Newton Emerson: Neglecting the British-Irish Council is a terrible mistake
EU interests are part of the Council’s remit and it is an ideal forum to discuss them
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with other leaders at the British-Irish Council meeting in Guernsey on June 22nd. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
The mystery of why London will not convene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference has a twin. Why is London snubbing the British-Irish Council, the other east-west intergovernmental institution of the Belfast Agreement?
But Prime Minister Theresa May was nowhere to be seen. In her place, as usual, she sent two parliamentary under-secretaries led by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Northern secretary Karen Bradley also tagged along, unofficially representing Stormont in its absence.
May has never attended the Council, spurning even its 2016 extraordinary summit in Wales after the Brexit referendum, to which Dublin sent the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
May’s predecessor, David Cameron, never showed up either, even when summits were held in London.
Gordon Brown was the last UK prime minister to attend the Council, in 2007, which was also the year the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference last met. Downing Street’s snub is a matter of upset to other Council members and its disdain is getting worse. Cameron at least sent his deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, most of the time, along with his Scottish and Welsh secretaries.
Contempt for the Council might be undiplomatic but in the past it was understandable. The inclusion among its eight members of the Crown Dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man seemed to give the game away – revealing it as a Ruritanian contrivance, chucked into the Belfast Agreement as a sop to Northern Ireland’s unionists, in exchange for their acceptance of the North-South Ministerial Council, which everyone thought would be taken far more seriously.
Providing the British-Irish Council with something to do has often verged on farce. It has an absurdly general and irrelevant “work programme”, assigning each member a grand policy area applicable to all.
The Northern Ireland Executive is responsible for collaborative planning of key infrastructure – something it cannot manage in Northern Ireland, let alone across the UK and Ireland. Could it ever be imagined that Stormont would host meetings on expanding Heathrow Airport?
Brexit should have been a new dawn for the Council, beginning with that extraordinary summit in 2016. EU interests are part of the Council’s remit and it is an ideal forum to discuss them. Where better to address the Brexit border between the Republic and Wales, for example? Even the participation of the Crown Dependencies has gone from embarrassment to asset. All three are outside the EU but are inside its customs union – a trick that has gone remarkably un-discussed. They are also outside the UK but still British – a trick becoming more pertinent as Brexit menaces the union.
The trick originally missed in giving the Council something to do was in not making it a serious part of the UK’s devolution settlement. London has developed a different institution for that purpose, the Joint Ministerial Committee, not that it takes this seriously either.
Brexit and a creaking union are chances to revisit that mistake. The Council is based in Edinburgh and the nationalist Scottish government has shown occasional hopes for its evolution. But of course it is in Ireland North and south that this implied potential, real and symbolic, is most intriguing.
In January, DUP leader Arlene Foster proposed an increased role for the Council after Brexit. Last year, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said it should be at the core of a new British-Irish agreement – replacing the treaty enacting the Belfast Agreement.
Irish nationalists are clearly puzzled by what the sop should be to unionists in a united Ireland. Typical suggestions are Commonwealth membership or some role for the royal family, although both would be hugely contentious for questionable reward.
Yet in the British-Irish Council we have an agreed, established vehicle for proper east-west engagement, where interests have been quietly pooled for 20 years, in principle if barely in practice. Dublin has respected it, even with no internal imperative to do so. Unionist and nationalist leaders have pondered new futures within it. Now tectonic political changes are only making it seem more relevant – to the point where, if it died, we would inevitably end up reinventing something like it.
The problem is that London does not care. Its apathy has vetoed the enthusiasm of others and kept the Council in obscurity. When the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference last met, there was a hope – albeit mistaken – that the 2006 St Andrews agreement had made it redundant. No such reasoning has ever applied to the Council. Neglecting it has been an act of laziness, arrogance and appalling short-sightedness. In decades to come it could be seen as one of worst mistakes of the peace process.