Belfast Telegraph

Dublin not meddling in UK politics – Coveney

The Irish Foreign Affairs minister denied a conference in London had touched on devolved issues.

UK and Irish ministers have insisted that Wednesday’s British and Irish Intergovernmental Conference is about honouring the commitments made in the Good Friday Agreement, and denied that Dublin is meddling in UK politics.

Irish Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney, along with Justice minister Charlie Flanagan, said the talks with Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley and Cabinet Office minister David Lidington did not touch on devolved issues in Northern Ireland, and instead discussed initiatives to get the Northern Ireland Assembly up and running.

“Unionists in Northern Ireland have nothing to fear from a British Irish Intergovernmental Conference. This is an agreed structure that both governments have signed up to as part of the Good Friday agreement.

“We do not deal with devolved decision making.

“What we’re about is reinforcing the message that the British and Irish governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, are working together through the structures of that agreement.

“We are doing what we can to provide an environment where political parties are able to interact again, hopefully with a view to restore the devolved government so that people in Northern Ireland can have their political decisions made by the people that they elected.”

He added that Northern Ireland could not be left to drift.

Chancellor Phillip Hammond, who was visiting Belfast on Wednesday, echoed Mr Coveney’s stance saying it was important that the Good Friday Agreement was honoured.

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Phillip Hammond meets apprentices in Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA)

“The conference that’s going on in London is part of the standing arrangements under the Belfast Agreement.

“It’s very important that we honour the commitments that we have made under those agreements and make sure that the working relationship continues.

“East-west relations are just as important as north-south relations and just as central a part of the Belfast Agreement,” Mr Hammond added.

Cabinet Office minister David Lidington said the council respected the terms of the Belfast Agreement.

“It is consultative, not executive, in format and it is there to talk about those matters that are not devolved to the assembly and executive of Northern Ireland.”

The meeting included discussions on security and prisons, he said.

Following the meeting, the governments issued a joint statement setting out the areas of discussion, which covered legacy issues, security co-operation, east-west bilateral issues and political stability in Northern Ireland.

Former first minister Lord Trimble had warned that the conference came close to breaching principles enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement that Dublin will have no role in internal UK politics.

Lord Trimble said the meeting is “reaching the point of breaking” the principle set out in the Good Friday Agreement that the Irish Government should have no role whatsoever in the internal politics of the UK.

The former Ulster Unionist Party leader told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it is unacceptable for Irish ministers to be involved in discussions on the restoration of Stormont.

“There has been pressure from Dublin to try to change the character of the inter-governmental conference in a way that would not be acceptable to unionists and probably not acceptable to the British Government either,” he said.

The DUP were also critical of the conference, claiming the people of Northern Ireland want direct action, not further talks.

DUP East Antrim MLA Gordon Lyons said: “Arlene Foster rightly labelled the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference ‘a talking shop’.

“It is not a structure where decisions can be made about our roads, hospitals, schools or economy.

“For Sinn Fein, it is a smokescreen to distract from the fact that they stand isolated in boycotting the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive and the House of Commons.

But Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O’Neill welcomed the meeting.

“Today’s conference is an important step to help remove the obstacles to genuine power-sharing and for London and Dublin to fulfil their obligations to the Good Friday Agreement.

“In the absence of the Assembly at this time, the choice is between the protection of the Good Friday Agreement which is under constant attack by the hard Brexiteers within the DUP and Tory party, or its abandonment,” she said.

The Conference, which gives the Irish a consultative role on non-devolved issues affecting Northern Ireland, last met in 2007 and its return has proved controversial.

When it was last called security was a major part of its remit, but those powers were later devolved to Stormont.

Power-sharing crashed in January 2017 after a bitter row between the DUP and Sinn Fein over a botched green energy scheme. The impasse later widened to include more traditional issues of contention, such as the Irish language, LGBT rights and how to handle to legacy of the Troubles.

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