BELFAST — A top-level British diplomatic mission designed to soothe tensions over the Northern Ireland trade protocol instead opened new divisions Wednesday when the leader of Sinn Féin was unexpectedly barred.
U.K. government officials offered conflicting explanations for blocking Mary Lou McDonald from the Northern Ireland Office meeting with Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. He had traveled to Belfast to brief local party leaders on Monday’s breakthrough with the European Commission on making post-Brexit trade arrangements work better in what remains the most bitterly divided corner of the U.K.
McDonald’s exclusion triggered a boycott of the meeting by Sinn Féin, the largest party in the mothballed Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as its moderate competitor for Irish nationalist votes, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). It propelled the Belfast talks to the top of an Irish news agenda bored stiff by the long-running Brexit protocol dispute — and played straight into the hands of Sinn Féin, which lost no time in denouncing perfidious Albion.
“Apart from this being utterly bizarre, I mean beyond bizarre, it’s extremely unhelpful,” McDonald said nearby the Northern Ireland Office headquarters in central Belfast, where Cleverly hosted the talks attended by only three of the five parties from Northern Ireland’s collapsed power-sharing government.
“It’s a bad message and a bad signal if the British Tories are now behaving in this petulant fashion and saying that they would seek to exclude people from the very necessary work that needs now to be done,” McDonald said.
British government officials initially defended McDonald’s exclusion on the grounds that she is not an elected member of the Stormont assembly — a condition not cited or enforced on many similar political gatherings dating back to McDonald’s February 2018 elevation to the Sinn Féin leadership.
McDonald represents central Dublin in the Republic of Ireland parliament, reflecting Sinn Féin’s status as the only major political party contesting elections in both parts of Ireland. Since 2020 she has led the parliamentary opposition to the coalition government of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and Foreign Minister Micheál Martin.
An explanation circulated by the Northern Ireland Office to journalists said its meeting invite had specified attendance by Michelle O’Neill, McDonald’s party deputy and the senior Sinn Féin politician north of the border.
O’Neill and McDonald had planned to attend together, as has been common. Both similarly plan to meet Varadkar and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer when they make separate visits Thursday to Belfast.
“The leader of Sinn Féin in the [Northern Ireland] Assembly was invited and remains invited. Her attendance is a matter for Sinn Féin. But she was not excluded,” the U.K. government said, referring to O’Neill.
Others quickly pointed out an evident contradiction. Leaders of two other parties — the Democratic Unionists’ Jeffrey Donaldson and the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood — had been invited, even though they, just like McDonald, have no role at Stormont.
Cleverly’s office circulated a second explanation citing a different protocol — diplomatic protocol — as the real reason not to permit McDonald through the door.
Those officials cited Ireland’s December 17 Cabinet reshuffle in which Martin replaced Simon Coveney as foreign minister. This meant, they said, Cleverly needed to hold a face-to-face meeting with Martin before he could do the same with opposition leader McDonald.
Irish nationalist and center-ground politicians dismissed both explanations. They noted that U.K. government leaders already have met dozens of times with Martin, who served as prime minister for the first half of Ireland’s planned five-year government.
In Dublin, senior officials also questioned the U.K.’s stated rationale.
“I’d like to think we wouldn’t be quite so stupid as to offer this insult up on a plate to Sinn Féin. It seems such an obvious point to make, but the parties in Northern Ireland should be free to choose who represents them at any table. This is normally never an issue. This shouldn’t be made an issue,” one official told POLITICO. “Citing the rules of diplomacy for this move boggles the mind.”
Cleverly and Chris Heaton-Harris, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland who also took part in Wednesday’s meeting, declined comment.
Donaldson — whose party is blocking the operation of the Stormont assembly and formation of a new cross-community government in protest against the trade protocol — said he wouldn’t comment on whether it had been right or wrong to exclude McDonald.
But he said Cleverly and Heaton-Harris had reassured him in the behind-closed-doors meeting that any agreement on reforming the trade protocol must meet his party’s core demands. These include an end to any EU controls on British goods arriving at local ports that are destined to remain within Northern Ireland.
“They recognize that a deal with the EU that doesn’t work for unionists just isn’t going to fly,” Donaldson said.