Editorial: British government sends wrong signal

A case of perfidious Albion? Or just a PR fiasco?

Take your pick for the possible explanation for Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald being excluded by the British government from all-party discussions on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The scenes as both Sinn Féin and the SDLP withdrew from yesterday's meeting with foreign secretary James Cleverly were more reminiscent of the dark days of conflict than three decades into a peace process.

Ms McDonald had travelled to Belfast along with the leaders of the other main Stormont parties in the expectation of round-table talks to discuss the protocol and power-sharing crisis.

The important engagement was taking place against a background of better mood music between London and Brussels, with a good story to tell about progress being made.

Instead, the day was dominated by the fall-out from the decision to keep the leader of Stormont's largest party out in the cold.

Why the British government decided to strike a decidedly discordant note at this time left everyone mystified.

It would be difficult to disagree with an exasperated Ms McDonald's description of the situation as "bizarre and unacceptable".

The SDLP's Matthew O'Toole said the British government's decision was “daft and surreal”.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson suggested there may have been an issue around the diplomatic protocol of the foreign secretary meeting Ms McDonald – leader of the main opposition party in the Dáil – ahead of his government counterpart in Dublin

Mr Cleverly said only that he was meeting "the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland", adding: "I will of course be going to Ireland in the near future and I'll be meeting Irish politicians."

The British government knows of course that Sinn Féin is organised on an all-Ireland basis. Indeed, the question at the heart of any major political issue in this region is how to accommodate both British and Irish identities.

Assuming Ms McDonald's exclusion was not a calculated insult, then the optics were appalling to say the least.

If British ministers really are determined to facilitate the return of inclusive, power-sharing government at Stormont, they sent out completely the wrong signal yesterday.

The general public, meanwhile, desperate for political progress to address the crisis in our hospitals and the soaring cost of living, will be left shaking their heads that a simple meeting seemingly cannot be arranged without a row.