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Conference 2021

THE BRITISH-IRISH ASSOCIATION 2021 CONFERENCE
3-5 SEPTEMBER AT PEMBROKE COLLEGE, OXFORD

Conference Report

Friday 3 September

In the opening speech of the conference, the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin TD, spoke of the enormous progress made in Northern Ireland since 1998. But Brexit had fundamentally changed the EU-UK relationship, with profound implications for relationships on these islands and presenting difficult challenges to the peace process today. Solutions had to be grounded in partnership - between the two Governments, with the Northern Ireland Executive and, in the case of the NI Protocol, between the EU and the UK. Peace and stability in Northern Ireland could best be supported by the Irish and UK Governments working together. He also saw a priority for all on the island of Ireland to work together for a shared future to overcome the division and mistrust between communities. This aim underlay the Irish Government's Shared Island initiative.1 The Taoiseach's talk was followed by questions and answers.

In the following session, Simon Coveney TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence, joined Michael Gove MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in an open conversation chaired by Caitriona Murphy.

Saturday 4 September

In the first part of the morning, senior Ministers from the UK and Ireland gave short addresses, followed by a joint question and answer, chaired by Professor Katy Hayward of Queen's University, Belfast. Brandon Lewis MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, spoke on Opportunities for Northern Ireland2, noting the unique problems arising from Covid. Northern Ireland needed to take advantage of the new markets becoming more available around the world following Brexit. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's ability to deal with the pandemic had been helped by its membership of the United Kingdom. On security, he said good progress had been made since 1998, but security operations remained very important to keep people safe from violent criminals and organised crime. There was also the challenge of the legacy of the past.

On the economic side, there had been big investment in Fintech, life sciences and cyber-security. But Northern Ireland still had poor productivity figures and pockets of very high unemployment. Besides a number of existing and announced UK Government support schemes for Northern Ireland, he announced a contribution of £730 million to the Peace Plus Fund, bringing its total, with Irish Government and European Commission contributions, to over €1 billion. The UK Government would continue to support integrated education, 40 years after the movement's start; but Mr Lewis regretted that still only 7% of children were in integrated schools.

Lord Frost, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office and Co-Chair of the UK-EU Joint Committee, spoke on the Northern Ireland Protocol.3 He recalled that at the time of the BIA's last Conference, in 2019, the outcome of the UK Government's negotiations to leave the EU had still been unclear. The blockages had begun to ease soon after the last Conference, with the meeting of the British and Irish heads of Government on the Wirral. Much had since been settled but the vexed question of the Northern Ireland Protocol remained, complicated by issues of sovereignty and identity. It was not all wrong, but needed to be looked at again and its balance adjusted. The UK Government had no interest in a fractious relationship with the EU or, above all, Ireland.

The UK Government's July White Paper had recognised that the Protocol had achieved some, but not all, of its objectives, but protecting the EU single market could not be its primary aim. A lack of balance was affecting the economic ties between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, causing trade diversion and social tension. The difficulties arose from applying the Protocol, not from a failure to apply it. The White Paper's proposals were challenging but not impossible.

There were two broad options: applying the Protocol's Article 16, the threshold for which had been reached; or the parties agreeing to replace the existing texts. The UK acknowledged that the EU had made a major concession, in allowing another country to police its external frontier. But the UK had compromised at least as much, by allowing an economic border within the UK. Some of that would stay but the Government could not allow the full imposition of EU law, and its enforcement on movements within the UK, by an outside entity. Better ways existed. There were risks in the current situation, but also opportunities. If the Protocol was sorted a new dynamic could be created in the UK's relations with the EU and Ireland.

Paschal Donohoe TD, Minister for Finance and President of the Eurogroup, addressed Economic relations East/West, North/South. He emphasised the value of personal, political and institutional relationships, noting the loss of the regular personal contacts between British and Irish Ministers in EU contexts and the challenge of making good this gap.

He believed that the current version of the Northern Ireland Protocol was balanced, protecting what had been achieved in the Good Friday Agreement as well as the EU's Single Market. The EU would approach the forthcoming talks with patience, imagination and flexibility.

Subsequent questions and discussion included
  • how to resolve the differences over the Northern Ireland Protocol;
  • whether the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement could be used more to help;
  • whether the economic effects of the Protocol warranted the proposed revision; and whether such revisions would help, or exacerbate, tensions in Northern Ireland;
  • whether EU Sanitary/Phytosanitary Standards could be accepted until the approach of a Free Trade Agreement which required divergence; and whether the Protocol's option of international arbitration might give enough flexibility.
  • concern about the Protocol had led some community groups in Northern Ireland now to refuse grants from the Irish Government, even where they were economically useful.
  • whether it was right for the UK to be treated by the EU as a "Third Country".
  • the apparent movement in the UK Government's position on legacy issues between January 2020 and its July 2021 proposals for a general amnesty,
  • whether the replacements for EU Structural Funds would match what Northern Ireland had received before; and
  • the possible regulation of milk prices.
In a session later on Saturday morning, Paul Johnson, speaking as Chair of the Independent Fiscal Commission for Northern Ireland, presented an interim report on the Commission's review of the Northern Ireland Executive's tax and spending powers. Emphasising that he was not making recommendations but merely outlining possible choices, Mr Johnson said the Executive could have up to £300 million per annum in additional tax receipts if it brought some existing policies into line with practice in other parts of the UK. However, these would involve politically sensitive measures. A major difficulty facing the Commission was the relatively poor data on the levels of tax receipts in Northern Ireland. The Commission had opened a call for evidence. He strongly encouraged submissions to it.4

The morning's final session was a talk by Professor Ian McBride, Foster Professor of Irish History at Oxford University, entitled Anglo-Irish Agreements: The Museum of the Peace Process, on Anglo-Irish negotiations and agreements in the 100 years since partition. He highlighted the negotiations leading to the often over-looked Downing Street Declaration of 1993, and focused on the now emerging role of senior Irish and British officials as well as the better known politicians. He concluded that it was important to remember the achievements of the peace makers and to build upon them.

The Saturday afternoon session was entitled Working together across the UK and Ireland after the pandemic. This was a panel discussion with Angus Robertson MSP, the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs & Culture, Mark Drakeford MS, First Minister of Wales, Paul Givan MLA, First Minister of Northern Ireland, Declan Kearney MLA5, Junior Minister at the Northern Ireland Executive Office, Michael Gove MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Paschal Donohoe TD, Minister of Finance and President of the Eurogroup, chaired by Professor Deirdre Heenan of Ulster University.

Points raised in introductory presentations and subsequent discussion included:
  • What was the nature of the emerging UK state, after Brexit and the pandemic? Strains had emerged from Brexit, but Covid had underlined the binding role of the NHS.
  • There was nothing inevitable about the UK: the case for it needed to be made by its supporters.
  • Devolution should help the Union, but its machinery should be jointly owned and kept in good repair.
  • North/South, East/West and Northern Ireland community relations had been damaged by the Protocol.
  • Better use should be made of existing institutions like the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly and the British Irish Council.
  • New constitutional frameworks should be looked at, including the relationships between the Nordic countries.
  • Was a written constitution desirable for the UK?
  • How could all the Governments work together to address climate change?
Sunday 5 September

Following an ecumenical Service in Pembroke College led by the Most Rev. John McDowell, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, the final conference session was on Conflict and resolution at a time of change, chaired by Alyson Kilpatrick, Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Susan McKay, journalist and author of the recently published Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground, described the changes she had identified in the Northern Ireland Protestant community in the twenty-one years since her earlier book Northern Protestants - An Unsettled People. She commented on the nature of community responses to the Northern Ireland Protocol and the wider range of political identities that people were now able to adopt than in times past. Denis Bradley, journalist and former mediator, noted that Northern Ireland was now made up of minorities, which could in due course lead to more flexibility.

In discussion, the following points were made:
  • what kept people in Northern Ireland safe was not the Good Friday Agreement but the UK-Irish relationship. Several elements in Ireland found the current UK Government difficult to relate to or to read;
  • strands emerging in Irish nationalism now included both "hugging unionists", highlighting their concerns and wishing to take things slowly, and taking a more challenging line to get Unionists into the room - including by talking of preparations for a Border poll;
  • many unionists failed to notice the efforts being made by the Taoiseach and SDLP to slow down discussion on unification or a Border poll;
  • there were risks to nationalism's objectives in the growing prominence of Sinn Féin both North and South potentially acting as a brake on any unionist openness to future constitutional options;
  • the UK Government's Command Paper on legacy issues, though widely opposed, contained some good points; but the manner of its launch and apparent emphasis on veterans had seriously damaged it. The legacy issue could not be focused solely on victims either. The whole of society had to be involved.



1 The full text of the Taoiseach's speech was released at https://merrionstreet.ie/en/news-room/speeches/speech_by_an_taoiseach_michel_martin_t_d_british-irish_association_oxford.171140.shortcut.html

2 The full text of the Secretary of State's speech was released at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/secretary-of-state-speech-to-the-british-irish-association-conference

3 The full text of Lord Frost's speech was released at https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/lord-frost-speech-at-british-irish-association-4-september-2021

4 Mr Johnson's presentation was reported by the Independent Fiscal Commission for Northern Ireland website: https://www.fiscalcommissionni.org/news/chair-fiscal-commission-addresses-2021-british-irish-association-conference-4-september-2021

5 A summary of Mr Kearney's introductory remarks was released at https://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/61690



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