Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein and DUP poles apart over significance of British-Irish meeting

By Suzanne Breen

The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference will meet for the first time in more than a decade today.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald last night welcomed the meeting, and said it should be the first step on the road to addressing the Brexit challenge and re-establishing the political institutions.

The conference hasn't met since 2007.

But DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds dismissed it as a "glorified talking shop".

The Government will be represented at today's meeting in London by Secretary of State Karen Bradley and Cabinet Office minister David Lidington MP.

The Irish Government will be represented by Foreign Minister Simon Coveney and Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan.

The Republic's Department of Foreign Affairs said the meeting would discuss "the effective operation of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, North-South security co-operation, and bilateral co-operation between the British and Irish Governments".

Mr Coveney said as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, both governments were "fully committed to working together to achieve the earliest operation of the devolved institutions, and to working together for the mutual benefit of all the peoples of these islands".

Speaking after meeting Mr Coveney in Dublin yesterday, Ms McDonald said today "should be the beginning of an intergovernmental process to address the challenges of Brexit and to clear a pathway back to re-establish the Good Friday Agreement institutions".

She added: "Our agreements, which have delivered so much, must be protected, honoured and implemented.

"The governments must act to uphold the rights of citizens including the agreed language rights, mechanisms to deal with the past, and marriage equality."

Responding to a call from Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill for the meeting to discuss devolved issues, Mr Dodds said the Good Friday Agreement made clear that the conference had no decision-making power and it would "focus solely on non-devolved Northern Ireland matters".

He said: "It is ironic that those who claim to champion the Belfast Agreement openly call for it to be breached, whilst simultaneously boycotting the institutions created under that Agreement.

"The place for discussion about our public services, growing our economy and meeting the needs of the people of Northern Ireland is at Stormont, with a functioning Assembly and Executive, not a glorified talking shop with no decision-making function.

"It's clear that Sinn Fein would rather stand outside in the cold as glorified lobbyists rather than working to improve the lives of all of our people."

The conference is being held in response to pressure from Dublin, Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

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