BIPA: Some heat and light in Brighton…

The pebbley beaches in Brighton deprive me of using the metaphor that the tide is about to overcome a carefully constructed sand castle

But there is a sense here in Brighton at the 43rd plenary of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly that the tide may soon come in on a body that has done much to foster good relations in these islands but is now searching for a role

I am hearing strong suggestions that the British Government may call time on the Assembly for financial reasons

That may be ill-founded and the UK Government’s Northern Ireland spokesman in the Lords – straight-talking Yorkshireman Lord (David) Shutt – today told the Assembly that his Government very much values the Assembly which has an important and continuing role

Yet it may well still be thought that a congenial gathering of British and Irish parliamentarians has had its day

Having attended about half of its plenaries over the last two decades I would argue that it has played a very useful role in cementing Anglo-Irish relations and should continue to do so

At the beginning there were widely divergent views of the Northern Ireland situation and old hands say that the atmosphere was poisonous

That changed and the body became a useful arena for airing key issues and for building sometimes unusual alliances

One example of this was the joint campaign waged by the former Northern Ireland Security Minister and Tory grandee Michael Mates with Sinn Fein Assembly Member Barry McElduff

They united to urge that the Ministry of Defence didn’t just flog off the decommisioned army base in Omagh to property developers but gave it free to the Executive

They won and it is about to open as an education campus

The added irony was that Mates lived at the base before the Troubles erupted and its fair to say that some Shinners would have been somewhat unfriendly to later residents

But the perenniel debate over the years has been the search for a more meaty and practical purpose

Some small but significant successes can be claimed.

The demand that motorists from Ireland and Northern Ireland who broke the law in the other jurisdiction would be docked penalty points on their licences was successfully prosecuted

Today the ever enthusiastic and campaigning Alf Dubs announced a tranche of inquiries by the Assembly Committee he chairs

They will focus for instance on the potentially huge issue of people trafficking in these islands

It is impossible to quantify this precisely but one of the stalwarts behind this move – Welsh Assembly Member Joyce Watson – says that it is perhaps one of the top global trades behind arms and drugs

More controversially the Committee will also examine the position of Irish travellers in Britain

A long-standing demand of the Assembly is that it shadow the work of the British-Irish Council and send its Co-Chairs to observe its proceedings but Shutt shot that one down in flames

He said that if the Assembly can be seen as an abridged Parliament then the Council can be seen as an abridged Cabinet and cabinets don’t permit observers

The Assembly Co-Chairman, Joe McHugh TD, told me that the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council both needed parliamentary input to work

He also today appealed for greater co-ordination and co-operation between the various institutions that have been established between Britain and Ireland, as well as the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. 

Deputy McHugh said important work was being done by the various bodies that exist, including the British Irish Council, the North South Ministerial Council, the North South Parliamentary Forum, and the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

However, he said that in order to best capitalise on this, mechanisms must be developed to allow each to report to and feed-in to the other bodies to ensure streamlining and avoid duplication.

Deputy McHugh said he would raise this with the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste and the different bodies.

Deputy McHugh said, “One of the major legacies of the peace process has been to provide parliamentarians, policy-makers, and the regional and national governments in Britain and Ireland with a number of important fora for discussing and then implementing practical policies that will benefit the people we represent.

“Each of these institutions does vital and important work in terms of knowledge-sharing and co-operation. For our own part this plenary of the British Irish Assembly has concentrated on developing active work programmes for our Committees over the coming years in the areas of environmental protection, economic development, and European affairs.

“However, if we are to improve our work then we must improve the way we interact. For example, a Minister from the British Irish Council should regularly report its work to the members of this Assembly, and our Co-Chairmen should be observers at their meetings. In turn, there must be a clear relationship between the North/South Ministerial Council, and the Parliamentary Forum.
“These simple measures will help improve the way we operate, help us to deliver on our work programmes and help build public confidence that these bodies can work.”

There were sharp disagreements about Troubles-related issues. Nationalist politicians mocked the British Government decision to hand over a million pages of evidence about the murder of Pat Finucane to a barrister rather than a public inquiry

DUP Assembly Member Jim Wells berated the desire of the perpetrators of violence to hold inquiries into state actions when there had been none for instance into terrorist actions such as the bombing of the Grand Hotel

Lord Shutt and others point out that there are several highly controversial centenaries coming up

Next year is the centenary of the Ulster Covenant and there will be that of the Easter Uprising in just five years without Martin McGuiness as President it seems  

My own view is that the Assembly remains a very useful vehicle for improving relations when there is every reason to believe that historical bitterness will be boosted.  

In any case a wider external focus on the continuing scourge of sectarianism and segregation in Northern Ireland remains essential

Shutt expressed the hope that there would be a genuine shared future rather than a shared out future

The sharing of spoils between two hostile forces in a benign apartheid is ultimately like building a castle on sand

The work of the Assembly should not run into the sand but needs to become more granular – devising nitty-gritty policies that make a real difference to people’s lives on the streets and beaches in this Atlantic archipelago

PS I seem to be losing the odd decade or so as I age. I wrote yesterday that it is 17 years since the Provos smashed the Grand Hotel but is actually 27 years

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