Michelle Donelan said nothing was “off the table” during negotiations to tackle concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol, ahead of a series of meetings Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis was due to have with the leaders of Stormont’s five main political parties.
The protocol governs trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Brexit.
Read more: What is the Northern Ireland protocol and why does it matter?
On Saturday Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA, became the first nationalist party to win the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly in its 101-year history.
Ms Donelan told Sky’s Kay Burley: “The Northern Ireland Protocol is not working and I believe the concerns about that were reflected in the recent results we saw in the election. We are working at pace to resolve this. Nothing is off the table.”
Meanwhile, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP MLAs Edwin Poots and Gordon Lyons as well as MPs Gavin Robinson and Gregory Campbell were part of the delegation that met Mr Lewis.
Afterwards, Sir Jeffrey said: “Our institutions are not based on majority rule, they are based on consensus and powersharing. Progress is only made in Northern Ireland with the support of unionists and nationalists. Unionism has rejected the NI Protocol. No unionist MLA supports it.
“With no unionist support, the NI Executive cannot be formed until the Irish Sea border is removed.
“The Government has talked tough, but the people who voted on Thursday are not interested in words, they want to see the Government act and defend this part of the United Kingdom and defend the democratic institutions in Stormont.”