UK and Ireland ministers say relations ‘back on positive trajectory’

A meeting of Irish and British parliamentarians has heard that the relationship between the UK and Ireland is “back on a positive trajectory” following Brexit.

However, key speakers told the 65th plenary session of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly that restoring Northern Ireland’s institutions is urgently required to realise the economic potential of the region.

The DUP has been blocking powersharing for more than a year in protest at the internal UK trade barriers created by Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

The party has also said the Windsor Framework deal struck by the EU and the UK to reform the protocol does not sufficiently address its concerns and has made clear it will not accept a return to devolution until the UK Government provides further assurances, by way of legislation, over Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.

Ireland’s minister for finance, Michael McGrath, told the assembly that while Dublin-London links are “getting stronger”, parliamentarians can “do better” in working towards restoring Northern Ireland’s institutions.

Mr McGrath said: “The continued absence of a Northern Ireland executive and the consequent effect on North-South work, especially at ministerial level, is something I feel in my work every single week.

“This is where, as politicians and as neighbours, we can do better.

“I, for one, look forward to the day when I can pick up the phone to my counterpart in the Northern Ireland executive in the same way that I can do with my counterparts in Great Britain, or indeed elsewhere in Europe.”

He told the politicians gathered at the K Club in Co Kildare that they all had a “collective duty” to encourage further economic and social co-operation.

British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly
Michael McGrath addresses the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly at the K Club, Co Kildare (Niall Carson/PA)

Mr McGrath said: “On Brexit, mercifully, the debate is not where it was five or so years ago.”

He said the Windsor Framework has stabilised the UK-EU relationship and brought a “degree of certainty” to Northern Ireland.

He said: “The full economic effects of the UK exit still cannot be known but thanks to extensive contingency planning, and a large-scale response across government, the impacts for Irish business and trade are not what they otherwise would have been – and certainly not what would have been once feared.”

He later added: “My message today is that the British-Irish relationship is, after some turbulent years which we have to acknowledge, back on a positive trajectory.

“But we have work to do, in many ways we always will.

British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly
Northern Ireland Office minister Steve Baker (Niall Carson/PA)

“In that context, a close, equal and respectful partnership between London and Dublin, and all of our respective centres of power, will always be crucial.”

In his speech, Northern Ireland Office Minister Steve Baker said that the UK Government believes its relationship with Ireland is of “fundamental importance”.

Mr Baker said the UK Government is “very grateful that this relationship is on a new footing”.

The minister told the gathered politicians that the success of the UK and Ireland joint bid to host Uefa Euro 2028 “has the potential to bring us together for one great sporting event which can unite us”.

“It will also help us to showcase what the UK and Ireland has to offer to tourists and investors around the world,” he said.

British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly
The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly at the K Club, Co Kildare (Niall Carson/PA)

However, Mr Baker said a fully functioning assembly and executive is required to realise “the huge potential that Northern Ireland now has to grow and develop”.

“We believe in devolution. We believe that Northern Ireland works best when it is governed locally and I would once again urge all parties to return to powersharing,” he said.

Mr Baker said it was Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris’ core priority to restore the region’s institutions.

“That is why he is relentless in his efforts to get Stormont back up and running so that the necessary decisions can be taken to improve public services, boost businesses and deliver for working people,” he said.

“And, my goodness, every time I visit I see how necessary it is.”