Boris Johnson’s government is resisting growing calls to hold a special crisis summit with Dublin to address rising tensions in Northern Ireland – amid growing international anxiety about a return to sectarian violence.
The Observer has been told by senior sources that suggestions from Dublin to London that the crisis requires a high-level intergovernmental conference to help stabilise the situation have met with no enthusiasm on the British side.
It is understood that Dublin strongly believes recent tensions and several nights of violence, as well as the breakdown of relations between Northern Irish parties, require the two governments to meet as a matter of urgency.
Watch: Irish PM warns of 'spiral back' as N.Ireland wracked by week of riots
“The view in Dublin is that the political leadership required to stabilise the situation is not going to come from within Northern Ireland right now. It needs to come from the two governments. Dublin believes that such a meeting would provide a very visible way to reassure people that the centre is going to hold,” said a source.
Dublin wants a meeting to be held in Northern Ireland between the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, and the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, to address a series of issues that have reignited tensions, including trade and border problems caused by the Brexit deal struck by Boris Johnson.
It is understood that calls for a special meeting, as provided for under the Good Friday agreement, were relayed through diplomatic channels late last week but were turned down by London.
“There is a fear of upsetting unionists, a worry that this would be seen as Dublin interfering too much in the affairs of Northern Ireland,” said an insider.
The Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said yesterday that political leaders must not allow Northern Ireland to “spiral back to that dark place of sectarian murders and political discord” after the region was marred by another night of disorder on Friday.
On the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement 23 years ago, the taoiseach said there was “a particular onus on those of us who currently hold the responsibility of political leadership to step forward and play our part and ensure that this cannot happen”.
Police officers were injured as they came under attack in the loyalist Tiger’s Bay area in north Belfast on the eighth consecutive night of violence. A burning car was rammed against a police vehicle, and bins were set alight in the middle of the road, sparking fears that the violence would continue into the weekend.
Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, said on Friday evening: “I’m worried about the weekend ahead. We all need to be very careful and very consciously try to do all we can to prevent this happening. I think there’s a strong role here for the two governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement. I made that point to Brandon Lewis this morning.”
Lewis flew to Belfast for urgent talks with the five party leaders on the Northern Ireland executive on Friday but no statement was issued because of protocols surrounding the death of Prince Philip.
On Thursday the White House expressed its concern, with Joe Biden calling for calm after what police described as the worst violence in Belfast for years.
Writing in today’s Observer, Jonathan Powell, who was the chief British negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007, says Johnson lied about the effects of his Brexit deal and says the current return to violence requires statesmanship rather than gamesmanship. “All this requires the British government to start paying attention to Northern Ireland rather than cynically using it,” he writes. “The worst problems in Ireland have always happened when Britain ignores it. And it means no more using it as a battering ram in a new post-Brexit conflict with the EU.
“Most of all, it means coming clean with the people of Northern Ireland about where they stand. The government can no longer claim clean hands if it fails to take these steps and the result of its political approach is the unravelling of peace in Northern Ireland.”
Labour is also calling on Johnson to set up a British-Irish intergovernmental conference, designed under the agreement as an “escape valve” to manage disagreement and tension.
Louise Haigh, the shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said: “If he is serious about dialogue, the prime minister should revive the Good Friday agreement institutions which he has paid little attention to. Every moment of instability in Northern Ireland demands focus, attention and leadership from the prime minister. Boris Johnson must start showing that.”
A scheduling of intergovernmental talks is unlikely to happen until a legal dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol between the EU and the UK is resolved.
A roadmap on implementation of the protocol was delivered by the UK to Brussels on 31 March and technical talks are currently underway.
On Friday Lewis made clear to Northern Ireland parties the the protocol would not be scrapped but communications around the resolution of the EU-UK dispute will need careful and strategic handling in the current febrile atmosphere in Belfast and elsewhere in the region.