Irish and British governments to meet amid unionist unrest over NI protocol

Intergovernmental conference will be first since two administrations were formed

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis  in Iveagh House, Dublin, on Wednesday. Photograph: Julien Behal

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis in Iveagh House, Dublin, on Wednesday. Photograph: Julien Behal

 

The Irish and British governments are to meet next month at a formal inter-governmental conference for talks on Northern Ireland for the first time since the two administrations were formed.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and British secretary of state for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis agreed to the meeting during a visit to Dublin by Mr Lewis on Wednesday.

Dublin has been seeking the meeting for some time amid continuing unionist unrest over the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the EU-UK treaty which governs the UK’s exit from the bloc.

The protocol requires that the North operates some EU rules in order to avoid a hard border on the island.

The protocol has led to some disruption in trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, leading to unionist anger and contributing to both a week of loyalist rioting and the leadership challenge that saw Arlene Foster announce her resignation as DUP leader and First Minister last week.

Joint statement

Mr Coveney and Mr Lewis did not hold a press conference after their meeting, but officials issued a joint statement in which they said they “agreed on the need to work together in close partnership to protect and uphold all aspects of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all circumstances”.

“We have also agreed to convene a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in June, to discuss matters of mutual interest within the competence of both governments as the agreement intended,” they said.

“We are aware that there are sincerely held concerns in different communities in Northern Ireland in relation to a number of issues and firmly agree that the best way forward is through dialogue and engagement.

“We recognise the responsibility we all bear to enhance the confidence of everyone in Northern Ireland in all the institutions of the agreement to help realise its vision for reconciliation, equality, respect for rights and parity of esteem.”

Irish officials said the mood at the meeting had been positive, though there has been frustration in Dublin in recent months at London’s perceived lack or urgency on the North.

Security issues

Mr Lewis also paid a courtesy call on Taoiseach Micheál Martin and met Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys, who has recently taken over the role due to the maternity leave of Helen McEntee, to discuss security issues.

After the meeting, Ms Humphreys said they had discussed the “excellent co-operation” between the Garda and the PSNI.

“This operational relationship is key to ensuring security on the island of Ireland and we must ensure it is maintained. It has been and will continue to be central to saving lives and protecting communities,” she said.

It is understood the conference next month will not be attended at head of government level, meaning that neither the Taoiseach nor British prime minister Boris Johnson will attend. Instead the delegations will be led – as is normal – by Mr Coveney and Mr Lewis, with other Ministers, possibly the Minister for Justice, attending.

The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference was established under the Belfast Agreement in 1998 and is the channel through which Dublin has a say in some aspects of governance in the North. It has not met since November 2018.