Restoring powersharing the priority as Brexit talks begin, says Irish Minister

Northern Ireland Office handout photo of Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who has said that the start of Brexit negotiations in Brussels underline the urgent need to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland Office handout photo of Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who has said that the start of Brexit negotiations in Brussels underline the urgent need to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland

The start of Brexit negotiations in Brussels underline the urgent need to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland, Ireland’s new foreign minister has said.

As he travelled to Belfast to participate in negotiations for the first time, Simon Coveney pledged to “spare no effort” in the process to salvage the crisis-hit institutions at Stormont.

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill with party colleagues outside Stormont Castle in Belfast

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill with party colleagues outside Stormont Castle in Belfast

Mr Coveney, who lost out to Leo Varadkar in the race to succeed Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach, has replaced Charlie Flanagan at the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin.

During his day in Belfast, he will meet Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire and will also hold meetings with the five main Stormont parties.

Monday will also see the first round-table meeting involving the governments and local parties of the three-week initiative to form a powersharing executive.

Mr Coveney stressed the importance of having an administration in place during the Brexit process.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with DUP leader Arlene Foster

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with DUP leader Arlene Foster

“The people of Northern Ireland need devolved government working in the best interests of the whole community,” he said.

“There is 10 days within the life-time of the current Assembly to secure the necessary agreement. If we needed any reminder of the urgency of having powersharing institutions in Stormont, it is the coincidence of the Brexit negotiations beginning in Brussels today.”

The talks take place in the context of the ongoing negotiations between Prime Minister Theresa May and the DUP to strike a parliamentary deal to support her minority Government.

The anticipated arrangement has forced the UK Government to reject suggestions its commitment to act with impartiality in Northern Ireland - as set out in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement - will be fatally undermined by any pact with the DUP.

Mr Varadkar and his predecessor Mr Kenny have both stressed the need to adhere to the principles of the Good Friday accord.

On Monday, Mr Coveney said: “As the representative of the Irish Government at the talks, I will do my utmost to support the parties in reaching an agreement which ensures that the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement is fully protected, that all of its institutions function effectively and fairly and that previous agreements are honourably implemented.

“I will spare no effort to fulfil the Government’s duty as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.”

Northern Ireland has been without a powersharing Executive since March and without a First and Deputy First Minister since January.

The institutions collapsed amid a bitter row between the DUP and Sinn Fein about a botched green energy scheme.

The UK Government has warned that direct rule from London could be reimposed if the local parties fail to reach an agreement before the June 29 deadline.

Leader, Michelle O’Neill, said her party was up for striking a deal.

“I can tell you, we are here wanting to find a deal, wanting to make the institutions work, wanting to deliver good public services, wanting to afford people their rights, wanting to deal with the issue of Brexit, but it has to be done on the basis of equality, respect and integrity in government,” she said.

Asked if the Brexit process increased the pressure on her party to re-establish an Executive, Mrs O’Neill said Sinn Fein was already making the case across Europe for Northern Ireland to retain special designated EU status.

“Clearly the DUP are on the wrong side of the argument, cosying up alongside the Tory Government who are disrespecting the mandate of the people here, who asked to remain within the European Union,” she added.