By David Young, PA
A Sinn Féin Stormont minister has sought legal advice on a potential court challenge over the non-attendance of DUP ministers at North-South political meetings.
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has requested legal opinion from her department on the prospect of taking a judicial review against DUP ministers who have not engaged in recent meetings with Irish Government counterparts.
The move represents another ratcheting up of tensions within the powersharing administration in Belfast.
It came after a North South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on languages, in which she was due to take part, did not proceed because DUP Junior Minister Gordon Lyons did not attend.
Sinn Féin MLA & Communities Minister @DeirdreHargey has tonight asked for legal advice on a judicial review against ministers who refuse to attend North South Ministerial meetings after a DUP minister failed to attend a meeting on languages today https://t.co/GAZOEWLqn9 pic.twitter.com/HFbUMfkrX6
— Sinn Féin (@sinnfeinireland) June 2, 2021
The meeting could not take place 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.
“North-south ministerial meetings are an integral part of the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement alongside the Executive and the Assembly,” said Ms Hargey.
“They need to be functioning properly with ministers from all parties attending.
“Today was the second occasion that a minister failed to attend a meeting on languages with Dublin ministers and preventing the meeting from going ahead.
“As well as being disrespectful to the Irish language community it is totally unacceptable for government business to be impeded in this way by a DUP boycott of one of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
“This arrogant disrespect cannot be allowed to continue.
“This action may be in breach of the ministerial code and tonight I have asked the Department for Communities for legal advice on bringing this matter to the courts in a judicial review.”
The episode came amid ongoing uncertainty over when DUP leader Edwin Poots will announce his new ministerial team at Stormont.
Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Poots, who has replaced the ousted Arlene Foster as party leader, expressed hope for a smooth transition within the Executive following his reshuffle.
On Thursday, the leaders of the five main parties are due to meet to discuss the latest political developments in the region.
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 move against Mrs 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.
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
Ahead of the party leaders’ meeting, Ms O’Neill said Mr Poots needed to make clear his position on north south engagement.
“The DUP leader needs to confirm whether he will be attending the forthcoming North South Ministerial meeting as the DUP boycott cannot be allowed to continue,” she said.
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.