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British/Irish meeting a positive step forward

The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, set up under the Good Friday Agreement, met for the first time in a decade yesterday, eighteen months after the collapse of the Stormont executive.

Despite the lapse in time, this was a low key meeting which was held at the Cabinet Office in London.

So low key, in fact, that neither the British nor Irish governments seemed keen to provide advance information on the agenda although given the absence of devolved structures there would undoubtedly be plenty to talk about.

Indeed, a joint communiqué published after the meeting revealed that the main areas discussed included legacy issues, cross-border security co-operation, the relationship between the British and Irish governments and a re-affirmation of their commitment to the Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Féin welcomed the meeting however there is a strong sense that the Northern Ireland Office downplayed the event given unionist concerns over greater Irish government involvement in the north's affairs.

The British government certainly cannot be accused of talking up the discussions which were attended by secretary of state Karen Bradley and cabinet office minister David Lidington. Tánaiste Simon Coveney and justice minister Charlie Flanagan represented the Irish side.

Given that the meeting was held in London, it would have been a positive gesture for the prime minister to show her support in person but it is unlikely that would have been appreciated by the DUP MPs who prop up her government.

There was even a suggestion, subsequently denied, that Chancellor Philip Hammond was sent on a rare visit to Belfast yesterday to distract from the conference.

Simon Coveney tried to reassure unionists that Dublin is not meddling in devolved decision making but along with the British government has a role to play as co-guarantor of the GFA.

It is a pity the conference fell into abeyance for so many years but with devolution on ice and the British government dependent on the DUP, a strong voice is needed to ensure the spirit of the agreement is observed.

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