The Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs is “chancing his arm” by saying he will discuss “NI issues” in forthcoming talks with the UK government, a senior DUP MP has said.
Similarly, the UUP and TUV warned last night that the forthcoming talks must not stray outside the narrow terms of the Belfast Agreement and discuss any matters which are devolved to Stormont.
The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) is to meet in London on July 25, 18 months after devolved government collapsed in Belfast.
The forum gives the Irish a consultative role - but only on issues that are not devolved to Northern Ireland. It last met in 2007.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP have been calling for its re-establishment since power-sharing talks collapsed in February, but unionists have been somewhat wary of the forum being used to give more influence to Dublin.
The Cabinet Office did not mention the power-sharing impasse in a Thursday evening statement announcing the initiative, instead describing the focus as “East West issues”.
In its official statement the Irish government did not stray from the parameters mentioned by unionists. The Republic of Ireland Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said only that the two governments - under the Belfast Agreement, were “fully committed to working together to achieve the earliest operation of the devolved institutions”.
Similarly, Irish Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan stayed cautiously away from matters devolved to Northern Ireland, only stating that “a stable security environment is a key aspect of the process of peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland”.
However in a tweet announcing the talks, Mr Coveney, apparently strayed into more controversial territory, saying the forum was an important Good Friday Agreement structure for dialogue and consultation and will have an agenda dealing with East-West and “NI issues”.
DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the News Letter that Mr Coveney had stepped outside of the agenda formally agreed by the two governments.
“I think Simon Coveney is out of step with the Irish government statement on the talks and the British government statement on the talks, and that he is chancing his arm,” the MP said.
He added: “It can’t take any decisions on internal Northern Ireland issues. That is our position. If the Irish government is going to raise them the British government has already made it very clear it can’t make any decisions about matters internal to Northern Ireland.
“Northern Ireland is not on the talks agenda, according to the official statement put out by the British government.”
The type of matters it can discuss, he said, are royal visits to the Republic, ferry links and Brexit matters to some extent - “but they can’t talk about internal Northern Ireland matters, for example same sex marriage or an Irish Language Act”.
The UUP and TUV leaders gave even more pointed warnings.
UUP leader Robin Swann said the BIIGC was a long dormant structure but looks to have been revived “as a sop to the Irish Government, Sinn Fein and the SDLP”.
He added: “Let`s be absolutely clear. The BIIGC as defined in the Belfast Agreement can only deal with non-devolved issues under the three stranded approach and any departure from that would be totally unacceptable to the Ulster Unionist Party. The UK Government and especially those in the Northern Ireland Office need to remember that.”
TUV leader Jim Allister made a similar warning.
“While the BIIGC has no executive powers and is restricted as a talking shop to non-devolved issues, unionists need to be vigilant that it is not allowed to evolve or stray beyond its remit,” he said.
“It must not become a back door for Dublin meddling. That is the test for Mrs May and those who sustain her. It needs to be demonstrated to Sinn Fein and the SDLP that their wild aspirations for this body cannot and will not be met.”
But Sinn Fein MP Conor Murphy demanded that the two governments “step in” to take action on “rights issues”, understood to refer to the party’s demands for same sex marriage and an Irish Language.
The party refuses to enter Stormont until it has guarantees they will both be legislated for in Northern Ireland.
“The conference has a responsibility for dealing with rights and the issues which are preventing the restoration of the institutions are rights issues, issues that the DUP will not concede, issues that are available to people across this island, available to people in Britain but for some reason the DUP won’t allow them to be available to people here.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood made a similar call, saying that in the absence of devolution it is up to both governments to step in.
“We had a piece process and a political process that was set up with two governments as co guarantors,” he said. “That means they step in when the parties here fail.”
However Mr Donaldson said the much more significant development was that the same day the UK government agreed to engage in a BIIGC, it also put out another statement on the Province, in which it said it will “take whatever steps are necessary to provide good governance and ensure the continued delivery of Northern Ireland’s vital public services”.