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Patrick Brown’s First Cabinet

“What could possibly go wrong?” That’s what I kept saying to staff in my office as we made final preparations for the second MLA roundtable in Brussels. The essential elements of the event were flying 10 MLAs (Members of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly) over to Brussels to meet with MEPs and EU officials.

My political group, Renew Europe, gave me €10,000 to organise it.

The last time we organised an MLA roundtable, three of them cancelled on the week of the event, as a new wave of COVID swept across Ireland. Only one cancelled on this occasion (also COVID-related) leaving us with a very healthy 9 MLAs from Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party, SDLP and Ulster Unionists.

Even better, the DUP agreed to send a delegation. The last time and indeed on this occasion, the DUP didn’t even respond to my emails. The previous week, I met with Conor Burns MP, the Northern Ireland minister, at the British embassy in Dublin. I described the event I was organising and expressed my disappointment at the non-attendance of the DUP.

As I spoke, he looked to his officials and instructed them to ‘look into it’. He said he was sure he could make it happen. That was the Monday and they confirmed their attendance on Friday.

It was also great to bring over Bertie Ahern as the keynote speaker given his tremendous track record in conflict resolution and the high regard in which he is held by all communities in Northern Ireland.

The event started on Wednesday evening with an informal dinner in Chou restaurant near the Parliament. It seemed to me that the event was definitely taken more seriously than the previous one. EU Commissioners Maros Sefcovic and Mairead McGuinness joined us as well as the UK ambassador, Lindsay Appleby, the Irish Permanent Representative to the EU, Tom Hanney and Nathalie Loiseau MEP, chair of the European Parliament UK delegation.

The MLAs enjoyed being able to mix in this company but almost as important was the opportunity to talk amongst each other. As you know, there is still no Executive in the North so the Assembly is not meeting and no committees have been convened. As such, the MLAs, especially the new ones since the election in May, barely know each other.

Even those who have been MLAs for a while don’t mix across party lines very much. It has something to do with the politics of Northern Ireland but also the fact that Stormont is basically in the middle of nowhere. There are no local coffee shops and bars like near the Dail or the European Parliament where people might mix informally.

One pair of MLAs who sat beside each other at the dinner said they’d never spoken to each other before despite being in the Assembly together for a good while.

The following morning in a committee room of the European Parliament, it was standing room only. We started our meeting with an excellent presentation by Bertie Ahern followed by an engagement with MEPs and a presentation by a representative of the European Commission.

This was all happening just three days after Liz Truss became Prime Minister of the UK. What emerged from the discussions was that MLAs want to get on with tackling the real bread and butter issues for their constituents. It was also clear that the UK and the EU are preparing to leave room to allow negotiations to resume after a long hiatus.

During the afternoon session, rumours were circulating that the Queen had died. I told the MLAs that we would suspend if anything official was announced but we got to the end of the agenda before the news was confirmed.

At the end we posed for a photo. A young MLA from the Alliance Party, Patrick Brown, found himself seated in the middle of the photo. I joked that it was Patrick Brown’s first cabinet. Everyone laughed and it made for a great picture.

But you couldn’t help thinking what a very good cabinet that would be.

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