History sometimes deals a funny hand. There I was in Killarney, the heart of the Irish tourist industry. Myself and a bevy of senior British parliamentarians had just completed our Irish census forms – as it happens, on the 90th anniversary to the day of the Easter uprising. And Peter Robinson of all people was about to break bread with the Irish Foreign Minister and save the bacon of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body.
Could this be the same Peter Robinson whose previous excursions to the Irish Republic were less diplomatic and who refused any Free State food whilst residing at its pleasure? Was this the same Peter Robinson who John Major records as ending an acrimonious meeting at Downing Street chanting in unison with Ian Paisley “The people of Northern Ireland alone” to drown out the PM in his own office.
It surely was and what a political make-over. But the crucial point is that the DUP could get away with sending a powerful delegation to Co Kerry because they don’t have a DUP looking over their shoulders. There’s no one of significance to call them Lundies – though that day may come.
Co-Chairs Paul Murphy MP and Pat Carey TD have also been diligent in pursuing the DUP in a series of meetings over the last year.
In any case, the argument about unionist participation in the British-Irish Body had become so arcane that it should have been ridiculous to anyone who took a cursory look.
The Body is a decent little organisation which regularly assembles a selection of veteran British and Irish parliamentarians – Robinson cheekily quoted the BelTel’s Barry White’s term, “pensionable politicians.”
These sessions have improved the quality of British-Irish political relations and sought to make a difference on practical issues affecting people in these islands.
Yet the Body was traduced or ignored by unionists who insisted that it was just part of the big bad Anglo-Irish Agreement. I once asked John Taylor, then UUP Deputy Leader if he would be going south to a meeting of the Body. Quick as a whistle he asked if it coincided with a Rugby match, meaning that it was just some cosseted shindig. This was uber-cynicism and poor politics.
The Body’s origins were actually in talks between Charles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher some years before the “Diktat” but the Body got a fleeting reference in the 1985 Agreement and that sealed its fate for unionists.
So the Body went on without them and was in danger of becoming an elegant and congenial irrelevance, although it has the potential to provide the parliamentary tier to the East-West strand of the Belfast Agreement – the British-Irish Council – which rarely makes the headlines but which does some serious inter-ministerial work without serious accountability.
I have now been to about ten meetings of the Body and its members always want to get the unionists on board. The Steering Committee has tried every trick in the book to make the Body’s debates on Northern Ireland relevant in their absence.
But it’s pretty difficult when, no disrespect intended, the only people from the North are the occasional SDLP MP, the superb Paul Bew, Lembit Opik, the “Ulster TD” Cecilia Keaveney and latterly Baroness May Blood, as well as ersatz unionists or those who are prepared to give them the time of day.
So the Body was in danger of disappearing up its own plenary until Peter came to the rescue. Having held out for so long, the mere attendance of Peter Robinson and his colleagues, Iris Robinson (who used to deliver his grub whilst Peter was in an Irish clink), Jeffrey Donaldson (Peter joked that they
daily remind him of his UUP membership) and Nigel Dodds was bound to be a big hit in the Irish papers.
Sinn Fein’s Arthur Morgan also grabbed many column inches by welcoming the DUP team to Killarney and hoping that they wouldn’t “grandstand” – a neat piece of grandstanding if ever I saw one.
Morgan was somewhat upstaged by SDLP stalwart Eddie McGrady MP who passionately denounced alternative and illegal republican policing schemes in his South Down constituency.
Robinson’s presentation was, as one member put it, “statesmanlike” and had them eating out of his hand. It was a witty, clear and concise exposition.
Conservative MP Henry Bellingham said that the DUP had “certainly convinced waverers that they are committed devolutionists” whilst Labour MP Jeff Ennis told me that the “groundbreaking presentation was extremely positive and put the ball in Sinn Fein’s court on completion issues.”
There was increased understanding of the position of the DUP and the wider unionist community. Take Jim Glennon TD who stood up for the interests of alienated Protestant youth in South Armagh who are bussed to leisure facilities and who have no soccer pitches.
The Body got a new lease of life from the DUP. The DUP will play hard to get as part of its wider negotiating efforts. Which is why Robinson included this elliptical back passage to signing up to either the Body or something very much like it: “No intelligent unionist is opposed to a body of this nature providing it is perched on the branch of an acceptable tree. It must be set in the correct context – a context which is free of threat to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.”
There’s now a distinct possibility that unionists could join as early as October when the Body stages its first meeting in Belfast. With a broader grounding in Northern Ireland, this would enable the Body to start putting much more flesh on the skeleton, so to speak, of increased East-West as well as North-South initiatives.