By Rebecca Black and David Young, PA
Edwin Poots says he has not refused to attend any north-south meetings.
The DUP leader made the comment just hours before his first meeting in his new role with Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
It comes as Sinn Féin and the SDLP are seeking legal advice over the non-attendance of DUP ministers at recent North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC) sectoral meetings.
Mr Poots told the Stormont Agriculture Committee: “At no point have I refused to attend north-south meetings”.
“I have absolutely no issue in fulfilling all of my responsibilities under the Ministerial Code and have every intention of doing so,” he said.
Last month, Mr Poots described his relationship with the Dublin Government as “really, really bad”.
He said he has respect for Mr Martin but was critical of his predecessor, Leo Varadkar, and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney.
Earlier DUP MLA Paul Givan said the north-south relationship is a “very important one”, and his party wants to be in a place where it has a “good relationship with our closest neighbours”.
But, turning to east-west relations, he said the Northern Ireland Protocol has caused “huge damage with no consent from the unionist people or its representatives”.
“That has had a very negative influence in terms of those relationships, and that’s something that we all collectively need to address,” he said.
“Edwin Poots is going to be travelling to Dublin this evening.
“There is a meeting that is going to take place with Micheál Martin, and I know that Edwin wants to be able to address these issues with the Taoiseach, and I think he’ll have more to say on the whole north-south dynamic later on today because it is vitally important that people understand, in the Republic of Ireland, the challenges and the difficulty that unionism faces, but we do need to identify and navigate ways through these difficulties, and that’s what Edwin is about.
“We need to just dial down the rhetoric a little bit and have a little bit of calm and mature politics and work our way through this in a sensible manner.”
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.
Mr Givan responded on Thursday morning, saying he does not think a judicial review is “necessary”.
“Politics is about making things work, it’s about building up relationships and trust, and identifying where problems are, and putting yourselves in each other’s shoes and trying to see it from their perspective, and then you seek to navigate and try to find a way forward,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
“It’s (legal action) always, in my view, something you do as a last resort.”
Mr Givan said Mr Poots wants a meeting of the party leaders’ forum to work to resolve difficulties and challenges.
The DUP’s non-attendance at NSMC meetings represents another ratcheting up of tensions within the powersharing administration in Belfast.
It came after a NSMC sectoral meeting on languages, in which Sinn Fein MLA Ms Hargey 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 that 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 prevented 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.”