First North-South Ministerial Council for 2½ years will be last engagement for Varadkar as Taoiseach

Large-scale meetings between Cabinet members and counterparts in North did not take place with powersharing on hold

The first meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in more than 2½ years will be Leo Varadkar’s last official engagement as Taoiseach.

The large-scale meetings between Cabinet ministers and their counterparts in the North did not take place while powersharing was on hold.

With the Northern Ireland Executive back up and running, First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly will host ministers from the Republic at the NSMC offices in Armagh on April 8th, the day before new Fine Gael leader Simon Harris is expected to be elected Taoiseach in the Dáil.

Mr Varadkar and Tánaiste Micheál Martin briefed colleagues on the event during what is expected to be the former Fine Gael leader’s final Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.


A Government spokesman said it will be the first meeting of the NSMC since July 2021.

Ministers from both sides of the Border are to hear details of a progress report on economic matters and North-South co-operation, and will plan for a series of ministerial-level sectoral meetings.

There are also “urgent” decisions to be made, including the filling of vacancies on the boards of North-South bodies and the appointment of interim chief executives.

The spokesman said the meeting comes against the backdrop of the Irish Government’s “very significant” announcement of €800 million funding for projects in the North, including the A5 road, under the Shared Island initiative.

Elsewhere on the Cabinet agenda, Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys secured approval for the Automatic Enrolment Retirement Saving Systems Bill.

The legislation is designed to ensure that 800,000 private sector workers without occupational pensions will be automatically enrolled in a pensions scheme.

Under the plans, for every €3 a worker contributes, their employer will put in another €3 and the State will provide a €1 top-up.

A spokesman said it “represents one of the biggest reforms of the pension system in the history of the State”.

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris and Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien received Government approval for amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act aimed at ensuring that third-level student-specific accommodation leases are confined to the academic year.

It comes after instances of some landlords moving to a 51-week lease model.

The Government spokesman said that while this “may suit some third level students, it’s not desirable or affordable for the majority of students” and it goes against the Government’s policy of seeking to remove accommodation as a barrier to higher education.

The Coalition hopes to have the changes enacted in time for the next academic year.

Speaking in advance of Cabinet, Mr Varadkar estimated he had attended some 650 such meetings during his time as a minister and Taoiseach.

Afterwards, Fine Gael Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe said there was a feeling of “an end of an era”.

He said Mr Varadkar “conducted the meeting extremely professionally as always”, and ministers thanked him and his back room team.

Mr Donohoe said Mr Varadkar is “not a sentimental or emotional kind of man so he just thanked us”.

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times