THE British and Irish governments no longer have diplomats working together in the same building in Belfast – the first time since 1999.
It is understood that the British side of the British-Irish Secretariat moved out of Belfast’s Windsor House in April, where until then the two sides held frequent meetings about all sorts of issues involving either Northern Ireland or the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
Both governments insist that the move will not diminish contact between officials but the move would appear to be an acknowledgement that in the absence of the crises which marked the peace process and with more power devolved to Stormont, the two governments no longer need diplomats physically together at all times.
It is believed that the NIO – which has to cut its budget by 25 per cent – is saving a six-figure sum by leaving the city centre tower block, which is the second-tallest building in Belfast.
The British-Irish Secretariat came out of the Belfast Agreement in 1998 and the news that it will now be based at two sites emerges as a north-south body – the North-South Parliamentary Forum – is about to be established.
The body, which will have no powers other than to discuss issues, will be co-chaired by the Speakers of the Assembly and the Dail and be made up of MLAs and TDs.
Yesterday the TUV leader Jim Allister highlighted comments by DUP chief whip Peter Weir several years ago when he said that “there can be no justification” for the proposed body and that the DUP was working to “reduce red tape and bureaucracy, not add to it”.
When asked yesterday about the move out of Windsor House, an NIO spokeswoman said: “The building is shutting so we have found alternative accommodation.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in Dublin said: “The Irish side has no plans at present to vacate Windsor House.
“The relocation by the British side does not affect the work of the Joint Secretariat which will continue to deal with non-devolved Northern Ireland matters and fulfil its responsibility to keep under review the Good Friday Agreement and the machinery and institutions established under it.”
There have been tensions between the Dublin government and the NIO over recent months. The Irish government reacted angrily to David Cameron’s refusal to grant a full public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane.
And Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s repeated calls for such an inquiry have irked some British ministers, as did a speech in April by Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore in Belfast where he urged the Government to controversially legislate for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights.
In February, Lauderdale Properties, which bought Windsor House at the height of the property boom in 2007, was placed in administration.