Unionists have vowed there will never be joint authority over Northern Ireland and have accused the Irish government of attempting to undermine the Province’s constitutional status.
It comes after Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney warned that, in the event that the power-sharing institutions at Stormont cannot be restored, ministers will have to look back at the Good Friday Agreement.
He spoke of the prospect of “a whole series of other choices” – including another Assembly election or the triggering of intergovernmental conferences to make decisions on Northern Ireland.
His remarks have drawn ire and condemnation from the Province’s main unionist parties.
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann warned that Mr Coveney’s language was “undermining” the principle of consent set out in the Belfast Agreement.
TUV leader Jim Allister accused the Irish government of displaying an “aggressive attitude” towards unionists.
Branding Mr Coveney’s remarks “unhelpful and totally counter-productive”, DUP MP Gregory Campbell said Northern Ireland’s place within the UK “must be respected” by adhering to the three stranded approach of the Belfast Agreement.
Mr Coveney said Dublin’s relationship with the DUP needs to be repaired, and blamed tensions around agreeing phase one of the Brexit deal for the deterioration.
But North Antrim MLA Mr Swann urged the Irish foreign minister to “step away from the microphone” if he wants to repair relationships with unionists.
He added: “Let’s be very clear. There is nowhere in the Belfast Agreement that permits joint authority or joint stewardship.”
Accusing Mr Coveney of “undermining” the consent principle embedded in the Belfast Agreement, Mr Swann said joint authority was “simply not catered for” in the 1998 deal.
While he said his party had a good working relationship with previous Dublin administrations, Mr Swann warned this has “dissipated given the recent posturing and grandstanding comments” emanating from the Republic.
And he claimed Mr Coveney’s comments regarding a possible election in NI were being used to “position his own party in advance of an election in the Republic”.
“It’s time to cut the rhetoric, step away from the microphone and start talking face to face,” the UUP leader added.
Describing Mr Coveney’s remarks as “mischievous and misleading”, TUV leader Mr Allister added: “Nowhere does the Belfast Agreement mention joint authority and the intergovernmental conference does not provide such.”
He also accused the Irish deputy prime minister of showing “disrespect” for NI’s constitutional position.
Mr Allister dismissed Mr Coveney’s comments regarding triggering intergovernmental conferences, stating: “The conference presently exists to deal with non-devolved matters and the Irish government has been so exercised about it to date that it hasn’t even met since 2007.”
Speaking on RTE’s The Week in Politics Show, the Irish deputy prime minister said he wants to repair the Republic’s relations with the DUP and blamed tensions around agreeing phase one of the Brexit deal.
And he said he wanted to meet Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party before the end of the year.
East Londonderry MP Mr Campbell said the DUP was “looking forward” to engaging with Mr Coveney, adding: “There is a lot of straight talking to be done.
“It has been regrettable that the positive relationship which existed under the Enda Kenny and Charlie Flanagan administration has been undermined in recent times.
“For the republic’s foreign minister to suggest some role for his government in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland ignores the constitutional reality.”
Loyalist campaigner Willie Frazer said joint authority between London and Dublin over NI “simply will not happen”, adding: “The Irish government have not earned the right nor have they shown any actions that are favourable to the unionist community.”
Earlier this year, the UK government also ruled out the possibility of joint rule over NI between London and Dublin, stating: “We will never countenance any arrangement, such as joint authority, inconsistent with the principle of consent.”