Sinn Fein withdrawal overshadows political talks with parties over Protocol

Northern Ireland political leaders have voiced disappointment that a meeting with the foreign secretary broke down into disarray when nationalist parties withdrew just before they were about to begin.

Sinn Fein said party president Mary Lou McDonald was 'excluded' with the UK Government saying the talks were for "Northern Ireland politicians to talk through issues around the NI Protocol".

It is understood the foreign secretary is yet to meet his counterpart in the Republic meaning protocol would dictate he could not meet the leader of the opposition.

The SDLP said it could not attend while Ms McDonald was absent saying there should be "maximum inclusion".

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also said it was better for all parties to be involved in the talks.

Speaking after the meeting with the foreign secretary Sir Jeffrey said: "My understanding is that the Northern Ireland Office didn't exclude any party, that there was an issue around the protocol with Mary Lou McDonald meeting the foreign secretary ahead of the foreign secretary meeting his counterpart in Dublin.

"That's not a matter for me, that's a matter for the Northern Ireland Office. I'm not going to get drawn into this."

The Lagan Valley MP voiced his disappointment that Sinn Fein and the SDLP did not attend the meeting.

He said: "It's better when all parties are at the table, I want to see all parties in Northern Ireland putting their views across, particularly to the foreign secretary".

Sir Jeffrey said the meeting was very important and discussed a number of key issues.

"We discussed the pressing matters such as investing in our health service, supporting those on the frontline in the health service, developing the economy, our plans for prosperity in Northern Ireland when we get the institutions up and running, so it was a very useful very productive meeting."

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Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald, however, accused the British Government of petulance over her exclusion.

Ms McDonald said: "This is a political meeting, it's to access progress, we are here in good faith, we want to get the work done and apart from this being, utterly bizzare, I mean beyond bizarre, it's also extremely unhelpful and it's a very bad message and a bad signal if the British Torys are now behaving in this petulant fashion and saying that they will seek to exclude people from the very necessary work that needs now to be done."

The foreign secretary James Cleverly said Sinn Fein was invited, he said he "will be meeting Irish politicians when I go to Ireland".

He said Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O'Neill, an elected member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, was invited to attend but opted not to.

"Sinn Fein were very welcome," he said.

"My meeting here this morning was to meet with the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland. I will of course be going to Ireland in the near future and I'll be meeting Irish politicians, but I very much wanted to hear from representatives of Northern Ireland.

"Michelle O'Neill was invited, as was her deputy. They chose not to come but it was a very useful meeting and I did get to hear voices that had concerns, serious concerns, about the protocol, the impact it is having on people and businesses in Northern Ireland."

The Alliance party's Andrew Muir described the meeting as a "robust and constructive engagement with the secretary of state and the foreign secretary".

However, Mr Muir said the party was "profoundly disappointed the decision was made to prescribe who could attend".

"The process in Northern Ireland is built upon being inclusive and listening to all voices," he added.

The UUP leader Doug Beattie said the meeting was "benign" but "good natured".

Mr Beattie said it was "a shame that Sinn Fein and the SDLP were not there".

He said the exclusion of Mary Lou McDonald "boils down to basic diplomatic norms, and that is that the foreign secretary hasn't met the Taoiseach, so he would hardly meet the leader of the opposition of a party in Ireland before he met the Taoiseach".

The SDLP deputy leader Matthew O'Toole spoke before the meeting took place. He said Ms McDonald's absence was "a real shame".

Mr O'Toole added: "Since the beginning of when we all started talking as parties decades ago the SDLP has believed in maximum inclusion. The leader of Sinn Fein has been excluded today and we couldn't in good faith participate in today's talks."

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