Empey hits out at '˜bogus' SF claims on British-Irish body

Sinn Fein has been accused of trying to undermine the consent principle embedded in the Belfast Agreement by referring to the 'joint stewardship' of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

Thursday, 26th July 2018, 7:21 pm
Updated Thursday, 26th July 2018, 7:24 pm
Former Ulster Unionist leader Lord Empey helped negotiate the Belfast Agreement

The BIIGC – a body created under the Belfast Agreement – met at the Cabinet Office in London on Wednesday for the first time in over a decade, following pressure from nationalist parties for it to intervene in the running of Northern Ireland.

While the 1998 agreement precludes the BIIGC from dealing with devolved matters, some unionists are concerned at the potential for the body to extend beyond its remit and give the appearance of joint British-Irish rule of the Province.

In a statement that is likely to compound these concerns, Sinn Fein’s vice president Michelle O’Neill – speaking after the conference – said: “Joint stewardship through the BIIGC amounts to an honest and responsible effort to protect and advance the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement framework.”

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But former Ulster Unionist leader Lord Empey has challenged Ms O’Neill’s remarks and accused her of “twisting and manipulating” the wording of the treaty.

Lord Empey, one of the key negotiators of the agreement, said: “This is quite obviously an attempt to drive a coach and horses through the principle of consent which underpins the Belfast Agreement.

“Michelle O’Neill also said that the BIIGC ‘allows both governments to co-operate at all levels on all matters’ when she knows perfectly well that it does not.

“The reality is that the BIIGC has no powers to intervene on devolved matters, and for Sinn Fein to try to build it up into an effective alternative is a complete sham.”

In a claim which Lord Empey labelled “outlandish”, Ms O’Neill said her party had “made clear that for Irish nationalism any return to British direct rule would represent its (the agreement) abandonment and is therefore unacceptable”.

The peer said: “As someone who helped negotiate the Belfast Agreement I must say that she is completely wrong.

“This is hardly surprising given that back in the run up to the agreement in 1998 Sinn Fein made no contribution to Strand One discussions, boycotting any debate, failing to produce papers and failing to comment on the papers of others.

“Sinn Fein also stayed neutral on the agreement in the referendum and so they are in no position to take up the role of ‘protectors’ of the agreement.

“Their alleged support for the agreement is utterly bogus as they refuse to fully acknowledge the principle of consent.”