Four years ago, Dublin and London took an institution meant to solve problems and turned it into a controversy in its own right. Now this is happening again.
The ponderously-titled British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) is the primary east-west or strand three institution of the Belfast Agreement and its overarching body, tasked with managing “the totality of relationships”.
In 2017, then taoiseach Leo Varadkar claimed the collapse of Stormont had caused all devolved powers to pass to the BIIGC, which should be reconvened to provide Northern Ireland with a form of joint authority.
This was bizarrely mistaken and caused damaging arguments north of the Border.
London was also antagonised but would not explain why the BIIGC had failed to convene for a decade, when the agreement requires its meetings to be “regular and frequent”.
It took months to unwind the dispute. Three meetings were eventually held in late 2018 and mid 2019, two in London and one in Dublin, with all the forced bonhomie of a couple getting back together for the sake of the kids. As Boris Johnson arrived in Downing Street, meetings stopped again.
Now the Irish Government has asked for an urgent BIIGC meeting to address the issues behind loyalist rioting. The requested format would involve Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and northern secretary Brandon Lewis meeting in Belfast, where the BIIGC is officially based.
London has refused, mainly out of concern about the unionist reaction. One reason for the rioting was the Brexit sea border, for which the Irish Government and Coveney are blamed. A Belfast venue could provoke a community that thinks the Republic is overstepping its bounds. While this cannot give unionists a veto over the BIIGC, it should have given Dublin pause for thought on the wisdom of its request, or at least on its timing.
London’s stated reason for refusal, explained by Lewis in the House of Commons, is that the BIIGC cannot address the riots because policing is devolved. The agreement restricts the BIIGC to non-devolved matters.
Law and order
Lewis could have added that all the socio-economic reasons given for the riots are devolved, but he presumably wanted to keep the focus on law and order. This could not disguise the mess a BIIGC summons has created. Once again, Dublin appears to neither know nor care about the difference between devolved and non-devolved powers and to still regard Northern Ireland as existing under “some form of joint authority”.
Dublin appears to neither know nor care about the difference between devolved and non-devolved powers
The closer this is examined, the messier it gets.
Security co-operation is under the BIIGC’s remit. Would loyalists like to hear about British-Irish co-operation on tackling paramilitarism?
Trade and treaties are not devolved, so in theory the BIIGC could discuss Brexit. Unionists might find that doubly enraging, as they believe the Northern Ireland protocol should be under Stormont’s control. In any case, EU issues are assigned to the agreement’s other east-west body, the British-Irish Council, while the EU will only discuss the protocol at its UK-EU committees.
Nationalists understandably want the Irish Government to take an assertive position by their side with unionism in meltdown. However, nationalists do not want Ireland lured into bilateral Brexit discussions, seeing this as a perfidious divide-and-conquer tactic.
Party games in Westminster are a final complication.
Labour has called for a BIIGC meeting but wants it at summit level, requiring Johnson to attend. The aim is to humiliate the prime minister over his claims about Brexit and Northern Ireland – not a position he will put himself in, or something Dublin or unionists have sought.
Unionists always knew Johnson was misrepresenting the sea border. What they really want to know is why the DUP pretended to believe him.
Brexit may not have breached the Belfast Agreement but it has clearly tangled its strands. Where an EU issue unsettles Northern Ireland, which seems set to be a constant feature, London and Dublin’s roles are asymmetrical and can easily become adversarial.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin called two weeks ago for a “reset” of relationships, with special recognition from the EU that the British-Irish relationship has a “unique” custodian role in the Belfast Agreement.
Where an EU issue unsettles Northern Ireland, London and Dublin's roles are asymmetrical and can become adversarial
He called for more work through the Brexit committees; Brexit will also create political bodies, as will planned UK reforms of devolution. One approach to integrating this bewildering array of new institutions would be to review the overall working of the agreement – the BIIGC’s ultimate function. Perhaps a UK-EU “strand four” could be considered to weave everything evenly back together.
However, the most straightforward approach must simply be operating the BIIGC as designed. There should be regular and frequent meetings, including at summit level, with both governments inviting Stormont Ministers to attend as appropriate.
Routine meetings would lose the contention of having to be demanded and could more naturally touch on issues such as those behind the riots, under the broad remit of the totality of relationships.
The sooner this starts the better. It could be considered a renewal of vows.