Irish foreign minister back in NI once more as talks restart

Charlie Flanagan met James Brokenshire and the local parties at Stormont Castle
Charlie Flanagan met James Brokenshire and the local parties at Stormont Castle

A senior Irish government figure was in Belfast on Monday for talks with some of the key figures involved in the fresh efforts to resurrect the Province’s power-sharing government.

Charlie Flanagan, the Republic of Ireland’s foreign minister, was scheduled to meet with the Northern Ireland Secretary and with political parties as negotiations began again to try and form an Executive before the end of the month – a process which had been suspended due to the general election.

Mr Flanagan has repeatedly travelled to Northern Ireland during the talks process ever since Sinn Fein walked out of the government in January this year.

On Monday, the leader of the TUV Jim Allister questioned why he was “hanging around” the talks process, given that the Good Friday Agreement does not provide him with any formal involvement in the internal governance of Northern Ireland.

Mr Allister said the formation of an Executive is “meant to be none of his business”.

The Good Friday Agreement has three main parts to it, known as “strands”.

The first – Strand One – provides the blueprints for setting up the Assembly and forming an Executive to govern the Province.

It states that the First and Deputy First Minister are responsible for “external relationships” of the Northern Ireland government.

Meanehile the Northern Ireland Secretary will “represent Northern Ireland interests in the United Kingdom cabinet”, and that the Westminster parliament will continue to “legislate for non-devolved issues”.

Strand One makes no mention of the Irish government.

However, Strand Two allows for the creation of a “North/South Ministerial Council” involving politicians from the governments on both sides of the border, to consider “matters of mutual interest” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

There would be two full-scale meetings of it per year, and the text of the agreement suggests 12 areas which might be areas of north-south co-operation: agriculture, education, transport, the environment, waterways, social security, tourism, EU programmes, inland fisheries, marine matters, health and emergency services, and planning development.

The third and final strand sets out the creation of a British-Irish Council, made up of politicians from across the UK (not just Northern Ireland), and counterparts from the Republic.

In addition, a forum called the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference would be set up, involving “regular and frequent meetings” to talk about “non-devolved Northern Ireland matters, on which the Irish Government may put forward views and propoals” (including security matters).

These meetings would be co-chaired by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, would also deal with all-island and cross-border co-operation on non-devolved issues.

Jim Allister said the current talks process appears to be solely a Strand One matter, “so I don’t see why he [Charlie Flanagan] is there at all, but by custom and practice he’s become tolerated by those who should know better”.

It is understood that the Republic of Ireland’s responsibilities for dealing with historic Troubles issues have been among the issues which politicians have raised with Mr Flanagan during his visits.

However, Mr Allister said this is “a totally discrete issue which can be dealt with outside – and indeed does not touch upon – the Strand One issues”. Therefore, this would be “no excuse for Flanagan hanging around”.

Both the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and the Republic’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) were asked on what basis Mr Flanagan was involved in the current talks focussed up re-establishing the Stormont Executive.

The DFA did not respond, whilst the NIO said simply: “Secretary of State for Northern Ireland the Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP is in Belfast today to meet the NI party leaders and Irish Foreign Minister Flanagan.

“The UK government will continue to do everything in its power, working alongside the Irish government as appropriate, to contribute to and support the talks process, steadfastly upholding the principles of the Belfast Agreement and its successors.”