Stormont ministers insist East West Council does not undermine Good Friday Agreement structures

Stormont’s leaders have insisted a new body aimed at strengthening links across the UK does not undermine existing political structures of the Good Friday Agreement.

Characterisations of it being a "talking shop" were also dismissed.

Sinn Fein First Minister Michelle O’Neill and DUP deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly were commenting after attending the inaugural meeting of the East-West Council in London.

The forum designed to improve business and educational links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK was created under the deal that restored powersharing in Northern Ireland earlier this year.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove chaired the first meeting in Dover House in London.

Work to align UK Government funding streams with stated priorities of the Stormont Executive was one of the main areas covered.

Two funding announcements were made, £150 million of support via the Enhanced Investment Zone and £17 million through the Shared Prosperity Fund to both improve adult numeracy and support business innovation in Northern Ireland.

The establishment of the forum was pledged in the UK Government’s Safeguarding the Union command paper.

Published in late January, the paper was the product of months of negotiations between the Government and the DUP that ultimately convinced the region’s largest unionist party to end its two-year blockade of powersharing at Stormont.

The party had been vetoing the functioning of the institutions in protest at post-Brexit trading barriers on trade moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

The historic Good Friday peace agreement of 1998 saw the creation of several new political bodies – some aimed at improving north-south relations on the island of Ireland, like the North South Ministerial Council, and others focused on enhancing east-west linkages between the island and Great Britain, such as the British Irish Council.

Some nationalist critics of the new forum have expressed concern about the creation of an additional east west body outside the terms of the delicately balanced Good Friday deal.

Ms O’Neill made clear that the East-West Council did not have the same status or powers as any of the intergovernmental bodies created under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

She said it could not be compared to the structures established in 1998 or viewed as an addition to them as it was a “very distinctly different” entity.

“It is a forum in which we can discuss these things, it’s a forum in which we can improve relations, but it obviously doesn’t have that statutory powers which other bodies would have,” she said.

The First Minister rejected the suggestion that the creation of the council could be seen as undermining the terms of the peace deal.

“I wouldn’t allow anything to undermine the Good Friday Agreement,” she said.

“I mean we were very clear through the course of the last number of years that the negotiation and conversation between both the DUP and the British government needed to come to an end. I’m very glad that all these discussions ended up in the fact that we do have an Executive up and running. And we do have all elements of the Good Friday Agreement up and running, including the north south body, because that’s very, very important in terms of that. The British Irish Council and the Executive – all those things need to work in tandem. We’re here today because it’s a forum in which to engage.”

The North South Ministerial Council is set to meet in Armagh on April 8 while the British Irish Council will convene in June.

Ms O’Neill denied that Tuesday’s meeting in London was an uncomfortable place for an Irish nationalist to be.

“No, I don’t agree actually,” she said.

“I’m happy to be here because this is a useful engagement. I mean, these intergovernmental relations are crucially important and we need to get that right.

“Not least in this forum today, but we now have the Executive back up and running and what we are going to see in quick succession from today is also the North South Ministerial Council, which will meet on April 8. Following that we’ll have the British Irish Council as well.

“And all of those sets of relationships are really, really important in terms of the politics of the north. So any forum that allows us to have those opportunities then I think is always going to be something that we should take up.”

Ms O’Neill and Ms Little Pengelly have mainly given joint press conferences since they assumed office in February.

After the council meeting in London, they appeared separately to answer questions from waiting reporters.

Ms Little-Pengelly rejected the suggestion the council was her party’s attempt to bypass the structures of the Good Friday Agreement.

“The institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement persist, they remain,” she said.

“As indicated, we will of course be establishing and we’ll be having the first meeting of the North South Ministerial Council very shortly. We’ll also be having a meeting of the British Irish Council in June coming up this year. So of course, those bodies will continue.

“But, of course, we didn’t have a UK internal body to look at and identify some of the issues that we face, internal to the United Kingdom, I think it’s absolutely appropriate that we have that.

“When we look back over the last number of years as we’ve navigated Brexit and other challenges I actually think that this type of body would have been very, very useful in terms of identifying those problems at an earlier stage and trying to collectively find solutions to them. So, look, I think this will be something that complements and supplements what’s there. It’s not designed to replace it, it’s not a threat to anybody else.

“But, of course, from our point of view, as unionists, we believe that this is what is good for Northern Ireland because actually we have a forum that is focused on the United Kingdom and dealing with the challenges and opportunities that we face internal to our United Kingdom.”

Ms Little Pengelly dismissed characterisations of the council as a “talking shop” or a Government “tick box” exercise.

“I made clear at the meeting at the council today that what we will be judged on in terms of this council will be delivery, it will be the outcomes for people, not just in Northern Ireland, but across this United Kingdom,” she added.

The Safeguarding the Union command paper said the council would seek to harness “significant potential” to strengthen co-operation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK to “address shared challenges and to grasp shared opportunities”.

It will comprise representatives from the political, business and education sectors.

The council’s priorities include tackling economic inactivity; improving east-west trade flows; increasing international investment to Northern Ireland; and bolstering institutional connectivity and enhancing professional development by leveraging academic and skills expertise across NI and GB.

The new body will produce an annual report that will identify concrete actions for business, education or government to take forward to improve growth in Northern Ireland and across the UK.

Mr Gove welcomed the first meeting.

“We had a fruitful discussion in which we outlined our approach towards supporting the Executive in the priorities which it had set for itself,” he said.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris also denied it was a talking shop.

“We tackled many priorities actually that are important to making sure that we strengthen the bonds between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain,” he said.

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