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British and Irish ministers hold London conference

Stormont with a sign saying 'no entry'

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Is the conference a solution to the Stormont impasse?

British and Irish ministers are meeting in London for a session of their intergovernmental conference.

The body has not been convened for more than a decade.

Its last meeting was in Dundalk, County Louth, in February 2007 – just before the DUP and Sinn Féin confirmed their willingness to share power at Stormont.

But it is now a year and a half on from the collapse of the Stormont power-sharing executive.

The meeting is a symbol of the failure of the two governments and the Northern Ireland parties to make any progress in their efforts to overcome the political logjam.

Nationalists have been keen to see the intergovernmental conference convened, sometimes portraying it as a forum where important decisions can be made.

Unionists are not fans of the conference, alternately suspicious that it could be used as a vehicle to try to increase Dublin’s influence in Northern Ireland’s affairs and derisory about what the DUP describes as its “talking shop” consultative role.

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British and Irish ministers arrive for the first meeting of the body in more than a decade

For many months, the British government resisted Dublin’s official requests for the conference to be convened, with ministers expressing the view that they did not want to do anything to make the situation at Stormont worse.

But eventually they agreed to the Irish request, while at the same time playing down the significance of Wednesday’s meeting.

The former Northern Ireland first minister, Lord Trimble, has accused Dublin of meddling. But Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney rejected that claim.

“It’s not meddling for two governments that are both co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement to try and ensure that that agreement works – and that’s what we’re trying to do here.

“Without functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland, it’s very hard for the structures of the Belfast Agreement – or the Good Friday Agreement – to function.”

It is probable the political vacuum at Stormont, co-operation on security matters and resolving issues related to the legacy of the troubles will dominate the two hours of discussions.

It seems unlikely either Brexit or calls for abortion reform in Northern Ireland will feature.

Technically, the conference is only meant to discuss non-devolved issues, although how to define that may be up for debate given the absence of both the Stormont Assembly and Executive.

Separate meetings

Besides the Irish Tánaiste, or Deputy Prime Minister, Simon Coveney and the Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley the conference will be attended by the Irish Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan and the Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington – who is effectively the Prime Minister’s Number Two.

After the formal conference is over, Mr Coveney is expected to hold a separate meeting with the new UK Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab.

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Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney will head the Dublin delegation

With the Conservatives mindful of their DUP parliamentary allies’ sensitivities about the conference, it was perhaps no coincidence that this session came hard on the heels of a visit by the prime minister to Northern Ireland in which she made no secret of her close relationship with Arlene Foster’s party.

In addition, even as the British and Irish delegations prepared for their discussions in London, another very senior British minister was expected to be heading towards Northern Ireland to stress the government’s commitment to the economic aspects of its deal with the DUP.

It is unclear what impact the intergovernmental conference will have on unlocking the stalemate at Stormont.

British and Irish ministers have met many times before to assess how they can move things forward.

It will probably require a real change in the political weather to enable any movement to take place, rather than simply a change in the format and title given to London and Dublin’s interactions.

British and Irish ministers hold London conference}

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