Northern Ireland

Stormont: British-Irish conference return 'could signal direct rule'

Ray Bassett
Image caption Former diplomat who served on the British Irish Inter-governmental Conference

A former Irish diplomat has said any return of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference would signal that Northern Ireland is heading for direct rule.

Ray Bassett served as the body's Irish joint secretary from 2001 to 2005.

The BIIC hasn't met since February 2007.

But the Irish government, Sinn Féin and the SDLP have called for its return because of the current impasse over restoring the Stormont institutions.

Unionists oppose the idea and have said the body is a "talking shop for non-devolved matters".

Speaking in Washington DC, Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Leo Varadkar appeared to step away slightly from the idea and said that its return "is not the most important thing".

Mr Bassett, a former Irish ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas, told the BBC One programme The View that Mr Varadkar is "stating the obvious".

Image caption Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy ruled out the prospect of a shadow Northern Ireland Assembly

He said the "the two governments want a devolved administration and that's the number one objective".

"And if they can achieve that by another method, then that's fine," he added.

"The conference I would see very much as a fall back position. If Dublin or London talks are going quietly, well then, obviously you wouldn't want to antagonise local parties, particularly the DUP, by having the conference.

"I think if you had the conference it would be a sign that we're possibly battening down for a period of direct rule."

There have also been calls for a shadow assembly in the absence of devolution. But Sinn Féin has dismissed the idea.

Conor Murphy, the Newry and Armagh MLA, told The View: "The idea we simply go into some kind of talking shop while there's no movement in relation to the issues which caused the blockage then I think it is a complete waste of everybody's time."

The View is on BBC One Northern Ireland at 22:40 GMT on Thursday night.

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