Belfast Telegraph

UUP's Swann tells Simon Coveney to 'step away from microphone' after London and Dublin comments

UUP leader Robin Swann has said the Irish Foreign Minister should "step away from the microphone" in a bid to repair relationships with unionists.

It comes as Simon Coveney warned ministers will have to go back to the Good Friday Agreement if power-sharing cannot be restored in Northern Ireland.

Mr Coveney made the comments during an interview he gave on RTE's the Week In Politics show.

He said that if Sinn Fein and the DUP cannot agree to resurrect the Executive, the Good Friday Agreement needed to be "looked back at", because "that was where the rules were set".

Mr Coveney said the absence of a power-sharing Executive at Stormont was part of the problem of Brexit.

He added: "Then there is the prospect of a whole series of other choices - from another election, to the triggering of Intergovernmental Conferences to make decisions on Northern Ireland."

"That is not where we want to be.

"That will cause tension.

"It will be a very frosty environment to make decisions in... so we all have a responsibility, in a practical sense, to find a way forward."

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has already called for a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to be held in the new year.

The conference is a mechanism within the Good Friday Agreement designed to address Northern Ireland matters if the Assembly is suspended. It has not met since 2007.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Coveney also said that the Irish Government's relationship with the DUP needs to be repaired

He said he wanted to meet Northern Ireland's largest unionist party before the end of the year, and blamed tensions around agreeing phase one of the Brexit deal for the deterioration.

Speaking on RTE on Sunday, Mr Coveney said: "Because of the tension around trying to get the deal we felt was needed for everyone on this island, yes, of course there is repair work to do."

UUP leader Robin Swann said Mr Coveney's comments "undermine the basis of the Belfast Agreement".

He said: "This is the season of goodwill and we would like to show some goodwill towards Simon Coveney but every time he claims he wants to repair relationships with unionists he puts his foot in it. Lets be very clear. There is nowhere in the Belfast Agreement that permits joint authority or joint stewardship. As much as he and others may wish it to be different, it is simply not catered for. There is no joint authority now and there can`t be in the future.

“Mr Coveney's comments undermine the very basis of the Belfast Agreement – the consent principle. The sooner he realises what he is messing about with and gets back to basics, then the easier it will be to repair the relationships which he claims he wants to mend.

“The Ulster Unionist Party has had a good working relationship with Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney’s predecessors, but that relationship has dissipated given the recent posturing and grandstanding comments emanating from Dublin. It is ironic that Mr Coveney's comments regarding an election in Northern Ireland are being used in the context of positioning his own party in advance of an election in the Republic.

“It's time to cut the rhetoric, step away from the microphone and start talking face to face. It generally works better that way.”

DUP east Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell said the party looks forward to "engaging with the Irish Republic’s Foreign Minister in due course" and said there was a "lot of straight talking to be done".

"It has been regrettable that the positive relationship which existed under the Enda Kenny and Charlie Flanagan administration has been undermined in recent times," he said.

"Despite a lengthy honeymoon period, the tenure of the current Foreign Minister has been marked by unhelpful comments which have been totally counter productive. For the RoI Foreign Minister to suggest some role for his government in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland ignores the constitutional reality.

"The DUP wants to have a good relationship with our nearest neighbour. It is common sense to have cooperation on matters of mutual interest but Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom must also be respected by adhering to the three stranded approach.

"If Simon Coveney is so clumsy with diplomacy relating to his nearest neighbour, one wonders how he handles diplomatic matters in countries with which he is even less familiar.”

Victims' campaigner Willie Frazer also reacted to the comments on Monday and said that "joint rule simply won't happen".

He said: "The main reason for this is the Irish Government have not earned the right nor have they shown any actions that are favourable to the Unionist Community. On the contrary, we believe they cannot be trusted because their word means nothing.

"People can use all the political jargon they like, but when it comes to who rules Northern Ireland the people of the United Kingdom will decide.  Have they learned nothing over the years? As we saw with from the flag protests when British Citizen is forced into the corner, it causes an adverse reaction."

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill said on Sunday that she was hopeful that functioning devolved government can be restored in 2018.

But the Sinn Fein MLA also laid the blame for the collapse of the institutions in January this year at the door of the DUP, Sinn Fein's partner in any restored Executive.

Belfast Telegraph

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