The Prime Minister has emphatically rejected the notion of some type of joint Irish-UK authority over Northern Ireland, as unionists of all stripes rounded upon the Republic’s foreign minister for putting the idea forward.
Speaking to the News Letter, unionists variously suggested that the comments from Simon Coveney – who took over Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs in June – showed a lack of understanding of the Good Friday Agreement, or were a cynical attempt to boost his party’s standing in the Republic.
The row comes as the DUP and Sinn Fein spent yesterday locked in talks to reach a breakthrough deal for resurrecting the Province’s devolved government, and avoiding direct rule from outside.
The controversy involving Mr Coveney flared when he said on Tuesday night: “There can be no British-only direct rule. That is the Irish government’s position.
“It would be very difficult to even contemplate how direct rule would function in that context.”
In response, the Northern Ireland Office immediately said: “We will never countenance any arrangement, such as joint authority, inconsistent with the principle of consent in the agreement.”
And reinforcing this in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Theresa May herself declared: “I am happy to confirm that we would not be looking at a joint authority.
“You will be aware that the Belfast Agreement does include within it certain responsibilities in relation to the government of the Republic of Ireland in north-south co-ordination.
“But I think that the focus for all of us should be on trying to ensure that we can resolve the current differences and we can see that devolved administration reasserted in Northern Ireland.”
Whilst the Good Friday Agreement does give the Irish government a role as an official participant in some UK-Ireland bodies (namely the North/South Ministerial Council, British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, and British-Irish Council) the main part of the agreement, known as Strand One, does not give it any role in the governance of Northern Ireland.
It was endorsed by over 71% of voters in Northern Ireland, whilst more than 94% of voters in the Republic opted to allow amendments to the Irish constitution which effectively ended its territorial claim over the Province.
UUP peer Lord Empey said Mr Coveney’s position was “constitutionally illiterate”, because it “puts a coach and horses” through the Good Friday Agreement, and also criticised the SDLP for apparently backing Mr Coveney’s call.
He said Mr Coveney’s proposal is the “complete antithesis of the Belfast Agreement – and of course the Dublin government know this”.
Instead, he believes his comments stem from the “internal dynamics” of the Republic’s political scene – namely, a desire by Mr Coveney’s Fine Gael party to show its nationalist credentials in the face of a Sinn Fein electoral threat.
“Coveney is flailing his arms in the air, but what does it mean?” he said.
“You’d have to have massive primary legislation in Westminster, and a new treaty with the Irish government – which would involve them having to have a referendum to change the constitution.
“It’s all hot air. He’s talking in language that is just constitutionally illiterate. He has no way to come in with hobnail boots and say they’re going to have a major say. They are not.”
The SDLP said Mr Coveney’s notion of shared Irish-UK rule was a “reasoned statement”, and said the Northern Ireland Office rebuttal was “extreme” and “highly unusual”.
Lord Empey responded that the SDLP were also “architects of the agreement, and would know perfectly well what the constitutional situation is”.
Jim Shannon, DUP MP, said: “We’re part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We will continue to be so.
“In absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly it’ll be the government at Westminster that makes those decisions. It’ll not be the Republic of Ireland.
“One day, he [Coveney] says something which is conciliatory towards us and helpful. And then the next day he does something which seems to go off on a tangent. How could you fathom his mind?”
Trevor Ringland, a prominent moderate unionist voice, said Mr Coveney should “get a better understanding” of the issues, including the consent principle.
“It is important as we look to the future that the Irish government respect the agreement made in 1998 and voted for by the people across the island, and really Mr Coveney should show a better understanding of that,” said Mr Ringland, former chairman of the NI Conservatives.
“My constant advice to the Irish government is just build relationships with people across the island, because it’s certainly a far better way to do it than Irish nationalism and republicanism has done in the past.
“And some of his comments seem to be reflecting a continuation of those mistakes on the way relationships have been done, rather than a recognition of the failure of those methods and the proper respect to what was agreed in 1998.”
At the other end of the unionist spectrum, TUV leader Jim Allister simply had this message for Mr Coveney: “Mind your own business.
“This interloper and meddler has no role in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland.
“He and his government have been given far too much scope already in that regard, and they are of course taking liberties with that now and trying to lord it over us.”
Asked for its take on Mr Coveney’s remarks, the Alliance sent a statement from Stephen Farry, which read: “Joint authority would be a breach of the Good Friday Agreement. But any direct rule would realistically and inevitably need some form of Irish dimension, short of that.”
Last night Sinn Fein said both governments “have a joint and equal role in the process”.
It added: “The Irish government must assert that role and the British government accept that they are partners in that process.”