Sinn Fein seeks legal advice after latest DUP no-show at cross-border meeting

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Deirdre Hargey said the no-shows by the DUP are a breach of the ministerial code (PA) (PA Archive)
Deirdre Hargey said the no-shows by the DUP are a breach of the ministerial code (PA) (PA Archive)

A Sinn Fein (SF) minister is seeking legal advice after the latest Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) no-show at a cross-border political meeting.

Stormont Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said non-engagement in the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meeting is a “serious failure” to comply with Stormont’s ministerial code.

It comes after DUP junior minister Gary Middleton did not log on for a virtual sectoral NSMC meeting on languages with Ms Hargey and the Irish minister of state Jack Chambers on Friday.

Under Stormont rules, any Northern Ireland Executive meeting with the Irish Government must involve both a nationalist and an accompanying unionist minister. If one does not show the meeting cannot proceed.

Last month, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson announced that his party would be boycotting north-south meetings as part of its ongoing campaign of protest against Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

Sir Jeffrey said his party would continue cross-border co-operation only on health issues.

The DUP contends that the north-south relationship cannot continue as normal when, it claims, the protocol and its associated economic barriers on Irish Sea trade have inflicted damage on east-west relations.

DUP junior minister Gary Middleton did not log on for the virtual north-south meeting on Friday morning (Liam McBurney/PA) (PA Wire)
DUP junior minister Gary Middleton did not log on for the virtual north-south meeting on Friday morning (Liam McBurney/PA) (PA Wire)

On Wednesday, an NSMC meeting on agriculture did not go ahead because Stormont Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots would not attend.

Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), who was also due to participate in that meeting, has called on the UK and Irish governments to intervene on the DUP boycott.

While Wednesday’s meeting was postponed in advance, it is understood Friday’s languages meeting was ready to commence, with Ms Hargey and officials online, but it could not proceed due to Mr Middleton’s absence.

Ms Hargey said the DUP cannot “cherry-pick” what institutions of the Good Friday Agreement it participates in.

“Regrettably the meeting was cancelled shortly after it was due to begin this morning,” she said.

“I consider this inaction by Minister Gary Middleton and the Executive Office to be a serious failure to comply with the law and the ministerial code which require ministers to participate in meetings of the NSMC.

“Therefore I am seeking legal advice on challenging the DUP inaction through the courts.

“We must be clear that when the political institutions were restored through the New Decade, New Approach agreement last January, it was all of the institutions, not some.

“The DUP cannot cherry-pick and through inaction and obstruction hamper Government business on behalf of the public we all serve and represent.”

At a press conference in Belfast, Ms Hargey said she would consult with lawyers on Monday on the legal options open to her.

“The longer this goes on it just becomes more and more unacceptable,” she said.

“We’re elected to deliver for people and the more that these meetings do not take place we’re failing to do that and I as minister who has responsibility for languages, where decisions would have been taken today, they could not be made, so therefore I’m left with no other choice than to proactively get legal advice.

“I’m serious about this, this isn’t pretending. I’m actively seeking that and I will be looking at options on next steps on Monday.”

Explaining the DUP position, Sir Jeffrey said: “I want respectful north-south relations. I want us to work on matters of mutual concern, but the protocol is the roadblock. It has polluted every part of society. It is costing us £850 million per year by placing a border between us and our most important trading partners in the rest of the UK.

“Our ministers have put a stop to the north-south structures because we need to bring the Irish Sea border to a head. We cannot have a border between us and Great Britain but continue with north-south structures as though there is no problem.

“The simple way to resolve this matter is for nationalist and republican ministers to recognise that the Irish Sea border is contrary to the Belfast Agreement. Rather than calling for rigorous implementation, SF, SDLP and Alliance ministers should join us in calling for London and Brussels to remove the Irish Sea border.

“The protocol has harmed Northern Ireland’s place in the union, and is driving up consumer costs and driving down consumer choice.”

Sir Jeffrey also accused Sinn Fein of “hypocrisy”, highlighting that north-south meetings did not happen for three years after the republican party collapsed power-sharing in Northern Ireland in 2017.

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