Wednesday, 27 June 2018
British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference
33. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he has received further correspondence from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in regard to convening the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28057/18]
41. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he has discussed with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland the convening of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27897/18]
66. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will set out the plans to have the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference convened; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27898/18]
The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference is a vital strand 3 body. In light of the absence of an Executive and an Assembly in Northern Ireland for the past year and a half, and given the issues surrounding Brexit, the conference is of importance and significance as a formal mechanism for co-operation between the Irish and British Governments. The Good Friday Agreement provides that, "In recognition of the Irish Government’s special interest in Northern Ireland and of the extent to which issues of mutual concern arise in relation to Northern Ireland, there will be regular and frequent meetings of the Conference concerned with non-devolved Northern Ireland matters, on which the Irish Government may put forward views and proposals." Even though this is an important element of the Good Friday Agreement, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference has not met and there has been no Executive or Assembly in Stormont since early 2017. Surely it is time for the conference to meet.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 33, 41, and 66 together.
The Government has consistently affirmed its unwavering commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, GFA, and its determination as co-guarantor of the agreement to secure the effective operation of its east-west and North-South institutions. The devolved power-sharing institutions are central to the Agreement. They represent the best means of achieving accountable and representative decision-making for all the people of Northern Ireland. The Irish and British Governments, as co-guarantors of the Agreement, have worked tirelessly over many months to support and facilitate the parties in their efforts to form an Executive. Unfortunately, it has not proved possible to date for the parties in Northern Ireland to reach an agreement on the formation of an Executive.
To this end, the Government has been working with the British Government to consider all means by which we can support the political process in accordance with the GFA. The Taoiseach has spoken with Prime Minister May and has emphasised the Government's full commitment to the GFA and its continuing determination to secure the effective operation of all its institutions. I am in regular contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as we seek a way beyond the current impasse. We met most recently on 11 June in Cork and we are in regular contact by phone. I have indicated to the Secretary of State that it would be appropriate to convene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference as part of the work by both Governments, as co-guarantors of the GFA, to chart a way beyond the current impasse.
The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, BIIGC, is an important institution of the Good Friday Agreement, bringing together the British and Irish Governments under strand three of the Good Friday Agreement to promote bilateral co-operation on matters of mutual interest within the competence of both Governments. The agreement provides for meetings of the conference concerned with non-devolved Northern Ireland matters on which the Irish Government may put forward views and proposals. It also provides that the conference may consider all-island cross-Border co-operation on non-devolved issues. The agreement explicitly provides that the conference does not involve any derogation from the sovereignty of either Government.
As someone who is very experienced and interested in North-South relations on this island, the Deputy understands the significance of adherence to the Good Friday Agreement and its structures, and in that context, the importance of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference at this time. I assure the Deputy that our requests for that are being listened to. I hope we will see progress on that in the not-too-distant future.
I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. It is time to demand that the British Government agree to the Tánaiste's request and that of the Government to have a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Even without the political impasse in Northern Ireland, there would be a huge argument for reconvening the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. In the face of no functioning political institutions in Northern Ireland and the growing confusion and concern about the impact that Brexit will have on our daily lives, it is an urgent requirement. Why is the British Government resisting the call? I accept the word that the Tánaiste and his Government colleagues have sought a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. There seems to be no urgency in getting the talks resumed. The talks process is barely moving, if it is moving at all. In the absence of any meaningful dialogue between the parties to restore devolution, it is critical that the two Governments step up and step in.
I am in Northern Ireland every week. I travel through parts of it to visit parts of my own constituency. No later than last Saturday evening, in Enniskillen, I was speaking to people from counties Fermanagh, Tyrone and Down. They asked what was happening with regard to the political institutions in Northern Ireland. I said they needed to speak to the parties that they voted for as well as speaking to the political parties and Government here. People believe that there is no sense of urgency in getting the institutions back up and running. History shows that, at different times when there were impasses, it took the intervention and full engagement of both Governments-----
I do not disagree with anything the Deputy has just said. There needs to be urgency. The two Governments need to work together. Significant issues linked to Brexit are being discussed by the two Governments, which involves Northern Ireland, Border issues and east-west relationships. The focus in London has been on the build-up to the June summit relating to Brexit. Anybody who watches British politics as I do will see the focus on trying to manage the political debates around Brexit in recent weeks. While that has been going on, I reassure the Deputy and the House that I have been speaking directly to Karen Bradley. We have a good working relationship. I hope we will meet again early next week. We have been speaking to political parties in the North and I understand that parties have been speaking to one another. I assure the Deputy that there is no sense of complacency here. The status quo or political stagnation in Northern Ireland is dangerous.
Would the Tánaiste accept that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, offers both Governments a way to help to break the deadlock between the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, and Sinn Féin? The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference represents the best way to move forward in the interests of both traditions, providing accommodations in the decisions that follow and delivering a package of legislation, such as Acht na Gaeilge, an Ulster Scots Act, reform of the petition of concern, the establishment of legacy bodies and the release of inquest resources, that would allow parties a route back to devolution. Would the Tánaiste agree that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference could introduce the measures set out in last February's draft accommodation between Sinn Féin and the DUP, which Arlene Foster then rejected before pulling the plug on that round of talks? In his reply, the Tánaiste indicated that the public needs to be shown that there is urgency in getting institutions restored. People need to have a belief that those institutions will be working again. For far too long, Sinn Féin and the DUP have treated politics as confrontational rather than co-operative. The Tánaiste, Deputy Seán Crowe and I were in Queen's University on 10 April, the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, when we listened to former President Clinton, former Prime Minister Blair, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and former Senator George Mitchell. All of the conversation at the dialogue that day indicated that, were it not for generosity and understanding of the other tradition's problems-----
One of the most impressive contributions that day was from Peter Robinson, former leader of the DUP, who gave a very positive contribution in the spirit of reaching out. I assure the Deputy that the import of this issue is not lost on me. I have spent much time north of the Border and have learned a lot in the last year about the complexity of the political challenges in Northern Ireland. We need to overcome them and we have done that in the past in a much more difficult environment than we currently face. That does not mean the challenges today are not significant; they are. Moreover, the tension and the polarisation effect of Brexit in Northern Ireland has added to that, which has made it more difficult and has made some people more fearful about what the future holds. Both Governments need to provide the reassurance and partnership that can allow for the confidence to move forward within the political system. The BIIGC can help in that regard although some people unfortunately see it as a threat and something that they are trying to resist. That is not the British Government but some people. I do not think anybody should see the BIIGC as a threat. It is simply a structure within which Governments can engage and consult with one another to help to find a way forward.
I know it was late starting and this has become a pattern that someone will have to address. We are only on the eighth question and Members are waiting. I appeal to everyone. It is too late now. We will move on to the next question but it has been a bad day for parliamentary questions in terms of numbers.