Relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic have never been better, Stormont’s outgoing first minister has claimed at his last cross-border governmental meeting.
Peter Robinson used his final appearance at the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) to hail the current levels of co-operation as the most positive since partition.
“Having gone through a transition over many years I think we have probably the best relationship between Northern Ireland and the south than we have had at any time in our history,” said the retiring Democratic Unionist leader.
“There is a relaxed business-like atmosphere at our meetings, there is a genuine attempt to try and further both of our interests in the co-operation that we are having between the (Irish) government and Northern Ireland Executive. I think it augers well for the future. I may not be here but I know colleagues will continue to move things forward.”
Mr Robinson is set to be replaced by Stormont finance minister Arlene Foster as both DUP leader and first minister when he officially leaves office next month.
There was an upbeat and at times humorous mood at the NSMC headquarters in Armagh as Mr Robinson said farewell to counterparts from the Dublin government.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tanaiste Joan Burton and Minister of Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan all paid warm tribute to the retiring DUP Assembly member.
One of the most remarkable moments came when Mr Robinson spoke Irish to quote the famous republican slogan “Tiocfaidh ar la” (our day will come) in a light-hearted exchange with his partner-in-powersharing and former arch-foe Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Noting that he and Mr Robinson were the only two ministers left from the Stormont Executive of 1999, the Sinn Fein veteran speculated on his own retirement.
“Very shortly I will be the last, so my day too will come at some stage,” he said.
Mr Robinson interrupted: “It’s ‘Tiocfaidh ar la’, isn’t it?”
Amidst peals of laughter, Mr McGuinness replied: “I am delighted to see your Irish is improving.”
Mr Kenny also praised cross-border relations as he wished Mr Robinson well in retirement.
“I want to pay public tribute to Peter Robinson as a political engine and a driver over many years that has left his imprint on Northern Ireland politics and the politics of this country and on the political landscape,” he said.
“You can sense the confidence on both sides here about much closer co-operation as we set out to implement the Stormont House Agreement (political deal involving Stormont and the UK and Irish governments) and the issues of cross-border interest on both sides.”
On behalf of the Government, Mr Kenny presented Spurs fan Mr Robinson with the Royal Irish Academy’s biography of Irish names and two tickets to next year’s Spurs v Arsenal Premier League game.
Mrs Burton also paid tribute to the long-standing unionist leader.
“I want to join with others in wishing Peter well in the next chapter of his life,” she said.
“I think Peter’s political career has seen him move through a whole series of political challenges.”