When the BIIPB came to town…

Gary Kent with an overview of the recent meeting of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body in the Waterfront Hall. I was struck particularly by this quote which seems to net a real paradox for some: “As an Ulster Unionist I have to resist north south co operation but as a businessman I cannot get enough of it.” Although it may not be the paradox it seems, since sovereignty and interdependence are not the rigidly consonant issues that some, on both sides of the argument, like to see them. By Gary Kent

Last month’s British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body in Belfast had been years in the making. The Body has successfully reduced tensions between Irish and British parliamentarians but Northern Ireland has been the gaping void thanks to an increasingly pointless boycott by the unionist parties.

Its members long sought a meeting in Belfast to convey the message that the Body would be of some practical assistance to Northern Ireland politicians but the call was twice rejected by the then Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy.

He is now the Co-Chair of the Body and confessed that he had been mistaken in fearing that the Body coming to Belfast would aggravate things. So, at long last, the Body and its 70 members from around these islands traipsed to the Waterfront for a long weekend.

But timing is everything in politics and the Body took place after the St Andrews Agreement and was overshadowed by the continuing drive to agree terms of devolution between the Northern Ireland parties and the effective purdah in the run-up to the deadline.

In these circumstances, the probable appearance of the Prime Minister Tony Blair at what could have been an historic session with the possible participation of unionist parties just didn’t come off. As it happens, the Body will be remembered by few which is a shame because its proceedings were useful and informative.

Only one public representative from Belfast was there – Baroness May Blood – but the innovation this time was the inclusion of civil society voices. The Bombardier boss and former business leader Sir George Quigley focussed on the economy. His overall message was that whilst the economy appeared to be in excellent shape, with very low unemployment, employment at historically high levels and a consumer boom, the underlying reality was poor compared to the UK and Ireland.

He cited the “exceptional nature of our public/private sector imbalance” arguing that “to achieve the same balance as in Scotland, Wales and the North-East, Northern Ireland would have to increase its private sector by almost 45%. To replicate the overall UK balance our private sector would have to grow by 188% – ie virtually triple in size.”

Quigley wants an all-Island corporation tax rate to develop a “genuinely island economy.. characterised by strong island-wide economic clusters whose development is driven by commercial logic and is not impaired by the existence of a political border.”

The head of the Northern Ireland trade union movement Peter Bunting agreed that the private sector in Northern Ireland is too small with only 65 firms employing more than 500 people and fewer than 10 PLCs compared to 400 in the South and 4,000 in Great Britain. He rejected a uniform corporate tax rate in favour of a more targeted use of grants to provide incentives to foreign investment.

There was no disagreement, however, that the two economies on the island need to rhyme together and that this doesn’t represent a subterfuge to attain political unity. Martin Mansergh the eminence grise of several Taoisigh won laughs when he quoted a unionist public representative who told him that “As an Ulster Unionist I have to resist north south co operation but as a businessman I cannot get enough of it.”

The Body also heard from the Community Relations Council head Duncan Morrow as well as Michael Wardlow of the integrated education movement and Patricia McKeown of Unison. Their emphasis on bridging the sectarian divide and boosting equality can be built upon by the Body.

Peter Hain said that he expected Sir George Bain to come forward with “radical recommendations” in his review of the school estate. Bain is probing the vast duplication of resources in education with its four separate systems and surplus capacity of 50,000 empty desks rising to 80,000 because of falling rolls. The Bain report is another hot potato
for either the government or a new power-sharing executive.

Through no fault of its own the Body was quite low key, although it provided a forum for discussion of practical proposals to revive the economy and overcome segregation. The Body is due to met in Dublin next year although it may then be overshadowed by the looming elections in the South.

If devolution is restored it is also likely that the Body will be scrapped and replaced by a new entity that allows the unionists to join without losing face and start to provide backbench scrutiny of the burgeoning north-south agenda as well as the more skeletal east-west dimension of what is meant to be the new politics in these islands.

Whatever it’s called, however, matters far less than its political muscle. It’s one thing to have ministers answer questions at meetings but governments cannot just pat the Body on the head and then ignore its efforts to introduce practical measures to improve life. The Body has recommended that motoring offences be pursued on both sides of the border.

Irish Senator Brendan Ryan spoke from personal experience about how Northern Ireland motorists flash past him in the south without fear of being done and complained that a report from the Body had been gathering dust for the past three years. The Body could be a very worthwhile part of the new architecture in these islands and has done much to increase its relevance – it’s also up to British and Irish ministers to help make it work better.

First published in this month’s edition of Fortnight magazine.

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