NSMC: Upcoming Agenda

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 27th September 2021.

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Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin 2:15 pm, 27th September 2021

4. Ms Brogan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on the topics due to be discussed at the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC). (AQO 2455/17-22)

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

Mr Speaker, with your permission, junior Minister Kearney will take that question.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

At the NSMC plenary meeting on 30 July 2021, an indicative schedule of NSMC meetings was agreed to take place from September until December 2021. Agendas for NSMC meetings in the various sectors are developed by the lead Ministers from each jurisdiction and reflect the priorities in each sector at that time. NSMC plenary meetings involve the Executive, led by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and the Irish Government, led by an Taoiseach. The task of the plenary meeting is to take an overview of cooperation on the island and of the North/South institutions. The next NSMC plenary meeting is due to take place in December. It is not possible to be specific about what the agenda will include at this stage, but recent meetings have focused on cooperation in the response to COVID-19, as well as other relevant matters, such as the implementation of various New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) commitments that have a cross-border element.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

I thank the junior Minister for his answer. Does he agree that the North/South bodies are an integral part of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, alongside the Executive and Assembly, and that the DUP boycott of those bodies not only undermines the agreement but does a huge disservice to the people whom that party claims to represent?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Mo bhuíochas leis an Chomhalta as ucht an cheist a chur. I agree that the North/South bodies are an integral part of the three-stranded approach to the Good Friday Agreement, as are all the political institutions. They are interlocking and interdependent. One cannot have one without the other. As the Member knows, the North/South all-island cooperation bodies are a fundamental part of the political architecture, they are the bedrock of peace and the political process. I am due to attend sectoral meetings as an accompanying Minister on 14 and 15 October. I expect those meetings to go ahead.

Any DUP boycott of those bodies would be a serious matter. That party should reflect carefully on the implications of such a decision, as the requirement to attend ministerial council meetings is embedded in the ministerial code. Reckless threats to pull down the Assembly and/or the Executive and boycott NSMC meetings place an immediate risk on €1 billion of EU PEACE PLUS funding, which is waiting to be signed off by the Executive and NSMC. That is about supporting jobs, communities and major projects. For the DUP to undermine the required all-island response to the crisis for party and electoral reasons would do a huge disservice to the people whom that party represents and to all the people of the island. To do that while we are still in the middle of a global health crisis, dealing with a disease that does not respect any border or boundary, is beyond belief.

Any threat to disengage from the NSMC is race-to-the-bottom politics. We need greater North/South and east-west cooperation at this time, not less. We need to build greater resilience and strengthen our power-sharing institutions. At this time, we all, collectively, need to double down and commit to delivering a progressive and pluralist —

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

— future for all our people.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

Does the junior Minister agree that the Belfast Agreement was established on the basis of mutual respect and the principle of consent, and that east-west, as well as North/South, relations must be conducted in good faith? Does he also recognise that a trade border between Northern Ireland the rest of the UK runs contrary to the ethos and spirit of the Belfast Agreement?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

I can agree entirely with everything that the Member said. I am against any type of border that impacts on our people. It is essential that we see the British-Irish Council, the NSMC and all bodies function. We need to see all strands of our political architecture work. That is why it is the height of madness for any political party, for sectional, political or electoral reasons, to threaten the basis of how those institutions work.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

Can the joint DUP and Sinn Féin First Ministers confirm whether there is a legal requirement on the North/South Ministerial Council to sign off on the £1 billion of Peace funding, as detailed by the Finance Minister, that can breathe life into communities that are falling behind because of the pandemic?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

I am not sure whether the Member fluffed his lines. He and his party are members of a five-party coalition and power-sharing Executive here in the North. The Executive Office reflects the role of the joint First Ministers — the First Minister and the deputy First Minister — so I am a wee bit confused about where he is coming from with all this, but if he had listened to me earlier, he would probably have heard me — maybe not — make the point that attendance is required under the ministerial code and that we require NSMC sign-off in order to ensure that we access that €1 billion of PEACE PLUS funding.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Why do the Minister and his party value the discredited protocol above the North/South bodies? They must realise that, if their partners in government are as good as their word, there will be no more North/South meetings as long as the protocol subsists.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for that question and barb. In reality, we have the protocol because he and his fellow travellers fought and campaigned for and then secured the hardest Brexit possible. The protocol exists as a way to blunt the worst effects of the Brexit that he championed. I would far rather not see a protocol in place; I would far rather not see Brexit exist at all.

The protocol needs to be used in a way that guarantees that our people can live together on the basis of progress and prosperity. Instead of asking silly questions like that, perhaps the Member could turn his intellect to working alongside the rest of us on how landing zones and solutions can be secured. The protocol is not going away.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Question 5 has been withdrawn.