The Irish Times view on Anglo-Irish relations: beyond Brexit

The resumption of meetings of a British-Irish forum set up under the Belfast Agreement is an important statement

A diplomatic soft-shoe shuffle was evident in the discussion of the vexed Northern Ireland protocol

A diplomatic soft-shoe shuffle was evident in the discussion of the vexed Northern Ireland protocol

 

The resumption yesterday of meetings of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, for the first time since May 2019, was probably of greater significance than any specific item on the agenda. Indeed, apart from a commitment to work jointly on a new legacy process in Northern Ireland, little beyond the usual anodyne statements of aspiration to harmony emerged.

Both Dublin and London expressed determination to keep Stormont up and running despite current difficulties, and both hoped that “flexibility” would prevail on the Northern protocol. They promised co-operation on climate and the annual €88 billion trade relationship.

Much on the table in Dublin Castle yesterday between UK and Irish ministers had already been well ventilated in the many regular informal meetings and discussions between them. For example, Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney had collaborated closely on the plan, confirmed last week, for Westminster to introduce promised Irish language legislation to circumvent blockage at Stormont by the DUP.

But institutionalising such dialogue in the conference, established under the Belfast Agreement to deal with East-West issues, is particularly important to Dublin in the wake of Brexit as one of several means of strengthening formal bilateral relations. The two sides agreed to meet more often in this format.

The conference is understood to have discussed the Covid-related difficulties in travel between the two islands and specifically the problems associated with the Delta variant. Concerns about high transmission rates in Derry-Donegal are understood not to have featured as they were discussed last week by the island’s two chief medical officers.

A diplomatic soft-shoe shuffle was evident in the discussion of the vexed Northern Ireland protocol. Coveney reminded journalists that he was not a principal EU negotiator – the matter is an EU-UK issue – and yesterday was about assuring the UK that Dublin is pressing for flexibility. He welcomed signs of an EU move to extend grace periods for a deal on chilled meats, and hoped progress on sausages could be a “catalyst” for other deals.

The launching of a new round of consultations with victims and civic society on facing up to the legacy of violence in Northern Ireland represents an admission that the process to date has run into the sand. Although Coveney yesterday reiterated support for the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, and its proposals for an independent investigation unit to re-examine unsolved killings, he acknowledged its failure. Victims will take little comfort from the prospect that the long road will now start again.

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