By David Young, PA
A Sinn Féin minister has heavily criticised the DUP after accusing the party of snubbing another north-south meeting.
Amid mounting tensions within Stormont’s powersharing executive, Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said the region’s main unionist party was guilty of “unacceptable and regressive” behaviour after DUP junior minister Gordon Lyons did not take part in a scheduled meeting on language issues.
The meeting could not proceed as, under Stormont rules, any meeting with the Irish Government involving a nationalist Executive minister must include an accompanying unionist minister.
The DUP has failed to take part in a number of cross-border political meetings in recent months, having made clear north-south co-operation would be affected amid its campaign against Brexit’s Irish Sea border.
The latest incident came as new DUP leader Edwin Poots continues to wait before naming his new ministerial team at Stormont.
On Wednesday, Mr Poots expressed hope for a smooth transition within the powersharing executive following his ministerial reshuffle.
— Sinn Féin (@sinnfeinireland) June 2, 2021
On Thursday, the leaders of the five main parties are due to meet to discuss the latest political developments in the North.
Earlier on Wednesday, one of the DUP ministers who could potentially lose her job, Economy Minister Diane Dodds, said she hoped Mr Poots could heal the divisions within the party which have surfaced following the ousting of former leader Arlene Foster.
There are concerns the forthcoming ministerial changes — in particular the replacement of deposed First Minister Mrs Foster — could become the source of political contention, potentially posing a risk to the stability of Stormont.
When Mrs Foster resigns as First Minister, current Sinn Féin deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill is automatically removed from her post — as the joint office can only function if both positions are filled.
Both parties will then need to renominate their respective first and deputy first ministers within seven days.
If one of the parties declines to renominate, then a functioning executive could not be formed.
There has been speculation Sinn Féin might use the nomination procedure to seek assurances from Mr Poots that he will re-engage in north-south meetings and also deliver on legislation for protection for Irish language speakers.
Ms Hargey said: “As planned, I was available and ready to chair this afternoon’s north-south ministerial meeting on language with Minister Jack Chambers TD (Irish minister of state).
“These meetings are critical to discuss issues and take decisions that are important to government business and public services.
“This is the second time the DUP have failed to attend a language sectoral meeting and this continued boycott is unacceptable, futile and cannot continue.
“This is not only showing a lack of respect to the Irish language community but also to the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
“North-south ministerial meetings are an integral part of the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement alongside the Executive and the Assembly.
“They need to be functioning properly with ministers from all parties attending.”
Mr Poots said the meeting of party leaders on Thursday was timely.
“With an Executive comprised of five parties it is vital there is dialogue and a common purpose to work together in the interests of everyone,” he said.
“This meeting can provide a useful opportunity to ensure there is a smooth transition to changes within the Executive team and also to ensure our focus is on the matters of most importance to the people we all represent.
“It is an opportunity for us to affirm the commitments in New Decade, New Approach (2020 agreement that restored powersharing) to operate the political institutions on the basis of ‘good faith, trust and mutual respect and reaffirm our commitment to the principles of power-sharing and cross community protection as contained in the Belfast Agreement’.”
Mr Poots said the focus of the Executive should be on the health service and post Covid-19 economic recovery.
It is totally unacceptable that government business is being hampered by DUP ministers failing to attend North / South Ministerial meetings.
This is the second time the DUP failed to attend a language sectoral, this continued boycott is unacceptable, futile and cannot continue pic.twitter.com/5vqTxl0A6m
— Deirdre Hargey (@DeirdreHargey) June 2, 2021
“Too much time was lost at the start of this Assembly term when no decisions could be made.
“In the time which remains there must be a step-change in delivering good governance for all the people of Northern Ireland and taking through the ambitious legislative programme that has already been outlined,” he said.
“Whether on issues such as climate change, licensing laws or protection from stalking, these are all major areas which can deliver real benefits for our citizens.”
The new DUP leader is to remain as Stormont Agriculture Minister, leaving him with decisions to make over who will take on the First Minister’s job, as well as the economy and education portfolios and the role of Stormont Junior Minister.
It is thought unlikely that Economy Minister Mrs Dodds, Education Minister Peter Weir or junior minister Mr Lyons will remain in place.
Mr Poots has denied he has delayed making his new ministerial appointments due to the rift within the party.
Mrs Dodds was asked about the internal strife on Wednesday.
“I’m always sad to see divisions within the party,” she said.
“And I think those have been laid bare over the last number of days. I hope that Edwin reaches out and is able to heal those divisions, because Northern Ireland needs the largest number of pro-Union voters attracted by the party in order to sustain us and to sustain that union within the United Kingdom and that’s massively important.”
Asked about her own position, Mrs Dodds added: “I have had, of course, a conversation with Edwin, but it is up to a new leader to bring in the people that he wants to see through his vision for the party and for Northern Ireland.”
The minister insisted she remained committed to the DUP.
“I’ve been a member of the party for many, many years and I do think that it is the vehicle to protect the union, to secure jobs and to make Northern Ireland the right place to live,” she said.