Belfast Telegraph

McGuinness: PM's absence at British Irish Brexit talks was a missed opportunity

By David Young, PA

Devolved leaders have challenged the Prime Minister on why she stayed away from a Brexit-themed summit that focused on regional concerns around free trade.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said Theresa May should have attended the British Irish Council (BIC) meeting in Wales yesterday.

The event, near Cardiff, brought together the leaders of the UK's three devolved administrations, a number of UK Government ministers, Irish premier Enda Kenny and the First Ministers of the Crown dependencies.

Top of the agenda was how the UK could maintain access to the European single market post-Brexit if it denied freedom of movement to EU citizens.

BIC summits are held twice a year. UK Prime Ministers have attended in the past, but not on a regular basis. Mr McGuinness said the context of yesterday's event should have prompted Mrs May to take part.

"I think the British Prime Minister should have been here today," he commented.

"She is a new British Prime Minister, this was her first opportunity to attend the meeting of the British Irish Council and to meet with the devolved institutions and the Crown dependencies, and I think it was a missed opportunity on her behalf."

During the post-summit Press conference Mrs Sturgeon echoed Mr McGuinness's remarks.

"I agree strongly with that," she said.

Four UK Government ministers did attend the discussions at the Vale Resort, but no senior Cabinet members were among them.

Those who took part were Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns; Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire; Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union Robin Walker, and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Women, Equalities and Early Years Caroline Dinenage.

When asked if Mrs May should have be there, Mr Brokenshire said: "The Prime Minister strongly supports the British Irish Council, that's why you had two Cabinet ministers and two other ministers here today strongly representing the UK Government's perspective."

The summit took place in the wake of comments by Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat making clear that unfettered single market access could not be offered if it was not accompanied by free movement.

Malta will assume the six-month rolling presidency of the EU in January.

Ahead of the BIC meeting host, Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones, stressed the importance of free trade with Europe, particularly in the context of potentially protectionist policies from a Donald Trump White House.

After the summit Mr Jones said there was a need for "creativity", and the single market versus ending free movement could not be a binary one or the other.

Stormont's First Minister Arlene Foster, who as leader of the DUP campaigned for Brexit, also said the outcome did not have to be binary. "Do I think it's binary - no I don't think it's binary, because negotiations are about coming to accommodations," she remarked.

"What we need to see is an openness and a willingness to do what is right for each of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom."

Mrs Sturgeon said the UK Government needed to provide much more clarity on the issue before Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was triggered to commence the Brexit process.

The SNP leader again made clear her desire for Scotland to continue to be part of the single market, even if the rest of the UK left it.

Belfast Telegraph


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