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DUP and SF rift over all-Ireland Brexit forum 'could ignite fresh crisis at Stormont'

As Foster cools talk of a cross-border body to address the fallout from the referendum, her colleague McGuinness raises spectre of a stand-off among Executive’s ruling parties

By Noel McAdam

Published 05/07/2016

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster arrives for the North South Ministerial Council meeting at Dublin Castle yesterday
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster arrives for the North South Ministerial Council meeting at Dublin Castle yesterday
Justice Minister Claire Sugden arrives for the North South Ministerial Council meeting at Dublin Castle yesterday
Martin McGuinness arriving at the castle
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny are joined by Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny share a laugh

A split in Stormont's two-party Executive over the way forward after Brexit has worsened - with Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness at loggerheads over plans for an all-Ireland forum to deal with the fallout.

Divisions appeared to deepen yesterday following the first meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council since the EU referendum verdict.

First Minister Foster insisted there is no need for any all-Ireland forum to discuss the impact of the UK-wide decision, which was opposed by a majority (56%) in Northern Ireland.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny had said he was considering the proposal first suggested by Sinn Fein and the SDLP, but it was not discussed at yesterday's session.

Instead, after the meeting at Dublin Castle, Mrs Foster said existing North-South bodies were capable of dealing with any implications of the vote to leave.

Insisting it was time to "move on", the DUP leader said: "I believe that there are more than enough mechanisms by which we can discuss these issues on a North-South basis.

"Frankly I don't believe there are any mechanisms needed because we can lift the phone to each other on a daily basis if that were so needed."

But Mr McGuinness argued that the forum should not be vetoed, and warned the issue could push the Executive back into crisis - nine months after the Fresh Start agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

"(We) could be plunged back into the type of situation we were in prior to the Fresh Start Agreement last year... unless there is collective agreement on the way forward," he warned.

The majority here who opted to remain within the EU "cannot be lightly dismissed" particularly against the backdrop of the governing Conservative party being "in chaos", he said.

"Isn't it incredible that a British prime minister has resigned against the backdrop of calling a referendum that was driven by Ukip fascists and by the loony right of the Conservative Party?" Mr McGuinness commented.

Mr Kenny denied jumping the gun by backing an all-island forum before he had consulted Ms Foster, and argued it would not be a statutory body.

"That invitation is open to everybody but obviously it couldn't function effectively unless you have a buy-in from everybody. We are heading into unknown territory," he added.

Meanwhile, at a separate gathering in Dublin, former Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey argued the existing architecture of North-South and East-West bodies could be developed to strengthen relationships on the two islands.

But he said there could be no going back on the result of the June 24 referendum.

"The referee's whistle is blown and there's no point in complaining the ball is not in the back of the net. It is," he said.

"Let us move on. Let us protect the relationships between the islands but also within this island."

His comments came at the 52nd plenary meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly which opened in the Grand Hotel in Malahide.

A two hour debate also heard calls for Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth, a border poll on Irish unity and new formal arrangements between Scotland and Ireland.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, however, said the proposed new forum was essential.

"We have had confirmation that neither the British government nor the Northern Ireland Executive have put in place contingency plans to deal with the fallout of the referendum result," he argued.

"We must map the challenges, purposes and priorities that could most affect us, north and south, rather than following the impulses and bad decisions of the British Government."

And Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams insisted: "Any such forum must have island-wide participation and involve the Assembly parties, the Oireachtas, the European Parliament and civic society.

"The Remain vote brought together unionists, nationalists, republicans and others in common cause on the same platform. Those who campaigned for a Leave vote should also be invited."

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