The most recent of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC), its third since its awakening from an 11-year slumber in 2018, seems to have delivered further talks, further lacklustre agreement and a further lack of any concrete solutions or proposals being agreed upon.
Immediately preceded by the announcement of the agreement of a Memorandum of Understanding between the British and Irish governments on the Common Travel Area (CTA), observers could be forgiven for thinking that it was the BIIGC meeting, held on 8 May, that had been responsible for the deal struck.
The reality, however, is that the non-binding agreement had been finalised before the meeting of the BIIGC and after its announcement, Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Minister for the Cabinet Office David Lidlington MP were joined by Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan TD, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley MP and John Penrose MP, Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office. In place of the tangible achievement of a Memorandum of Understanding on the CTA, legally non-binding though it may be, a communiqué issued after the meeting listed the six areas the group had discussed. They were:
• East-west matters, where the governments “further reaffirmed their commitment made at the BIIGC held in November 2018 to ensure that the current high level of bilateral cooperation between Ireland and the UK is maintained and strengthened following the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union”;
• Economic co-operation, where both governments were “clear on the critical importance of economic co-operation” and “the shared objectives of rebalancing and strengthening the Northern Ireland economy”;
• In the case of security co-operation, the BIIGC “reviewed the current security situation and condemned in the strongest terms the recent appalling killing of Lyra McKee” while reaffirming their “commitments in the 2015 Fresh Start Agreement to ending paramilitarism and confirmed their support of the Northern Ireland Executive Action Plan for Tackling Paramilitarism, Criminality and Organised Crime”;
• An update on legacy consultation analysis was provided by the UK Government, while the Irish Government provided progress reports on the legislative measures being brought forward to support the Stormont House Agreement within the Republic of Ireland;
• In terms of rights and citizenship matters, the UK Government provided an update on its review of family migration rules for people from Northern Ireland, while both governments “reaffirmed their commitment to working together, along with EU partners, to put in place arrangements that will allow Irish citizens in Northern Ireland to continue to have access to rights, opportunities and benefits that come with EU citizenship”; and
• Both governments agreed to “continue working closely together in full accordance with the three-stranded approach set out in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement” in the name of political stability.
In what was just the third meeting of the BIIGC since 2007 and at a time when some of the above issues appear to be more urgent than ever in the context of Brexit, it is fair to have expected and hoped for more than just agreements and commitments to further work being done in these areas.
The absence of the BIIGC for 11 years could be regarded as a failure by both the British and Irish Governments to properly fulfil their duties to Northern Ireland as agreed in the Good Friday Agreement. Having been convened 18 times between 1999 and 2007, it would appear that both governments deemed their work in Northern Ireland to have been done following the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement and the 2007 restoration of Stormont after successful talks between Sinn Féin and the DUP that the BIIGC had facilitated. Amidst Brexit and Irish Language Act arguments in Northern Ireland, accusations of breaching the Good Friday Agreement are plentiful, but the failure of the BIIGC to meet for over a decade despite the Agreement requiring it to have “regular and frequent meetings” appears to be the most clear and unambiguous violation of the agreement.
Founded within the Good Friday Agreement as the formal successor to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement that gave the Republic of Ireland a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland for the first time since partition, the BIIGC’s aim is “to promote bilateral co-operation at all levels on all matters of mutual interest within the competence of both Governments”. Functionally, it is concerned with non-devolved issues, such as (as the time of its founding) policing and justice, as well subjects of common interest and north/south and east/west institutions.
“Amidst Brexit and Irish Language Act arguments in Northern Ireland, accusations of breaching the Good Friday Agreement are plentiful, but the failure of the BIIGC to meet for over a decade despite the Agreement requiring it to have “regular and frequent meetings” appears to be the most clear and unambiguous violation of the agreement.”
The conference once had a permanent secretariat made up of both Irish and British staff, 12 from the Republic’s justice and foreign affairs departments and 12 from the UK’s Northern Ireland Office, whose offices were housed in Windsor House. As Northern Ireland enjoyed a period of relative political stability under DUP-Sinn Féin power-sharing from 2007 to 2017, the office withered and by 2014, the Irish officials had returned to Dublin, while the British officials, reduced to eight, had decamped to the offices of the Northern Ireland Office.
Doubts have consistently been cast on the effectiveness of the conference, with DUP leader Arlene Foster dismissing it as a mere “talking shop” shortly before its reconvention in July 2018. It was later described as Irish “meddling” by former First Minister David Trimble. Indeed, the image of the BIIGC was not helped when, after its conclusion in July, Tánaiste Coveney was not given space within the Cabinet Offices to conduct a press conference and was forced to do so on College Green in London instead.
Nationalist politicians, including Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald TD, have however welcomed the reconvention of the BIIGC. Amidst DUP calls for the immediate restoration of Stormont, Sinn Féin have instead preferred to call for further and more extensive BIIGC meetings, which they see as a potential catalyst for negotiations as it had been for the St Andrew’s Agreement and the restoration of Stormont in 2007.
Amidst Brexit, complicated legacy issues such as the pursual of amnesties for British soldiers by some Conservative politicians and potentially fraught talks aimed at another Stormont restoration, the fact that the BIIGC has now met more times in the last 10 months than in the 11 years previous could be a source for hope. For that hope to evolve, the next meeting, specified only as happening “in the coming months” in the communiqué, will need to deliver concrete proposals for change.