The 2018 conference was held at Pembroke College, Oxford on 7-9 September. It was attended by over 160 people from a wide spectrum – politicians and government officials, businessmen and women, academics, faith leaders, writers, former paramilitaries and community workers. In the opening speech, José Manuel Barroso, the former President of the European Commission, shared his unique experience of the EU and his insights into the Brexit negotiations. Key speeches were also made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Tánaiste and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Brexit necessarily featured on the conference agenda. An incisive guide to the next steps in the process was provided by a leading constitutional expert, and followed by the First Minister of Wales, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations, a Minister of State in the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union in joint discussion.
Brexit notwithstanding, Ireland and the UK will continue to be very closely linked. That this is particularly true in the field of higher education was amply demonstrated by the Provost of Trinity College Dublin and the Vice-Chancellors of Oxford and Ulster University who together spoke about the ways in which the higher education sector already works together across the three jurisdictions, the challenges that Brexit might pose to that collaboration, and ideas for enhancing it in the future. They also looked at the role of the universities in shaping the mental map of the future for young people. In an increasingly complex and polarised world, what can the sector do to stop the gap between Ireland and the UK from widening and instead to strengthen the ties between the nations?
At a time when questions of identity are under a spotlight, the various perspectives of the leader of Fianna Fáil, the Chairperson of Sinn Féin, a DUP MLA and a Westminster MP on Nationalism and Unionism did much to increase understanding of potentially opposing points of view.
In line with the BIA’s continuing emphasis on matters of particular concern in Northern Ireland, the final session of the conference focused on bridging the gaps between communities and dealing with legacy issues. In the run-up to the anniversaries that fall within the next five years, the work of the WW1 Centenary Northern Ireland has shown that commemoration can bring people together across divides and borders. Sensitively curated story-telling is a powerful means of helping victims and survivors to deal with the past. And a sense of place can also help solve problems. The conference ended on an encouraging note.