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British dismissal of Simon Coveney unhelpful sign

The rather sharp dismissal by the British government of Simon Coveney's statement on the potential difficulties surrounding direct rule was a little surprising and not the most positive sign.

If anything, the engagement of the Irish foreign affairs minister in efforts to restore the Stormont executive could be regarded as helpful from the British perspective.

Mr Coveney was actually quite measured in his response to Arlene Foster's latest offer on the Irish language - completely rejected by Sinn Féin - welcoming the change in tone of the debate and saying the DUP leader was making a `real effort'.

His comments on Tuesday were perhaps not as controversial as some would like to make out.

What he said was that direct rule was not good for Northern Ireland and not good from the position of both the British and Irish governments.

He said that direct rule could not be imposed without the input of the Irish government, which does not amount to a demand for joint authority.

In fact, under the Good Friday Agreement, Dublin is under a legal obligation to be consulted on issues involving north/south cooperation.

However, within hours the British government issued a terse retort, saying: ``We will never countenance any arrangement, such as joint authority, inconsistent with the principle of consent in the agreement.''

Following a question from the DUP's Nigel Dodds, Theresa May told the Commons yesterday that she was `happy to confirm that we would not be looking at a joint authority.'

But she did point out there were responsibilities in relation to the Irish government under the Good Friday Agreement and said the focus should be on restoring devolution.

A storm in a teacup? Perhaps, but the question is whether the DUP had any influence on the British government's decision to issue a statement effectively rebuking the Dublin foreign affairs minister.

If that were the case then it would have wider ramifications for the talks process and British/Irish relations.

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