The British government has created a huge obstacle in efforts to restore powersharing in the north of Ireland after it dramatically excluded Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald from multi-party talks on Wednesday.
Both Sinn Féin and the other main nationalist party, the SDLP, refused to accept the bizarre decision to refuse access to Ms McDonald, supposedly on the basis that she is elected in the South, not the North.
The meeting, organised by British officials, ultimately went ahead and was attended by the British Foreign Minister, James Cleverly, Britain’s Direct Ruler, Chris Heaton-Harris, and the three remaining main political parties, Alliance, the UUP and the DUP.
Sinn Féin said the London government had informed it shortly before the meeting was due to begin that its party leader was not invited. In a statement later, officials said the meeting was “for Northern Ireland politicians”.
Speaking outside Belfast City Hall, Ms McDonald told reporters it was “bizarre and unprecedented” that the British government “chose to seek to exclude the leader of Sinn Féin from a leaders’ meeting”.
There had been, she said, “a chance this morning to mark progress, to exchange views, to be constructive, to work together, to listen to each other”.
“But rather than having that kind of meeting, a kind of British Tory petulance has emerged. I think that is a terrible shame,” she said.
Ms McDonald said she would raise her concerns with the British prime minister and at a “time where we need maximum inclusion, maximum engagement, maximum dialogue, we don’t need this kind of nonsense, we don’t need this kind of divisive, disrespectful politics”.
The move recalled the controversies of the ‘talks about talks’ process more than thirty years ago, when Gerry Adams was routinely excluded from multi-party gatherings.
There was undisguised fury at a Sinn Féin leader once again being treated as second-class citizen in the north of Ireland, as the Tories, who have no political representatives in Ireland whatsoever, vetoed the mandate of the largest political party in Ireland.
The treatment of the Sinn Féin leader “is what northern Catholics have always been used to. Contempt. Treating us as lesser”, tweeted commentator Joe Brolly.
“Structural disrespect towards Irish citizens, and those who advocate constitutional change, is entrenched, legitimised and condoned here,” fumed human rights professor Colin Harvey.
The fiasco upended efforts to restore a functioning Assembly, almost a year since the DUP first refused to re-enter the power-sharing government as part of its protest against Brexit-related trade regulations.
A Sinn Féin spokesperson said it had been an “extraordinary turn of events” following recent progress on the agreement for the exchange of trade data between Britain and the EU.
“Sinn Féin was hoping to build on that progress at today’s meeting with the British Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary,” the party said.
“There is no time to waste, we are in the grip of a cost of living crisis, and our health workers and patients are crying out for political leadership and the restoration of the Executive.
“Sinn Féin’s priority is to work together with the other parties and the two governments to get the job done.”
It added: “This is a time for inclusion, dialogue and engagement. This is a time for mature and civil politics. There is no room for bad faith and petulance from the British government.
“There is serious work to be done in the days and weeks ahead. This is an important week and we must pull out all the stops to get the Executive back up and running and working together for all our people.”