Northern secretary rejects calls for British-Irish summit on violence in Belfast

Lewis tells MPs he will look to convene a meeting at an ‘appropriate time’

Northern secretary Brandon Lewis: he has rejected calls for a British-Irish summit in response to the violence in Belfast. File photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Northern secretary Brandon Lewis: he has rejected calls for a British-Irish summit in response to the violence in Belfast. File photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

 

Northern secretary Brandon Lewis has rejected calls for a British-Irish summit in response to the violence in Belfast in advance of a two-day visit to London by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.

Mr Coveney is scheduled to meet Mr Lewis on Thursday, but Mr Lewis told MPs on Tuesday that he would look at the “appropriate time” to convene a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC).

Established under the Belfast Agreement as a forum for the two governments to meet, the BIIGC last met in May 2019, but Mr Lewis said that the body had no authority over policing in Northern Ireland.

“We will, of course, look for the appropriate time for the next meeting of the BIIGC, especially in the context of ensuring the strengthening of the bilateral relationship between the UK and Ireland now that we have left the EU – I have spoken to the Irish Foreign Minister about that – but we also need to be clear that policing is a devolved matter, so falls outside the remit of the BIIGC,” he said.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood told MPs on Tuesday that the two governments should meet in the BIIGC to address the underlying causes of the violence.

“I’m disappointed at the lack of any acceptance of culpability from his own government and how they have dealt with the Brexit issue from the start, and how they haven’t been honest with the unionist population of Northern Ireland,” he said.

“Church leaders have asked us to come together to deal with this crisis in our peace process, and despite what the Secretary of State has said policing may be devolved but peace is not devolved. We all have a responsibility to deal with this.”

Complex

In a statement to the House of Commons about the recent disturbances, Mr Lewis said the causes of the violence were complex and multifaceted.

He acknowledged that unhappiness over the Northern Ireland protocol was a factor, but said those concerns overlapped with “wider questions about national identity and political allegiance, and come at a time of economic uncertainty” caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The DUP’s Ian Paisley warned of a “downward spiral”, asserting that the protocol was the cause of the violence and predicting that it would not end until the agreement was revoked.

“The causes are not Covid-19. Seriously. The causes are not the Bobby Storey funeral – that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Secretary of State knows that the protocol lies at the heart of this because the identity of Ulster is at stake as a result of the protocol.

“And I fear a continuing downward spiral unless the Secretary of State takes action and the key action he could take is to invoke Article 16, take control of this situation.”

Mr Coveney will travel to London after Wednesday morning’s Cabinet meeting for a programme of formal and informal encounters on Wednesday and Thursday.

He will meet Labour leader Keir Starmer later on Wednesday, and with Mr Lewis and the foreign secretary Dominic Raab on Thursday. Mr Coveney will also meet the British government’s chief interlocutor with the EU, Lord David Frost, on Thursday morning.

Technical talks

Irish sources said the discussions with London would focus on the situation in Northern Ireland. “We’re not there to renegotiate the protocol,” one source said.

Reports from Brussels suggest there has been some progress in technical talks between Britain and the European Commission about the implementation of the protocol. Lord Frost and commission vice-president Maros Sevcovic are expected to speak again on Thursday.