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Armagh: North-South meeting ‘productive’ – O’Neill

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By Jayne McCormack,BBC News NI political correspondent

PA Media Taoiseach (Irish PM) Leo Varadkar, NI Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, First Minister Michelle O'Neill and Tánaiste (Irish deputy PM) Micheál Martin arrive in ArmaghPA Media

Taoiseach (Irish PM) Leo Varadkar, NI Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Tánaiste (Irish deputy PM) Micheál Martin in Armagh

Outgoing taoiseach (Irish PM) Leo Varadkar has said he is “confident” that the Stormont institutions will remain stable.

He made his last visit as taoiseach to Northern Ireland on Monday, ahead of officially resigning later.

Ministers took part in the first full in-person meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC) since 2020.

The cross-border gathering did not happen while power sharing was suspended.

The meeting in Armagh was hosted and chaired by First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly.

Mr Harris also attended, along with other Irish cabinet ministers and ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive parties.

Pacemaker NSMC meeting in ArmaghPacemaker

Ministers have participated in the first full in-person meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council since 2020

He was Ireland’s youngest prime minister when he became Fine Gael leader at 38 in 2017.

But that record is set to be broken by Mr Harris, who is 37, when he is elected as taoiseach in the Dáil (lower house of Irish parliament) on Tuesday.

‘Good neighbours’

At a press conference on Monday, Ms O’Neill said it was great to have the opportunity to discuss the “many shared areas of collaboration”.

She said that with Stormont and the NSMC back up and running there was 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”.

She said it was a “good, productive meeting” with a good conversation around some shared priorities including major infrastructure projects such as the A5, Casement Park, Narrow Water Bridge and the Ulster Canal.

Ms Little-Pengelly said she welcomed the restoration of the NSMC meeting.

“It is important as we move forward that we are good neighbours to each other, that we build those relationships with each other and that we have these forums to discuss issues of mutual interest and concern,” she added.

Simon Harris in Armagh

Fine Gael leader Simon Harris, who will take over from Leo Varadkar as taoiseach on Tuesday, arrives in Armagh for Monday’s NSMC meeting

‘Close relationship’

Mr Varadkar was making his final visit as taoiseach to Northern Ireland at the NSMC.

He was accompanied by Tánaiste (Irish deputy PM) Micheál Martin and Irish Transport Minister Eamon Ryan.

He welcomed the return of the NSMC and added that the first and deputy first minister, along with the Stormont Executive “had got off to a really good start”.

“It is only 10 weeks and they have already made a very good impression I think,” Mr Varadkar added.

“As the first minister said, we had a long meeting, an almost full attendance from the executive and the cabinet, and really had a lot to talk about, because there are so many good projects that are happening in so many ways that we can engage in practical co-operation, and I am keen to witness that happening over the next couple of years.”

He said that, post-Brexit, it was important that Ireland tried 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”.

Niall Carson Leo Varadkar pictured in Washington on St Patrick's DayNiall Carson

Leo Varadkar, pictured in Washington on St Patrick’s Day, is stepping down from the role of taoiseach

What is the the North-South Ministerial Council?

It was set up under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and involves ministers from Dublin and Stormont working together on “matters of mutual interest”.

The council covers six areas of co-operation: agriculture, education, environment, health, tourism and transport.

Common policies and approaches are agreed, but implemented separately in each jurisdiction.

The NSMC was later suspended when power sharing at Stormont collapsed in 2022.

Trade the focus of discussions

Ministers from both sides of the border were also expected to hear details of a progress report on economic matters and north-south co-operation, and to plan for a series of ministerial-level sectoral meetings.

An Irish government statement said: “Discussions are likely to focus on trade and business issues, investment in areas of mutual interest, and ongoing cooperation through the restored North South Ministerial Council and the North South implementation bodies.”

Ministers met under it regularly as a forum during the coronavirus pandemic to discuss cross-border health policies and ways of managing different Covid regulations.

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