The North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meeting scheduled for today [Friday] was cancelled in the escalating dispute within the North’s power-sharing administration.
Unlike last week’s meeting in Edinburgh of the British-Irish Council, DUP leader Peter Robinson blocked the meeting of the NSMC by refusing to trigger the relevant mechanism.
The NSMC, one of the new political institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement, is intended to reflect the aspirations of nationalists for increased links across the border.
The contrast in the DUP’s attitude to the two bodies has been described as a symptom of the party’s continuing refusal to treat nationalists with equality. The move to block the workings of the NSMC marks a deterioration of the political climate in the North.
Sinn Féin Minister Conor Murphy confirmed that his party had submitted the papers for the planned meeting of the NSMC for approval through ‘written procedures’, the procedure which allowed the British-Irish Council to meet.
“Sinn Féin want to see these institutions working. They are interlocked and interdependent,” he said.
“If the First Minister refuses to clear the papers then it does raise very serious questions about the DUP commitment to working these institutions and underlines the fact that the current impasse is not about whether the Executive meets but about the commitment of the DUP to partnership and equality.”
While the DUP and Sinn Féin remain locked in the dispute, Ministers have continued to lead their own departments, with the assistance of local or British civil servants.
The Dublin and London governments continue to stand aside from the deadlock, which turns on policing and justice powers and other key disputes over the implementation of the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement.
The North’s multi-party Executive did not meet again this week and it remains uncertain if it will convene for its next scheduled meeting in two week’s time. Northern Ministers have now not acted in collective session for almost four months.
Talks on Wednesday between Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson on an Executive agenda failed to reach a breakthrough and broke up in some acrimony.
Speaking to reporters immediately after the meeting broke up, Mr McGuinness said: “Sinn Féin is not going to play second fiddle to a DUP agenda in these institutions.” He said the situation between the two parties was “very serious” and he warned the new institutions could only work on a basis of “partnership and equality”.
“Agreeing an agenda means all issues of concern need to be put on the agenda - not simply those of concern to the unionist community or the DUP.
“Despite our efforts, this has not succeeded and no progress has been made.”