North South Ministerial Council meets after three-year absence

Amid the return of the Executive, the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) met for the first time in three years in April 2024.

Held in Armagh city, the April 2024 meeting brought together the leaders of the Government and the northern Executive.

The plenary sitting of the North South Ministerial Council marked the final formal engagement for Leo Varadkar TD as Taoiseach, who has cited “personal and political reasons” for his resignation. The former Taoiseach, who served as leader of Fine Gael for seven years, remarked that the new Executive has “got off to a really good start”.

Varadkar reflected that in his spell in office, his post-Brexit priority had been to “make sure that we have a good and close relationship with Britain into the future and that as much as possible, whoever holds the office of Taoiseach, or whoever serves in the Irish Government, tries to reach out to all communities in Northern Ireland”.

First Minister Michelle O’Neill MLA described the meeting as “productive”, and outlined that discussions had taken place between the Government and the Executive on a number of key all-island infrastructure projects, including Casement Park, the Ulster Canal, the A5 road, and the Narrow Water Bridge project.

O’Neill, who became the first nationalist First Minister in February 2024, added that there is a “huge opportunity to work collaboratively across the island and to take forward many of the areas that we have been focused on over the years”.
The meeting took place one-week after Jeffrey Donaldson’s resignation as DUP leader, following the Lagan Valley MPs being charged with historical sexual offences.

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly MLA, in light of Donaldson’s resignation said that she is committed to provide “what stability I can” and wished Varadkar well following what was often a fraught relationship between the former Taoiseach and northern unionists.

Later in the same day at the plenary session, Varadkar travelled to Áras an Uachtaráin where he submitted his resignation to President of Ireland Michael D Higgins. The new Taoiseach, Simon Harris TD, was also in attendance at the NSMC meeting.

The NSMC is one of the core institutions (Strand Two) of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, and ensures the development of “consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland”.

The council is responsible for 12 areas for co-operation, of which six are in areas where co-operation must be agreed together, but implemented separately in each jurisdiction.

Although the NSMC is formally obliged to meet twice per annum, the April 2024 meeting was the first meeting of the NSMC since 2021, the first in-person meeting since 2020, and only the second in-person meeting since 2016.

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