Belfast Telegraph

Coveney reiterates Irish role in administering Good Friday Agreement

The Republic's Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has reiterated it is "the responsibility of the British and Irish governments" to ensure the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Speaking at Wednesday lunchtime to RTE's News at One, Minister Coveney was asked about comments from SDLP leader Colum Eastwood that the announcement by Secretary of State James Brokenshire on Northern Ireland's budget amounted to the introduction of defacto direct rule.

In his announcement, Mr Brokenshire said preparations are being made for the UK government to impose a budget on Northern Ireland by the end of the month.

"We don’t accept that, but I think what the SDLP says has some truth in it," said Mr Coveney.

"I mean this is certainly a step towards making significant decisions for Northern Ireland, outside of Northern Ireland.

"And that is not where we want to be. And we’ve made that very clear to the British government, we’ve made it very clear to all of the parties in Northern Ireland.

Asked about the role of the Irish government, he said: "It means that the Irish government needs to fulfil its obligation as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.

"And the structures are quite clear in that agreement in terms of how Northern Ireland should be governed in the context of how decisions are made and discussed in the absence of devolved government."

He added: "There will be no easy glide path to direct rule, it will be a very bumpy ride... two governments will need to work out together how we can both perform our legal obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, albeit the British government is the sovereign government in Northern Ireland."

"British direct rule to Northern Ireland"

Following Wednesday's budgetary announcement by James Brokenshire, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said it amounted to the introduction of direct rule to Northern Ireland.

In a statement Mr Eastwood said the "failed negotiation of Sinn Fein and the DUP" had delivered "British direct rule to Northern Ireland".

"I have been consistent and clear – a Northern Ireland budget passed in Westminster is direct rule," he said.

He added: "Many in the north will be worried that the DUP will now be directing where the money goes.

"The public are understandably deeply worried about what direct rule will bring.

"A Tory/DUP government will do nothing for the rights of people in the North. It only strengthens the DUP’s intransigence.

"It will do nothing for the rights of Irish language speakers, the LGBT community or victims."

Sinn Fein's leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill said the failure to reach a deal was "in part because of Mr Brokenshire’s tolerance of the DUP’s blocking of the equality agenda".

"The only reason they are denied is because of DUP resistance to the rights agenda and the British government’s acquiescence in this. That has been compounded by the Tory-DUP pact," she said.

"The British Secretary of State is wrong when he says that it is only the parties themselves who can reach agreement, he and the Irish government also have obligations."

DUP East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell said his party "stands ready to form an Executive today" and that "day-to-day services should not be disrupted because of the Irish Language".

Green Party leader Steven Agnew said there had been a blackout on what issues the Sinn Fein and the DUP cannot agree on.

"What we now need from the Secretary of State is a concerted effort to introduce transparency, creativity and inclusivity into negotiations, to end the blackout on what the sticking points are and to listen to alternative approaches," he said.

Mr Agnew also said MLAs' pay should be cut by two-thirds.

Possibility of a deal

In his announcement, Secretary of State Brokenshire said the move stopped short of direct rule and that he would abandon the idea if the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein could reach a deal in that time.

Mr Brokenshire said Northern Ireland would begin to run out of money by the end of November.

"No government could simply stand by and allow that to happen," he said.

"I am, therefore, now taking forward the necessary steps that would enable a Budget Bill to be introduced at Westminster at the appropriate moment in order to protect the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland."

The DUP and Sinn Fein failed to meet Mr Brokenshire's original Monday deadline for a powersharing deal, with Stormont effectively in limbo since January.

Mr Brokenshire said he was taking legal advice on whether MLAs should keep being paid.

Last month he said he was considering new laws on the issue of salaries - £49,500 a year, or about £41,250 in the months since Stormont has been shut.

The Secretary of State said important progress has been made in the talks, which are continuing, but the issue of Irish language rights is one of the biggest crisis points.

He said it was unlikely the Stormont Executive could be revived in time for Northern Ireland's politicians to determine the budget by the end of the month.

Mr Brokenshire said the latest deadline should not be seen as a reason to abandon the negotiations.

"Let me be clear, this is not a barrier to continued political negotiations and the government will continue to work with the parties with that intent," he said.

"And indeed, however unlikely, should an Executive be formed speedily enough and a means could be created to provide an exceptional procedure to enable the budget to be passed by the end of November I would be prepared to withdraw the Budget Bill in order for Assembly to legislate for itself."

Mr Brokenshire urged the parties to secure a deal.

"It remains firmly in the interests of Northern Ireland to see devolved government restored, to see locally elected politicians making decisions for the people of Northern Ireland," he said.

"With goodwill and compromise on all sides the parties can still achieve this and it is what needs to happen."

Mr Brokenshire stayed in Belfast to outline the state of play and is expected to speak in Westminster on the issue on Thursday.

Mr Brokenshire accepted talks could not run indefinitely.

"I think there is already a huge amount of frustration out there in Northern Ireland, that people here want to see politics here get on with the job and serving them," he said.

"Yes, this has gone on for an extended period, but I still think it is right that we use renewed efforts to find a resolution to see devolved government get back on its feet again.

"It's because it matters so much - that local accountability, local politicians serving here in Northern Ireland. But they can't merely continue forever and a day."

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