Today’s (Wed 8th May) meeting of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference is just the fourth such meeting since 2007. This structure, set up the the Good Friday Agreement, was intended to have “regular and frequent” meetings. Whatever about the failure to meet that standard, it is truly shocking that neither government sought to summon the Conference to discuss the impact of Brexit before the referendum in 2016. A heavy price is now being paid for the neglect of this third strand of the Good Friday Agreement by both governments.
The purpose of this latest meeting is to allow both governments to sign an agreement that will copperfasten the reciprocal rights and privileges that UK and Irish citizens have enjoyed under the Common Travel Area Agreement which dates back to the 1920s.
While the focus of Irish political debate on Brexit has, understandably, been on the future of the North-South relationship, it is clear the future East–West relationship between Ireland and United Kingdom urgently requires thought and attention.
Although our economic dependence on the UK has decreased since we joined the EU, the cultural and political ties remain as strong as ever. There is hardly a family in this country that does not have a relative living in the UK.
This deep relationship has been transformed since we both joined the EEC in 1973, maturing from one of dependence to co-dependence.
Political cooperation on Northern Ireland replaced decades of belligerence under the stewardship of John Major and Albert Reynolds and, since then, successive governments have nurtured the relationship to become one of friendship. Brexit cannot and will not undo the social and cultural connections between the British and the Irish people. And it certainly should not undo the good work that has been done by both governments in building political connections between our countries.
It is essential, therefore, that we have a framework to oversee this deep and important relationship. The architecture of the Good Friday Agreement in the shape of the British-Irish Conference, offers a largely unexplored route forward. But this structure was designed to deal with matters relating to the overall governance of Northern Ireland. It was not designed to address the wider Irish-British relationship. I believe an additional structure, outside the Good Friday Agreement, is now required.
A way forward is a British-Irish Council and Assembly analogous to the Nordic Council. The Nordic Council, established in 1952, consists of an inter-parliamentary assembly and a ministerial council with a permanent secretariat. The assembly meets once a year in plenary and on one other occasion annually on a specific theme.
A fully formed British-Irish Council would not replace the intense level of contact facilitated by the countless meetings generated by shared membership of the EU. Additionally, a purely bilateral relationship will always be asymmetric given the size of the UK compared to the size of Ireland. But such a Council would provide a platform for the rebuilding of Anglo-Irish relations.
It was inevitable that Brexit would put a strain on the carefully nurtured relationships. But, at times, the political interventions from Dublin were heavy-handed and wince-inducing. Much work needs to be done to restore the relationship to the warmth that existed before June 2016. We remain neighbours and being good neighbours is not only in our mutual interest but also our joint responsibility.