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Coronavirus, travel restrictions and Brexit discussed at North South Ministerial Council meeting

First Minister Arlene Foster, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill at Dublin Castle for the first summit of the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) since before Northern Ireland's powersharing administration collapsed. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire 

First Minister Arlene Foster has described the North South Ministerial Council meeting as "worthwhile and productive".

The council met today in Dublin. It was the first meeting since 2016.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said discussion topics covered included climate, greenways, infrastructure projects, Brexit and Covid-19.

Ms Foster said it had been "a very useful engagement".

"We spent some time speaking upon the United Kingdom withdrawal from the European Union and seeking to benefit and get the maximum benefit from that," she said.

"It has been a very useful engagement today and it was good to meet with some old faces and some very new faces and I think we have had a very worthwhile and productive meeting and I look forward to greeting members of the Irish government as our next plenary meeting in Armagh in December.

"Before then we will have a British Irish council meeting to discuss the common travel area."

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said after three-and-a-half years, it was good for both administrations to meet again.

"I'm delighted that we have paved the way for more meetings to take place in the years ahead. I think that when we restored the Assembly and Executive back in January - I don't think any of us would have predicted that we would have been dealing with a global pandemic.

"We had a good wide ranging discussion on a variety of issues such as climate, greenways, infrastructure projects, Brexit and Covid-19."

"I think it is interesting that we meet in this format today where we have eight parties in government in some form or other."

"Our co-operation is more important than ever as will continue to respond to the biggest health emergency we have ever faced and when we reflect on the previous months, we must reflect on the fact that 2,320 people have died from Covid on this island alone."

Taoiseach Micheál Martin described the meeting as "warm".

Speaking at a press conference at Dublin Castle he said: "It was a warm meeting, it was a meeting in which a wide array of views were expressed. North-south co-operation is a key priority for our government."

"It was extensive and constructive and we had a particularly good conversation about Covid-19," he added.

Mr Martin said the chief medical officers in the Republic and Northern Ireland are working well together and the challenge for both north and south is keeping the community transmission low.

"There is an agreed position to try and keep working together to optimum level of co-operation north and south. We noted that on the island, the level of community transmission has been brought down to low levels and we hope to keep it there.

"There was a general discussion on Brexit and our officials have promised to engage on the technical aspects of the protocol."

The Taoiseach said his government will seek a meeting of the British Irish Council to discuss the different travel rules between Ireland and the UK.

First Minister Arlene Foster said: "Obviously we are very aware of what has been happening in England over the past few days so we do feel the need to have a conversation about the common travel areas.

"At the moment, the travel area pertains to Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The Republic of Ireland have decided that anyone coming from the common travel area apart from Northern Ireland will need to quarantine so we need to have discussions around that.

"In relation to international travel, there is a need for a discussion on the location of international travellers as they come through Dublin as there is good sharing of information."

Deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill said there are "anomalies" that need to be dealt with in terms of the different travel advice.

"We should approach these things from a public health standpoint and obviously there are sensitivities which we are all mindful of but for me, we need a public health solution to deal with the issue of travel.

"I think it is positive that there has been good work between our two health departments but obviously there is always room for improvement. Our two health ministers and chief medical officers are meeting and we will look at how we can tighten up the use of travel locator forms."

Ms Foster said she would much prefer people from Northern Ireland to holiday at home this year, and people should acknowledge that they may have to quarantine if they are returning from abroad.

"We had to act in relation to Spain, and Luxembourg has gone on the red list too. What we have said to people in our travel advisory is clear, we would much prefer if people stayed at home and had a 'staycation' and discover parts of Northern Ireland they have not been to in a while.

"But if they do decide to travel then they need to be aware of the risk and that they may have to quarantine when they come home and I do think we have been clear it is in relation to the risk."

In relation to Brexit, Ms Foster said "we want to see a comprehensive free trade deal, quota free deal and I welcome the commentary in relation to a lack of a border north south. We also don't want to see borders developing east- west in relation to trade either".

Ms O'Neil added that time was running out in relation to Brexit.

"Time is running out. We are at the 11th hour and have about four months left before we get to the end of the year. We have a situation where citizens in the north are still not sure what the outcome will be so we need certainty and clarity.

"For us, we have to have the protocol implemented in full as that gives us our protection and recognises our special and unique circumstances on this island in terms of protecting the trade and having no hard border on the island."

 

Ms Foster said she is "not threatened" by the new shared island unit set up by Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

"We do share an island and there are two jurisdictions on the island and I will never shy away from speaking about my unionism and why I believe in the union. Indeed I was down in Killarney not so long ago speaking about it from an economic point of view."

"There is nothing to fear from having these discussions about the island. It does not change how I am or what I believe in but I do think it is always good to talk and share information, as we have done throughout the pandemic."

"It does not threaten our constitutional position or what we believe in so I don't feel threatened at all by the shared island unit.

"I have to say everyone knows my position in relation to a border poll. If it was called today, of course people would vote to remain in the United Kingdom although I'm sure (deputy first minister) Michelle would take a different view, therefore I have nothing to fear from that." 

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