British and Irish leaders discuss Covid-19 recovery

By Stephen Walker
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

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image captionArlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill welcomed their counterparts to Fermanagh for the British-Irish Council Summit

Politicians from across the UK and Ireland have been discussing the Covid pandemic recovery at a meeting in County Fermanagh as part of the British-Irish Council.

First Minister Arlene Foster, who is from Fermanagh, said it was fitting to hold the meeting there as her time in office comes to end.

She is expected to step down as first minister at the beginning of next week.

Mrs Foster hosted the event with the Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill.

She was given a round of applause at a press conference after she sang a few lines from the Frank Sinatra song That's Life when she was asked about her departure as first minsiter.

Quizzed about the stability of Stormont after Mrs Foster steps down as expected next week, Ms O'Neill said Sinn Féin were determined "to make power sharing work".

The meeting was also attended by the Cabinet Minister Michael Gove and Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Micheál Martin.

He paid tribute to Arlene Foster and said the political world always needed "politicians of courage".

It's Arlene Foster's swan song.

There was a doubt at one point whether she would still be around to host this event but everybody cooled their jets and she's still here, probably her last big gig.

The agenda today is supposed to be the relaxing of Covid restrictions, which still do affect this event. While the meeting is primarily non-virtual, there are still a couple of people who are not here and attending virtually.

Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar are there, as is the new DUP leader Edwin Poots, who seems to favour Mr Martin's approach to the protocol and Brexit over Mr Varadkar's.

There are some interesting relationships to be worked on in the room today.

The first ministers of Wales and Scotland both attended the event virtually.

Government representatives from the Isle Of Man, Jersey and Guernsey were also involved.

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image captionTaoiseach Micheal Martin took an early morning stroll at Lough Erne Resort ahead of the summit

The event at the Lough Erne Golf resort is the 35th meeting of the British-Irish Council, which was set up under the Good Friday Agreement as part of efforts to boost and strengthen east-west relations.

It meets every six months.

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image captionThe conference room where the British-Irish Council meeting was held

SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon said the meeting must be opportunity for facing down political challenges.

"My clear message will be that Northern Ireland isn't a bargaining chip nor is it acceptable that our businesses and communities are left with ongoing uncertainties," she said.

'Now is the time to work together'

Cabinet Officer Minister Michael Gove said the meeting will be looking at "what we can do collectively in recovering from the pandemic".

"When we have NHS waiting lists in the UK the length that they are and we have lost learning for all of our children across the UK, that has to be the priority," he told BBC's Good Morning Ulster.

Mr Gove said the UK government has been working with the EU to try and "make sure the Northern Ireland Protocol works as it should when it was originally agreed".

He said that if it is the case that Northern Ireland citizens "feel the protocol is no longer in their interest it can be rejected a the ballot box".

Mr Gove also paid tribute to Mrs Foster, saying that while her tenure as first minister was coming to an end "her contribution to public life in Northern Ireland and across the UK, and perhaps beyond, has not ended".

"I love Arlene, I think she's fantastic, I think she's a wonderful person, she's an open hearted, public spirited, problem solving, go-getting leader and she has been a great voice for Northern Ireland as first minster."

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