People in Northern Ireland want new Executive formed quickly – Taoiseach

Micheál Martin says issues around Brexit have ‘hindered’ the peace process

The people of Northern Ireland want a new Stormont Executive to be formed quickly after next week's elections and it is "vital" this happens, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said.

Mr Martin also said issues around Brexit have "hindered" the Northern Ireland peace process.

He made the remarks during an appearance at the Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement to discuss his Government's Shared Island initiative.

There is concern at how soon a new Northern Ireland Executive can be formed after next Thursday’s Assembly elections.

Tensions remain between Dublin and London over the Northern Ireland protocol which was agreed to govern post-Brexit trade in a way that avoids a hard border in Ireland.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said his party will not return to the Executive unless the issues around the protocol are resolved to the party's satisfaction. He has refused to confirm whether his party will take up the deputy first minister role alongside a Sinn Féin first minister if, as expected, that party wins the most seats.

Mr Martin said: “It is vital for the future of Northern Ireland and for relationships on these islands that the political parties take their mandates from the Assembly elections and move quickly to form a new Executive. That is what the people of Northern Ireland want.”

Political leaders

He said it is a moment for political leaders to live up to the commitments of the Belfast Agreement which he pointed out is "overwhelmingly supported by people across this island".

Mr Martin also said “political leadership – by all with a role and responsibility – is also fundamental, in getting beyond the issues around Brexit and the protocol that have hindered the peace process over the last six years”.

“We need to return the focus to working collectively to support progress and prosperity for all in Northern Ireland and across this island.”

Mr Martin said these were the Government’s objectives and responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Belfast Agreement.

He added: “We are significantly prioritising, resourcing and delivering an ambitious, practical agenda to support that through our Shared Island initiative.”

The programme of cross-border investment and dialogue has funding of €3.5 billion up to 2030 under the National Development Plan.

Over the last year more than 1,300 citizens and civic leaders have participated across nine Shared Island Dialogue events.

Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew commended the Taoiseach on the initiative saying it was making a "valuable and very positive contribution".

She said her party has areas of concern that the Shared Island unit could “explore and provide leadership on” including the setting of a date to hold “a constitutional referendum on this country’s independence”.

Framework

Mr Martin rejected this suggestion saying that the holding of such a referendum was a matter covered by the framework of the Belfast Agreement.

He said staying out of the issue gives the Shared Island Initiative the capacity to engage with all communities.

Mr Martin said: “That’s the challenge to build trust that people can participate in Shared Island without the sense that it is a Trojan Horse for something else.

“That is a concern in unionism let’s be frank about it. That would be a concern that they have. But so far no barriers have been put up to it.”

Earlier the committee heard of difficulty engaging with unionist parties on such initiatives but Mr Martin said “civic unionism” has been involved in Shared Island dialogue events.

Mr Martin said Shared Island investment plans include increased collaboration between higher education institutions in the northwest and new cross-border greenways and transport connectivity commitments, including the Government’s contribution to the A5 upgrade.

“The Shared Island Fund means that we have the resourcing ready to go for all of these major projects,” Mr Martin said.

He said the Irish Government and Northern Ireland Executive have also started an all-island strategic rail review, to be completed later this year, including a focus on better connections for the northwest.

Mr Martin said: “Informed by the outcome of this review, we will make new strategic investments in sustainable rail, working with the Executive and the UK government.”

Meanwhile, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said that the European Union is not in favour of a fundamental re-negotiation of the Northern Ireland protocol and is certainly not up for “trashing” the current deal,

Speaking in Washington he said Ireland wanted to see the protocol implemented with as much flexibility as possible.

He said he believed a deal could be reached in relation to the protocol. However he said this would involve compromise.

However, he said “so far over the last 12 months all of the compromise has been coming from one side, from the EU. There is a need for compromise to come from both sides.”

In a question and answer session at the German Marshall Fund in Washington he said he believed the institutions of the Good Friday agreement were now under more pressure than at any stage in their 25-year history.

He said he accepted many unionists were offended by checks on good coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. However, he said this was what the British government had signed up to “even if it was not fully honest about it at the time”.

Genuine concerns

Later speaking to The Irish Times the Minister said the Ireland would continue to work with the British government and the EU Commission to try ensure an approach was taken that recognised the genuine concerns that were there amongst the business community, unionists, nationalists and those who did not ascribed to either tradition.

“Unfortunately what we are hearing form some in the British government system is, that they are effectively saying give us what we want or we will go ahead and legislate anyway for that domestically in way that would undermine international law.”

“We think there is a negotiated way forward here, that is what we want to do.”

Mr Coveney said when the Northern Ireland elections were concluded on May 5th, there would be” a very important window to try address these issues over the summer, which hopefully will also make it easier to ensure that an executive and devolved government structures are functioning in Northern Ireland and we can get back to recognising the importance of the Good Friday agreement, the pace process and the institutions that have been set up”.

Mr Coveney said the Northern Ireland protocol was international law. He said it had been agreed and ratified following intensive negotiations over about two years. He said the current British government won a general election on the back of it and a year later plan for its implementation had been drawn up .

“But since then there has been a constant effort to undermine the protocol to amend it, to change it and for some to get rid of it altogether -- without actually explaining what could or would replace it .”

The Minister said that form an Irish perspective the protocol what was protected Ireland’s place in the EU single market.

This is not just a divisive debate in northern Ireland it is important to the whole island of Ireland in terms of the place in the EU single market which is certal to our economic model.

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times