Stormont Executive criticised for delay in releasing Theresa May's letter on Brexit

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and First Minister Arlene Foster wrote to Mrs May more than two months ago about their Brexit concerns. Picture by Matt Bohill 
Brendan Hughes

THE first and deputy first ministers have faced criticism for failing to reveal Theresa May's response to their Brexit letter ahead of a key assembly debate.

The British prime minister responded last Friday – more than two months after Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness sent their joint letter outlining Brexit concerns.

In separate replies to the ministers, Mrs May did not make any new commitments to Northern Ireland.

She insisted the future of the Irish border is an important priority for the entire UK, and pledged to take full account of the region's specific interests in negotiations with Europe.

However, her response did not include any detailed pledges around specific concerns raised by DUP leader Mrs Foster and Sinn Féin's Mr McGuinness.

Stormont opposition parties criticised the executive for releasing the response first to the media yesterday – despite the issue being raised in a Brexit-related debate at Stormont a day earlier.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said it was another example of the executive's "culture of secrecy".

"During the SDLP assembly motion I specifically and directly asked government parties about this letter – yet the reply was stunted silence," he said.

"It has now taken pressure from SDLP economy spokesperson Sinead Bradley to force a DUP MP on radio to inadvertently blurt out that in fact the British prime minister has responded to the August letter.

"Why wasn't this reply published when it was received? Why wasn't it published when questions were asked on the floor of the assembly?"

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said: "It has been a bad day for democracy as the executive plumbed new depths.

"They now appear to think that the Nolan Show is the platform to reveal correspondence about discussions on Northern Ireland's future prosperity."

In Northern Ireland, 56 per cent backed Remain in June's historic EU referendum.

The border's future has dominated the post-referendum fall-out across Ireland, with politicians north and south insisting current arrangements that allow free flow of people and goods must be maintained.

In her reply, Mrs May repeated the oft-used government quote of not wanting to see a "return to the borders of the past".

She said she wanted to see continuance of free movement across the border.

The prime minister also invited Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness to the next plenary meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee at Downing Street on Monday.

She said she hoped the meeting would provide an opportunity to "continue our constructive discussion on this important issue".

The SDLP's Mr Eastwood branded the prime minister's response as "equally as vacuous as the original letter she received".

TUV leader Jim Allister said Mrs May's letter "says nothing" and was perhaps "the reason why it had to be prized out of" the executive.

Alliance MLA Stephen Farry said more "concrete assurances" are needed from the prime minister and said it was "disappointing" how her response emerged through the media.

A spokesperson for the first and deputy first ministers said: "Ministers had first sight of this letter on Monday and given the joint nature of the Executive Office the first minister and deputy first minister met at the earliest possible opportunity on Monday following assembly business to discuss the contents. We later discussed the letter with the secretary of state at 5pm.

"We will continue to work constructively to represent the needs of all our people."

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