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NI First Minister Michelle O'Neill (left) and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly Alamy Stock Photo

NI leaders to attend first meeting of East-West Council aimed at improving links across UK

The Council was set up under the deal that restored powersharing in Northern Ireland.

A NEW BODY to improve business and educational links across the UK, which was created under the deal that restored powersharing in Northern Ireland, will meet for the first time today.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove will chair the inaugural session of the East-West Council in Dover House in London.

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 UK 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.

Sinn Féin First Minister Michelle O’Neill and her DUP counterpart and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly will attend the council meeting, as will Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and a number of other ministers from the Stormont Executive.

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.

london-england-uk-14th-mar-2024-secretary-of-state-for-levelling-up-housing-and-communitiesa-michael-gove-is-seen-in-westminster-ahead-of-morning-media-round-credit-image-tayfun-salci Michael Gove Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

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.

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 and others focused on enhancing east-west linkages between the island and Great Britain.

Nationalist critics of the new council have expressed concern about the creation of an additional east-west body outside the terms of the delicately balanced Good Friday deal.

Ahead of this afternoon’s meeting, Gove, who has responsibility for intergovernmental relations, said: “The creation of the East-West Council was an important part of the agreement that helped restore devolved government to Northern Ireland earlier this year.

“I am pleased that we have been able to hold the inaugural meeting in the early part of 2024.

“The government is committed to working with our partners in the Northern Ireland Executive and across the UK to address shared challenges and opportunities including with an east-west dimension.”

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