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Northern Ireland

'The whole thing is absolutely bizarre': SF withdraw from talks over McDonald's exclusion from meeting

McDonald said her exclusion was the result of ‘British Tory petulance’.

LAST UPDATE | 11 Jan 2023

BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY James Cleverly has insisted Sinn Féin were not excluded from a meeting with him in Belfast.

It came after the party said its leader Mary Lou McDonald was told she could not attend the meeting to discuss the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Stormont political deadlock.

McDonald has said that the “whole thing is absolutely bizarre and unprecedented”.

“We had hoped to make progress on those issues at today’s leaders’ meeting.

“I travelled for that meeting because I believe it is an important meeting and bizarrely, and in an unprecedented way, the British Government choose to seek to exclude the leader of Sinn Féin from a leaders’ meeting,” she said. 

“We need politics which is civil, which is based on respect, which recognises the democratic mandate and the responsibility of every party including Sinn Féin.

“We had a chance this morning to mark progress, to exchange views, to be constructive, to work together, to listen to each other,” she added.

Speaking to reporters after today’s Cabinet meeting in Farmleigh House this evening, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said said he hoped today was not a sign of new practice, stating that has never prescribed who can or can’t be in any party’s relegation. 

“I hope it’s not a new precedent that’s been set,” he said, adding “that’s never been our practice to tell other people who should be on their delegation”. 

Varadkar spoke to President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen this evening on the issues facing Northern Ireland.

Varadkar said that “the teams are making a certain degree of progress. They are very keen to have the time and space to continue their work and have asked that there would be confidentiality around that, so that’s obviously something we are going to observe”.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin said the Government would do everything it possibly could to see the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly re-established.

He said bringing the situation to a resolution would represent a positive start to 2023.

“It is clear trust is building between the EU and UK. Progress has been made on data sharing but both sides are conscious and aware of the challenge so I won’t comment in relation to prospects or a timeline at this stage,” Martin said.

Speaking about the controversy today, Cleverly said Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill, an elected member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, was invited to attend but opted not to.

He stressed the meeting was to hear from political representatives in Northern Ireland and he would meet Irish politicians when he goes to Ireland “in the near future”.

During a visit to Saintfield Garden Centre this afternoon, he told media: “Sinn Féin were very welcome.

“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,” Cleverly said. 

“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 SDLP also refused to attend today’s meeting, with the meeting going ahead with the unionist DUP and UUP and the cross-community Alliance party.

The SDLP said it would not take part in the talks unless McDonald was allowed access.

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill accused the British government of “bad faith and petulance” over the decision.

A Sinn Féin party spokesperson told PA this morning that the party had only been informed last night that McDonald was to be excluded from the talks.

“The progress made on the protocol this week is welcome and must now inject fresh momentum into talks between the EU and British government to reach a solution.”

“Sinn Féin was hoping to build on that progress at today’s meeting with the British Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary,” the spokesperson said.

“This is a time for inclusion, dialogue and engagement. This is a time for mature and civil politics.”

A UK Government spokesperson told PA news agency: “This meeting is for Northern Ireland politicians to talk through issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol with SOSNI and the UK Foreign Secretary.

“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.”

Speaking after the meeting, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the meeting was an “invaluable opportunity for us to put forward our concerns in relation to the ongoing negotiations and to spell out very clearly for the government what we need to get from those negotiations”.

He said he was struck by the language used at the meeting, stating there was discussions about getting a deal that works for Northern Ireland.

“I think that is fundamentally important. They recognise that deal with the EU doesn’t work for unionists and just isn’t going to fly. So I think it was a useful discussion in that respect,” he said.

Speaker appointment 

Earlier today, the SDLP stated it would propose a change to the process of appointing a Speaker in Stormont.

The DUP has refused to allow the appointment of a Speaker in protest over the Protocol.

The SDLP is to propose changes to the process for the appointment of a Speaker to try to allow the position-holder to be approved by a two-thirds majority instead of the current one-party veto.

The party suggested that the change would still require nationalist and unionist support for a candidate and would prevent one party from “abusing Stormont rules to maintain the suspension of the institutions”.

SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole said that parties need to “get back to work” and that the change would allow challenges to be addressed.

In a statement, O’Toole said that “progress in the negotiations between the European Commission and the British Government on the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol this week are clearly welcome and should provide a basis for political generosity from all parties in Northern Ireland”.

“Unfortunately, it appears highly likely that the DUP will continue to prioritise its cynical party-political wrecking strategy which has left people here without a functioning Assembly or Executive since last year – at least for the foreseeable future,” he said.

“That approach simply isn’t good enough when thousands of people can’t get a hospital appointment, when families across our communities are struggling to keep the heating on and they need help from their elected representatives.”

The MLA said that the proposed change would “end the one-party veto that has frustrated the mandates of every other MLA and frustrated the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland”.

“A Speaker should instead be chosen by a two-thirds majority of MLAs which would require support from nationalists, unionists and others. This can be achieved quickly with agreement for the UK government to legislate at pace.

“Politicians cannot stand by while our health service collapses, while public sector workers endure pay regression and while inflation hurts hard working homes across our communities. We have a moral obligation and a political mandate to address these challenges.”

With reporting from Jamie McCarron and Press Association

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