Irish Foreign Minister forced to eat his words

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The Independent Online
The Irish Foreign Minister, David Andrews, yesterday withdrew comments on Northern Ireland's future which had upset Unionists, and promised not to repeat them.

It was a rare act of political contrition which followed Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble's call for Mr Andrews' resignation after he spoke of proposed new north-south institutions having powers "not unlike a government". A meeting between the minister and Unionists yesterday was variously described as brutal, bruising and nasty. The minister's words had touched on one of the most sensitive issues in the peace process.

It is widely expected that north-south structures will form part of any new Anglo-Irish arrangements, but the question of their exact role and powers is being hotly contested. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, said yesterday: "There are likely to be north-south structures with real responsibility but which are accountable to government institutions in Northern Ireland and the Republic."

The terms used by Mr Andrews clearly went far beyond arrangements laid out in this carefully-worded description, and as such they sparked Unionist concern. Unionist sensitivities had already been touched by the announcement that Gerry Adams is to meet Tony Blair in Downing Street before Christmas.

While yesterday's turbulence does not appear to threaten the future of the talks, it was seen as a setback for the new relationship which is tentatively being built between Mr Trimble and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.