Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said he believes the UK is up for a serious dialogue on the Northern Ireland Protocol and is optimistic progress can be made.

Mr Coveney was in Hillsborough, Co Down, for a meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

They had talks lasting around two hours during which they discussed resetting Anglo-Irish relations and restoring the Stormont institutions, which has not returned since May's assembly elections.

Mr Heaton-Harris said if the Executive was not reformed by 28 October he was under a legal obligation to call a fresh assembly election.

"The decision is a very straightforward one as far as I can see it," he said.

The DUP is refusing to re-enter power-sharing unless its protocol concerns are addressed.

The party claims it weakens Northern Ireland's constitutional position within the UK and impacts trade with Britain.

Supporters of the protocol say it is the answer to the problems caused by Brexit and any issues with it can be resolved in negotiation between the EU and the UK.

Mr Coveney said the messages coming out of London were "quite different" to several months ago and he believed the new administration was up for a "serious dialogue".

The absence of a functioning executive is delaying the dispersal of Westminster cash meant to ease the cost of living crisis in Northern Ireland.

The British government says it wants a negotiated settlement but is progressing legislation that would effectively set aside the protocol, breaching its treaty with the EU.

The EU has begun infringement proceedings.

Later, speaking after an address by former EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier at Iveagh House in Dublin, Mr Coveney said that "significant" progress can be made on the protocol in the next month if the UK Government has an "honest" conversation on compromise.

However, Mr Coveney said if an election is called in Northern Ireland it would make progress "more difficult".

He said there were "very strong reasons" why the UK Government "should look to try to close down this debate that has gone on for too long".

"It is difficult to see all the outstanding issues linked to the protocol and its implementation resolved in a month," Mr Coveney told reporters.

"The calling for another election in Northern Ireland, in my view, will be an inhibitor to progress.

"It will make compromise more difficult because the nature of elections in Northern Ireland means that it often results in more polarised debate, less compromise and less willingness to be generous to the other side."

He added: "I think that would be a huge failure of politics if that happens and we'll be into yet another cycle of divisive debate where the protocol will be part of that.

"So, I believe we can move the protocol issues significantly over the next month over the core issues that matter. That can and should be enough to justify the setting up of an Executive again."

EU 'must not back down' over NI Protocol - Barnier

Meanwhile, Mr Barnier said the EU "must not and will not back down" in the EU-UK dispute over the protocol.

He said that Brexit had not yielded any benefits for the UK and described it as "a unilateral decision by one party with negative impacts for itself".

He said: "The European Union must not and will not back down, and the protocol of Ireland and Northern Ireland must and has to be respected by the British government. This is international law."

Minister Coveney also said he believed that progress could be made on the requests for changes to the operation of the protocol.

"The only way we can remove checks on certain products is if we know those products are staying in Northern Ireland, and are not at risk to the rest of the single market, and I think we can do a lot in that space actually.

"So, that's the space we're in now in terms of that differentiation," the minister said.

He added: "The idea that we can just do away with all the checks because people don't want them, and remain credible in the context of the integrity of the EU single market, that is an unreasonable and unrealistic ask by the British government.

"If that is accepted, then I think the EU is willing to go a very long way - I think - to actually recognise the different risk category that goods that are staying in Northern Ireland should be in, but the only way that could work is if there is real-time and very complete data-sharing on goods that are transiting.

"So, if you're talking about goods that are coming into Sainsbury's, for example, in Northern Ireland, or Asda, those retail companies don't even have outlets south of the border."

Mr Coveney added that he was more optimistic that a solution could be found amid increasing international challenges.

"I think the more challenges that the UK Government has domestically, and the more challenges that the UK government recognises in terms of international challenges that we need to face together, the less we all need to be expending energy on on differences and tensions around how the protocol is designed and implemented," he said.

"I think there are very strong reasons why the British government should now look to try to close down this debate that has gone on for too long in relation to the protocol, by having an honest conversation around what a compromise looks like."

With additional reporting from PA