BIPA and the ramping up of Anglo-Irish relations

This weekend fifty parliamentarians from Ireland, Britain and other parts of the archipelago are meeting in a hotel in Sligo for the 56th plenary of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

The BIPA rarely attracts much media attention except by accident such as when a geographically challenged MP drove to Newcastle, County Down rather than Newcastle upon Tyne for a plenary.

But the BIPA is assuming greater importance thanks to Brexit, although the assembly plays no formal role.

One of our most important bilateral relationships is with Ireland, which has become so close that many think it has always been so but it had to be cultivated despite past troubles.

In the 1970s Irish people here suffered endemic discrimination and were wrongly blamed for the actions of the IRA but advertisers now rate Irish accents as trustworthy.

Christopher Ewart-Biggs, the British Ambassador to Dublin was assassinated by the IRA in 1976 and I later established a cross-party peace group with his widow, Jane who was a Labour Peer.

There was mutual incomprehension between successive British ministers on a steep learning curve in understanding Northern Ireland, which they had long neglected, and their Irish counterparts who were still toying with the desire to take back the North.

Ireland later abandoned its irredentist claim to Northern Ireland and endorsed the Belfast Agreement which recognises the right of Northern Ireland to determine its future.

Both sides achieved a new consensus and Labour under Tony Blair abandoned its own ropey romanticism in favour of an internal settlement with north-south co-operation and protections for both communities in Northern Ireland.

This bolstered the bipartisan peace process that finally forced peace on paramilitary groups.

But wider relationships needed to be built and maintained. The British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, as it was called, was established in 1991. Some of its initial sessions were held in private in case the bitter arguments inflamed popular passions.

I attended the first and then another 20 over a decade twice a year in posh hotels in Ireland and Great Britain – someone had to do it – and witnessed how friendship and dialogue overcame prejudices even between unlikely partners.

For instance, former Conservative security minister Michael Mates and the now disgraced former Sinn Fein MP, Barry McElduff formed an informal alliance to press successfully for the redundant British Army barracks in Omagh, where Mates had been based before the Troubles, to be gifted by the MOD as a campus for Catholic and Protestant schools.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. I recall a Sinn Fein TD who had been jailed for attempting to murder British soldiers telling the British Ambassador to Dublin, me and others that his only regret was that he missed his targets and a British diplomat warning me not to mention the story.
The BIPA should also be seen as more important to the British government which has never sent a Prime Minister to address it although several Irish Prime Ministers have done so.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney was recently on a flying diplomatic visit to London. His message was that while Ireland had been tough in negotiating phase one of the Brexit negotiations we could count on Ireland being helpful in future discussions.

And this is hardly surprising given multiple economic and social links between our two islands. He told a Chatham House audience that the Dublin-London air corridor is the second busiest in the world, for instance.

He recalled the Queen’s landmark visit to Cork – the rebel city which he represents in the Dail – and insisting on meeting those waiting outside the English Market, only, and by a complete coincidence, to meet his own grandmother who had always wanted to meet the Queen in Ireland.

Coveney proposed an annual summit of the British and Irish cabinets and ramping up the east-west institutions of the wider political relationships such as the BIPA.

Former Labour MP Andrew MacKinlay asked Coveney if Ireland should rejoin the Commonwealth, which Ireland left in 1948 and for which a chair is reserved. Thirty years ago, I drafted an article for the Irish Times advocating Ireland returning to a multicultural institution with a foot in all continents and does good work in education and sport as well as facilitating trade.

A wise British diplomat told me then that if it came to countries making the case for Irish membership of the Commonwealth it should be done on an alphabetical basis by which he meant the UK should be one of the last to do so, given the baggage we carried for many Irish people.

There was then a debate in the Irish political class with some sympathy from the then Irish President Mary Robinson but the Commonwealth was seen, then wrongly and even more so now, as a British imperial institution.

The Commonwealth has established a high level group to examine its governance, and who will be its head after the Queen. It does not automatically fall to the Prince of Wales, though they may collectively decide that it will.

Coveney was open to the idea of Ireland rejoining but said that the popular Irish perception of the Commonwealth meant it was a long shot.

I hope Ireland will one day join the Commonwealth but the immediate issue is making sure our governments and parliaments give a thousand welcomes to Coveney’s measures and others that keep and increase the dialogue between our countries and across these islands.

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