British and Irish ministers are holding a formal meeting in London on Wednesday, in a process envisaged by the Good Friday agreement. This is the first intergovernmental meeting of its kind in a decade, aiming to address the political deadlock in Northern Ireland.
Belfast has been unable to form a power-sharing government for more than a year; the country is run from London (Home Rule) and day-to-day affairs run by the civil service. Unionists hold significant influence over Theresa May’s government, as her cabinet depends on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in the House of Commons.
The DUP views the intergovernmental institution with suspicion, as it fears Dublin is seeking greater political influence in the UK; unionists are dismissing the intergovernmental body as a “talking shop” and appear substantially at ease with the political status quo. The Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney has consistently reiterated that both Dublin and London share the role of guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement.
As long as London depends on the unionists vote it is unlikely it can mediate the restart of self-rule in Belfast. The two parties are divided on a number of issues, in a political agenda heated by Brexit talks. The Good Friday Agreement also envisages the possibility of a “unity poll” with the Republic, which Sinn Fein is keen to see as demographic and political change are changing the political mood.
The Irish issue has also been central to Theresa May’s step towards a political compromise. In this context, there are very few expectations an agreement that would restore power-sharing can be reached. The British government has been keen to deflect criticism that Brexit is undermining the Good Friday Agreement but practical issues on the ground have largely been circumvented by hardline Brexiteers. Jacob Rees-Mogg claims that the UK can always commit to an open border with or without a Brexit deal, placing the onus on the Republic to create a hard border. The Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney is also expected to meet with Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, in their first bilateral meeting since David Davis’ resignation.