Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster has said there “is a gateway of opportunity for the whole of the UK and for NI” after the UK-EU trade deal.
Mrs Foster told The Andrew Marr Show it was “important” in NI’s centenary year to “take the opportunities that are there for all of our people”.
She also said the deal dealt with “some of the great difficulties that there are with the (NI) Protocol”.
The purpose of the Northern Ireland Protocol is to prevent a hardening of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
It does that by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods and by having Northern Ireland apply EU customs rules at its ports.
As a consequence, an ‘Irish Sea border’ now exists with most commercial goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain requiring a customs declaration.
In response, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Steve Aiken said Mrs Foster’s party should “cut the bravado” and admit they got it “wrong” on the border.
He said: “Arlene Foster’s interview with Andrew Marr has further confirmed that the DUP’s blood red line about a border in the Irish Sea was never a red line at all.
“It was washed away when the DUP supported Boris Johnson`s proposals for a border in the Irish Sea.”
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which Mrs Foster leads, opposed the protocol and had criticised the establishment of such a border.
She told The Andrew Marr show that her party “didn’t want the protocol but it is here”.
“I have to mitigate against that and my job from now on is to mitigate against those excesses and to hold the government to account for what they claimed would be unfettered access from Northern Ireland into Great Britain, our largest market of course, and also from Great Britain into Northern Ireland,” Mrs Foster added.
Under the terms of the protocol, the Northern Ireland Assembly could vote to overturn the arrangement in four years time.
Mrs Foster said she hoped “by that stage people will see that it is much better to move out of those regulations and into the global market which the rest of the UK can engage in”.
The DUP leader also said nationalists wanted the UK’s withdrawal from the EU to be a disaster in order to enhance the case for a united Ireland.
The Sinn Féin MP John Finucane described the remarks as “nonsense”, while the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Mrs Foster was “trying to wash her hands of the new Irish Sea border”.
The Brexit transition period ended at 23:00 GMT on 31 December, with Northern Ireland’s ports now using border control posts (BCPs) to check many food products entering from Great Britain.
A small number of lorries were delayed at the new BCPs following the end of the transition period on Thursday night.
‘Important to get back to school’
Meanwhile, with Northern Ireland and the UK continuing to grapple with Covid-19, Mrs Foster said Stormont ministers would “do all that we can” to keep young people in schools in January.
Education Minister Peter Weir announced last week that most pupils would not return to school in the first week of the month as planned, and instead return after a week of remote learning.
For some post-primary pupils (Years 8-11), online learning will be in place for the entire month of January.
Mrs Foster said young people “have missed out far too much on education during Covid”.
“However, we do recognise with this new mutant version of Covid-19 that there are difficulties, that it transmits among younger people, therefore we have to take that into consideration,” she said.
“It is important we get our young people into schools again but we have to have remote learning for a short period of time – and I hope it is a short period of time.”
Although most pupils of primary and post-primary schools will spend this week being taught remotely, nurseries have been instructed to open as normal.
The principals of some nursery schools in Belfast have written to Mr Weir, expressing their concerns about the reopening of their schools on Monday.
Edenderry Nursery School principal Nancy McGrath told BBC News NI: “Our children are very young, they need to nurtured, they want to hold your hand, they need comforted when they are upset.
“We cannot have social distance with our pupils – we would be failing them in our duty of care to do that and I am really concerned about the duty of care that is being shown to staff, children and families at the moment.
“We don’t understand why we’ve been separated out from the primary and secondary sectors.”