Revival of British-Irish peace forum sparks new row between Northern Ireland parties
A peace process body for UK and Irish government consultation has been revived amid efforts to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference is to meet in London on July 25, 18 months after devolved government imploded in Belfast.
The mechanism gives the Irish a consultative role on non-devolved issues affecting Northern Ireland.
It last met in 2007. The prospect of a return of the forum has proved controversial.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP have long been calling for its re-establishment as a way to inject fresh impetus into the stalled political process in the region. But unionists have been wary amid concerns of handing too much influence to the Dublin government.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has previously dismissed it as a "talking shop".
While the Cabinet Office did not mention the power-sharing impasse announcing the initiative, instead describing the focus as "East West issues", Ireland's deputy premier Simon Coveney said "NI issues" would be on the agenda.
Cabinet Office minister David Lidington and Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley will attend. The Irish government will be represented by Mr Coveney and justice minister Charlie Flanagan.
Mr Coveney added: "We look forward to this meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement.
"Both governments as co-guarantors of the agreement are fully committed to working together to achieve the earliest operation of the devolved institutions, and to working together for the mutual benefit of all of the peoples of these islands."
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said: "We note the Government's decision to hold a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in London focusing on non-devolved east-west matters.
"We strongly value a good British-Irish relationship but our constituents really want to see a working Assembly and Executive.
"They want to see decisions made about their broadband, roads, schools and hospitals.
"The BIIGC has no power to take decisions. Arlene Foster understandably described it as a 'talking shop'."
Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O'Neill said the move was a "welcome if belated step".
"Sinn Fein has been calling for the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to be convened ever since the DUP walked away from the draft agreement and collapsed the talks process in February," she said.
"The Good Friday Agreement is clear that, in the absence of the powersharing institutions, this conference is the only vehicle for both governments under their joint stewardship to resolve the issues at the heart of the crisis and pave the way for a restoration of the Executive and Assembly.
"An opportunity to do that has now been opened up, so today's announcement is a welcome, if belated step.
"It cannot be a one-day wonder or a device to do nothing."
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the UK Government had "put the cart before the horse".
"We should be concentrating on talks in Belfast to restore the Executive and Assembly," he said.
"This is where the energy and focus should be. Given the structure of the BIIGC, which must focus on non-devolved issues within the three-stranded approach, it is hard to see how it will move us any closer to restoring devolution."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood welcomed the move. He said: "The conference must agree on a package of legislation that will deliver on language issues and the reform of the Petition of Concern to ensure that issues like equal marriage are no longer thwarted by those willing to use it to block legislation rather than deliver it."