Britain rejects joint authority in North after Coveney comments

‘There can be no British-only direct rule,’ says Minister for Foreign Affairs

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the Government’s position was  ‘there can be no British-only direct rule’. Photograph: Alan Betson

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the Government’s position was ‘there can be no British-only direct rule’. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The British government has ruled out any move towards joint authority over Northern Ireland involving both the London and Dublin administrations if talks in Belfast fail to restore power-sharing in the region.

In response to concerns from Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney about direct rule from London being reimposed on the province, the British government emphasised there would be no joint authority as an alternative to devolution.

The statement suggests a possible rift between London and Dublin over what to do if the negotiations between the parties in Northern Ireland - principally the DUP and Sinn Féin - fail to produce a compromise.

Without a deal between parties represented in the Northern Ireland assembly that would bring back power-sharing, the government said: “We will never countenance any arrangement, such as joint authority, inconsistent with the principle of consent in the [Good Friday/Belfast] agreement.”

The government said it was for the UK administration alone “to provide the certainty over delivery of public services and good governance in Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom. This is consistent with our obligations under the Belfast agreement”.

The statement late on Tuesday followed Mr Coveney’s comment earlier in the evening that “there can be no British-only direct rule” should talks on restoring a powersharing executive fail.

“There can be no British-only direct rule, is the Irish Government’s position.

“Clearly there will be a changing role at Westminster in the context of decision making in Northern Ireland. But the Good Friday Agreement is very clear that on some issues in Northern Ireland the Irish Government has a role to play, on North South issues, and we have a legal obligation to do that,” Mr Coveney said.

“So, I think it would be very difficult to even contemplate how direct rule would function in that context. And we don’t want to go there.

“It’s not good for Northern Ireland, it’s not good from the point of view of the Government that I am part of, it’s not good from the point of view of the government in London, and I think everybody loses in that scenario.

“And so, let’s not forget what the opportunity cost here is of not doing a deal in the context of setting up a devolved government structure that functions again in Northern Ireland. Because it is a very significant cost, and so when I hear people saying things like, ‘well, you know, people in the community are saying things are ticking over ok, and maybe the status quo isn’t so bad’, the status quo is not sustainable in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Coveney was speaking after he met DUP, Alliance, SDLP and UUP delegations at Stormont on Tuesday, and had a phone conversation with Sinn Féin’s Northern leader Michelle O’Neill, to assess if there was any scope for breaking the current deadlock.

On Wednesday morning Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd told the BBC the “speed and haste” of the statement from the Northern Ireland Office suggested the British government “jumped to the DUP’s message” and this was “deeply concerning”.

In response DUP MLA Peter Weir welcomed the robust statement and said Sinn Féin criticism was rich given the speed the party rejected Arlene Foster’s proposal to immediately restore the executive last week.

- Additional reporting Guardian