The Northern Ireland protocol saga continues. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary’s exclusion of the Sinn Fein leader Mary McDonald sparked a nationalist walkout thus throwing talks into farce before they began. The latest protocol row is one of a seemingly endless line of unresolvable disagreements which has kept the doors of Stormont shut. Today, the Irish PM and Deputy PM are travelling to Belfast to meet with party leaders and members of the Northern Ireland business community.
The Foreign Secretary James Cleverly caused outrage among Northern Irish nationalists yesterday for unexpectedly barring the Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald from top-level diplomatic talks to resolve NI protocol issues. His move led to a boycott not just from members of Sinn Fein but also from the SDLP. Cleverly was in Belfast to report on progress made on Monday in talks with the European Commission. The British government provided somewhat conflicting justifications for snubbing McDonald who lost no time in condemning the move. Speaking in close proximity to where the Foreign Secretary was holding talks, she said:
“Apart from this being utterly bizarre, I mean beyond bizarre, it’s extremely unhelpful.
“It’s a bad message and a bad signal if the British Tories are now behaving in this petulant fashion and saying that they would seek to exclude people from the very necessary work that needs now to be done.”
Later, Michelle O’Neill tweeted:
The exclusion of Sinn Féin President & party leader @MaryLouMcDonald by the British government from today’s party leaders’ meeting is unacceptable.
This is a time for inclusive dialogue to restore the Executive, fix our health service & support people through rising living costs pic.twitter.com/5vKF5YNlj4
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) January 11, 2023
Initially, the UK government explained excluding the Sinn Fein leader on the basis that she is not an elected member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, it soon became apparent that DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson and the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood had been invited even though they aren’t Assembly members either. The British government insisted:
“The leader of Sinn Féin in the Assembly was invited and remains invited. Her attendance is a matter for Sinn Féin. But she was not excluded.”
In a further attempt to calm tempers, Cleverly then cited the ‘diplomatic protocol’ as the reason for McDonald’s exclusion saying that following the Irish government reshuffle, protocol demanded him to meet with the new Foreign Affairs Minister first. Nationalists rejected this notion too, pointing out that British officials had met Michéal Martin on many occasions during the time he served as Taoiseach (PM).
Speaking to Politico, one Dublin government official said:
“I’d like to think we wouldn’t be quite so stupid as to offer this insult up on a plate to Sinn Féin. It seems such an obvious point to make, but the parties in Northern Ireland should be free to choose who represents them at any table. This is normally never an issue. This shouldn’t be made an issue. Citing the rules of diplomacy for this move boggles the mind.”
Irish PM and Deputy PM in talks today to get Stormont back up and running
Despite this latest protocol row, Leo Varadkar and Michéal Martin are in Belfast today to meet political leaders and representatives of the NI business community. The Irish government wants to see the Assembly back up and running as soon as possible. Having the two visits coincide is to send a strong signal of the Irish government’s determination:
“These two visits happening on the same day is a clear sign of the Government’s commitment to resolving the difficulties around the Protocol and helping ensure that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement can once again operate effectively across all three strands.”
The new PM will meet Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton for talks. The Foreign Secretary had been scheduled for round-table talks with members of all five NI parties before the latest protocol row scuppered plans.
Ms McDonald will meet Labour leader Keir Starmer and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Belfast today. The Irish PM will discuss re-establishing the NI Executive and resolving the NI protocol impasse with representatives of all NI parties.
Tanáiste Michéal Martin is due to launch Shared Island, a fund to support all-Ireland civic society projects.