At the end of its recent plenary in Brighton Irish Co-Chair Joe McHugh quipped that that the low profile of the Assembly had been changed by press coverage of its decision to hold the plenary in the Grand Hotel 27 years after the Provo bomb that nearly killed Mrs Thatcher.
Some Conservative MPs were angered by the decision which was taken for practical rather than political reasons. Northern Ireland ministers unusually stayed away pleading a conflicting diary engagement.
Reservations about the venue may be understandable but given that Sinn Fein representatives have been there before and play a full role in politics in these islands (apart from taking their seats Tin Westminster) they are misplaced.
The last plenary may have attracted some brickbats but was also marked by enthusiasm for its continuing role with Labour TD Martin Heydon saying that it had come of age at 21.
The British Co-Chair and former Conservative Minister Lord (John) Cope told me that the Assembly faces the problem of its own success in having helped transform mutual understanding and political relations to the point that it no longer seems necessary.
However, he points out that British MPs generally last only about 8 years and there has been a massive churn in the membership of every parliamentary body in the jurisdictions covered by the Assembly – except for Guernsey – as people retired or were culled by the voters. He says that “building relationships has to be renewed in each generation of parliamentarians.”
Cope believes that the Assembly will provide “more than an interesting conversation” if the “really important work of the Committees” is followed up in the various Parliaments because “that’s when policy changes.”
Several Taoisigh have addressed plenaries when they are held in Ireland but no British Prime Minister has so far attended. Cope is “very conscious” of that. I am sure that this will be pushed hard so that the PM can use his authority to boost the Assembly.
The Irish Co-Chair, Fine Gael’s Joe McHugh is equally full of beans. He highlighted the role of the Committees and singled out Alf Dubs’ committee which is set to tackle the “hot potato” of the position of Irish Travellers on which they need “to bite the bullet.”
I asked both co-Chairs about the possibility, following the widely acclaimed success of the Queen’s visit, of Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth. I began by mentioning the Foreign Office mandarin who once told me that when it came to foreign governments encouraging such a move it would be best done alphabetically – the UK near the end.
Cope was equally diplomatic saying that whilst he would be “delighted” but the impetus “would have to come from Ireland.” He also recounted a story of Indian and Pakistani generals who had all studied at the Commonwealth’s Royal College of Defence Studies. At a time of great tension between their two countries, the alumni noticed that each was wearing the college tie and this helped overcome their differences.
McHugh was also diplomatic noting that it was a sovereign matter for Ireland but that the Queen’s visit has “created a whole new space for relations” between the UK and Ireland.
My own view is that Commonwealth membership is still seen as either a negative hangover of imperial pretension or irrelevant. It could bring big benefits but there is little active appetite for it in Ireland.
The proposal raises many historical hackles which both Co-Chairs are highly sensitive to. I asked Cope about the controversial quest for truth about various murders and collusions. He averred that they were often difficult to unravel and that more ancient issues are always “much more complicated.” He cited the example of papal support for King Billy in the Battle of the Boyne.
As for the modern day, McHugh argued that Northern Ireland may be “post-conflict” but still has “peaceful conflict” in that, for instance, the number of peace walls has doubled since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.
The Assembly is often accused of being a talking shop although that is definitely preferable to the alternative model of shoot first and ask questions later.
Yet it needs to prove that it can make a political and practical difference to people’s lives. McHugh rattled through some pressing priorities. He said that the Assembly should promote policies that meet the needs of “people who want an environment where their children have jobs and can plan for the future.”
Given the enormous volume of trading relationships in these islands McHugh also believes that the Assembly should also provide a forum for policy-makers “to reduce trade barriers and red tape” through the “unique alliances in these Celtic islands.”
All this takes place against a very volatile background of great uncertainty in the European Union – “who thinks they can predict the next 18 months,” as he said.
Cope is standing down due to age and a new British Co-Chair will emerge from the ranks of Conservative MPs. The Assembly hasn’t reached retirement age but needs to make its mark with a new generation of politicians and policy issues across these islands.