DUP ‘assured’ British-Irish body will not discuss devolved matters

Jim Shannon is confident the BIIGC will not exceed the parameters set out by the Belfast Agreement
Jim Shannon is confident the BIIGC will not exceed the parameters set out by the Belfast Agreement

The government has assured the DUP that devolved matters will not be discussed during today’s intergovernmental conference, a senior unionist figure has said.

Theresa May’s deputy David Lidington and NI Secretary Karen Bradley are scheduled to hold talks with Irish ministers in London, in the first meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) in over a decade.

The body, established by the Belfast Agreement, gives Dublin a consultative role on non-devolved issues affecting Northern Ireland. It last met in 2007.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP have long sought the re-establishment of the conference as a way to inject fresh impetus into the stalled political process at Stormont.

But some unionists are concerned at the potential for the BIIGC to extend beyond its remit and give the appearance of joint British-Irish rule of the Province.

On Monday, Sinn Fein called for the conference to discuss devolved matters – despite the Belfast Agreement precluding it from doing so.

And yesterday, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood urged the two governments to agree a “package of legislation” to break the deadlock at Stormont.

He added: “The conference can be used as an opportunity to provide the much-desired and long-awaited opportunity to pave the way for the restoration of power-sharing.”

However, DUP MP Jim Shannon – whose party is propping up the minority Tory administration – said he is “confident” the BIIGC will not exceed its scope.

He told the News Letter: “We have sought and received assurances from the British government that what is discussed at the conference will be limited and will not include devolved matters.”

Mr Shannon said senior DUP members are involved in regular discussions with Downing Street.

“We are encouraged by these assurances and I am confident the UK government will be standing firm on this matter,” the Strangford MP added.

In a statement yesterday, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the meeting would focus “solely on non-devolved Northern Ireland matters”.

He added: “The place for discussion about our public services, growing our economy and meeting the needs of the people of Northern Ireland is at Stormont, with a functioning Assembly and Executive, not a glorified talking shop with no decision-making function.”

Meanwhile, a group of politicians from the UK and Ireland have slammed calls for NI abortion laws to be discussed at today’s conference.

The Sunday Times published a letter signed by 170 British and Irish politicians calling for the body to press NI to lift its abortion ban.

In response, politicians including the DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, party colleague Carla Lockhart MLA, and Baroness Nuala O’Loan sent a letter to Mrs May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, stating that the body had no mandate to discuss the issue.

The letter said: “Abortion is not within the scope of the BIIGC because abortion law and policy is devolved fully to the Northern Ireland Assembly.”