DUP boycott of North-South council ‘damaging’ interests on both sides of Border
Committee hears call for business and education leaders to back body to help ‘depoliticise’ it
The Government is waiting to see how the new DUP leader Edwin Poots (pictured) and the yet to be announced new first minister would respond to the North-South Ministerial Council. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
The Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) boycott of meetings with Irish Government Ministers threatens to damage the interests of people on both sides of the Border, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Aingeal O’Donoghue, assistant secretary at the Department of An Taoiseach, said there is “clearly a concern at the moment” over disruption to the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC).
DUP ministers have been snubbing meetings due to their opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, a clause in the Brexit withdrawal agreement agreed by London and Brussels. Some unionists believe the protocol has created a sea border between the North and Britain.
Ms O’Donoghue said the council is a “critical part” of the Belfast Agreement but that there has been a “politicisation” of the body in recent months “with a mixed record of participation”.
“It hasn’t stopped but a number of sectoral meetings have not happened,” she told the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. “Some didn’t happen when originally planned and some haven’t happened at all.”
Updating the committee on the work of the Taoiseach’s Shared Island Unit, Ms O’Donoghue said the Government was trying to “keep work moving forward” but it is a “challenge for us right now and a challenge for some parties in the (Stormont) Executive”.
She said the council has “now been mixed into the politics around the protocol in a way that we would not agree that that is a natural connection”. It was part of the Belfast Agreement and should operate on its own terms, she said.
Ms O’Donoghue urged business and education leaders to weigh in behind the council to help “depoliticise” it.
The Government is “continuing to push forward” as best it can through the co-operation of officials on both sides of the Border, but was waiting to see how the new DUP leader Edwin Poots and the yet to be announced new first minister would respond.
Pushing for meetings
Officials are “pushing for meetings” but there has been no confirmed date as yet for a scheduled plenary session in the summer.
Alliance party North Down MP Stephen Farry told the committee of his “deep disappointment and concern at the approach the DUP is currently taking towards North-South cooperation”, which he said was “an integral part” of the Belfast Agreement.
“If we do see what is in effect a sustained boycott emerging, that is going to be very damaging to everyone’s mutual interest, including the people of Northern Ireland in terms of their social, economic and environmental welfare, as well as around healthcare co-operation which is of intrinsic importance to people’s lives,” he said.
Ms O’Donoghue suggested to the committee that Dublin would be willing to provide more money for the much delayed A5 road project in the North.
The planned development would connect Derry to Aughnacloy in Co Tyrone and improve links between the northwest and Dublin. It has been the subject of a number of public inquiries, and flood risk and environmental impact assessments are further hampering progress on it. Dublin has already pledged €75 million towards the €1.4 billion project.
Asked if it would commit further funding, Ms O’Donoghue said she “can’t make any commitment today, but it is always regarded as a strategic project for the northwest”.
If it gets to a point where “shovels are in the ground” the Government “will be up for a conversation about how much more” it could contribute, she said.
Sinn Féin South Down MP Chris Hazzard told the committee it was “ludicrous” that major tourism routes in the Republic such as Ireland’s Ancient East and the Wild Atlantic Way stopped at the Border.
Pointing out the rich ancient heritage of his own constituency, which was “the playground for Cú Chulainn and Finn McCool.. our shoreline is marked with the legacy of St Patrick, of the Vikings, of the Normans, of the Planters”, he urged a cross-border link-up of the routes.
“Tourism providers are crying out for this investment and support,” he said .
“Now is the time to be looking at how we can do this now. This is time to do it.”
It is “only right” that Ireland’s Ancient East route “stretches up through Co Down and into Antrim, and that the Wild Atlantic Way goes right around the Antrim coast to Giant Causeway and Rathlin Island,” he said.
Ms O’Donoghue said there had been “some discussions” about it and there would need to be positive engagement from the Stormont Executive, but that she was “not sure that we would be getting a positive response right now on that one”.