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Conference 2022

THE BRITISH-IRISH ASSOCIATION 2022 CONFERENCE

Conference Report

Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission for Interinstitutional Relations, gave the opening speech of the BIA's 2022 conference, which was held in Oxford on 2-4 September. He said that although Brexit had changed the nature of the UK/EU relationship, their shared values remained the same and the two had worked exceptionally well together to support Ukraine. Unity was our strength. The EU aimed to maintain a positive and stable relationship based on partnership and trust. This was a relationship founded on two legally binding Agreements, the Common Travel Area and the Withdrawal Agreement concluded between the EU and the UK, and future partnership depended on both being respected. It was imperative to uphold the rule of law.

At its heart, the EU was a peace project, fully committed to supporting peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, in furtherance of which it had contributed more a billion Euros over the years. Shared membership of the EU had undoubtedly had a positive impact on the peace process and the British/Irish relationship, but while the UK might have left the EU, the EU's commitment to peace and security on the island of Ireland remained undiminished. The Northern Ireland Protocol was the best way that the European Commission could find to protect the peace process; it safeguarded the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions and created countless opportunities for business in Northern Ireland.

However, the EU fully understood that there were practical difficulties in implementing the Protocol on the ground. The far-reaching proposals it had made in October 2021 were designed to address issues raised by people and businesses in Northern Ireland and were not "a take it or leave it" offer, because only joint solutions would work. But the UK side had dismissed them without consideration and had not engaged seriously since February of this year. The threat of unilateral action was of great concern to the EU; to carry it out would be a breach of international law, damaging to the reputation of the UK, and would engender more uncertainty. Indeed, it was legally and politically inconceivable that the UK Government would change a bilateral agreement. Surely the Government would not want to bring in measures that would call Northern Ireland's access to the Single Market into question.

The EU's offer of talks, made over a year ago, still stood; it would never leave the table. Although it was Mr Šefčovič's impression that the UK Government was not interested in engagement with the EU, he remained willing to work constructively to find a common solution within the Protocol, to explore the full potential of its proposals and move forward. His recent visit to the Flurrybridge peace project had convinced him further of the need to work together - we must strengthen our bonds through co-operation, and not weaken them. He urged all the parties involved to put quarrels and rhetoric to one side and find a means to a better world.

In the question-and-answer session that followed, Mr Šefčovič was asked about the Protocol's effects on relations within Northern Ireland and between Ireland and the UK. The late Lord Trimble had said that the Protocol ripped the heart out of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement; did Mr Šefčovič appreciate that for a section of the community, it was part of the problem, not the solution, and that the EU was being as intransigent as the UK Government? Was the negotiating mandate of the EU flexible enough to address some of the concerns? In response, he said the EU wanted the people of Northern Ireland to have the best of both worlds and he reiterated the need for constructive and pragmatic engagement between governments, the business community and civic society at every level. Good political will, dialogue and trust were paramount.

In a keynote address on the first evening of the conference, the Rt Hon Shailesh Vara, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, looked ahead to the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and hoped that the spirit of two of the people who brought about that achievement, the late John Hume and David Trimble, could be reignited at this difficult time. Northern Ireland had much to offer and huge potential, but there were strategic challenges ahead. He outlined these in turn: the Northern Ireland Protocol; the legacy of the past; identity, language and culture legislation; women's reproductive health; economic investment at a time of financial crisis and forming an Executive. All of them were difficult issues but all could be solved, with constructive engagement and proper understanding. Central to achieving the goal of a safer and more prosperous Northern Ireland was a fully functioning devolved government, and the Secretary of State urged all Parties to work together to form an Executive. It was his belief that relationships across these islands were what got us through difficult times in the past and will get us through the challenging times ahead.

(The full text of the speech is at https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/secretary-of-state-speech-to-2022-british-irish-association-conference)

An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, gave the opening speech on the second day of the conference. He said that we faced new and critical challenges on these islands a year ago, when he last spoke at the BIA, we had not imagined a war in Europe and that it was imperative to find a way through this undeniably difficult phase and to build better relationships. But unilateral action on the Protocol and on legacy was at odds with the spirit of partnership between the UK and Ireland that was needed to underpin the Good Friday Agreement, risked further instability in Northern Ireland and damage to key sectors of the economy, and was testing and fraying that partnership.

In 1972, the year that the BIA was founded, 480 people were killed in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. To some that may seem like distant history, for many it was tragic lived reality. The only way to deal with the legacy of that past is through a shared approach between the British and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland political parties, keeping the victims and families at its heart. The Good Friday Agreement created an agreed path for determining the future of Northern Ireland, enshrining the principle of consent, and it was very important not to allow confusion to be introduced or to cloud those consent provisions which recognise "the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of people in Northern Ireland". However, the decision of one political party not to participate in the Northern Ireland Executive had damaged the functioning of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. This was unacceptable.

To work through these considerable challenges, it was essential also to take forward a more positive agenda under the Good Friday Agreement, focused not only on resolving differences and difficulties, but also on working together for true reconciliation and on our substantial shared interests, today and for the future. We must prioritise, resource and work to build that shared future in practice, by deepening our civic and political relationships, North/South and East/West, developing new opportunities to cooperate and invest across our borders and communities and by fostering the space to look at the future on the island of Ireland in a way that doesn't compromise anyone's identity or aspirations - unionist, nationalist or neither.

This was work he was leading through the Shared Island Initiative that he established on becoming Taoiseach. All the people on the island of Ireland were mutually dependent and interconnected and could only realise a prosperous future by working together. He and his government committed themselves to work seriously, sincerely and openly with all communities and political traditions, to harness the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to build consensus around a shared and reconciled future.

(The full text of this speech is at https://www.gov.ie/en/speech/276bd-speech-by-the-taoiseach-micheal-martin-td-at-the-british-irish-association-conference-pembroke-college)

Responding to shared challenges across these islands was the subject of a discussion between Mick Antoniw MS, Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution; Simon Coveney TD, Foreign Minister and Minister for Defence; Conor Murphy MLA, Minister of Finance; and Graham Stuart MP, Minister of State for Europe. The panel was chaired by Professor Dame Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford. It did not skirt around areas of contention, among them a loss of confidence in the UK Government, consequent upon its apparent assault on human rights, its hints of withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights and proposals to weaken judicial review. Unilateral action on matters such as legacy issues, the stalled negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol and the absence of a functioning Northern Irish Executive also gave rise to much concern. Dialogue and trust were urgently needed for fractured relationships to be restored. Minister Stuart's assurance that the UK's relationship with Ireland would have the highest priority for the incoming Prime Minister (due to be confirmed on the day after the Conference) was welcomed.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence, Simon Coveney TD looked ahead to the vision of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement 25 years on in his remarks. Describing the Agreement as the foundation on which modern Northern Ireland sits, the framework through which we can navigate change and the compass helping us plot Northern Ireland's journey into the future, he hoped it would be possible to move back to the collective approach that enabled it to be reached, despite many difficulties on the way. Now, at this moment of uncertainty, we needed to draw strength from the bravery and ingenuity of all those who worked through those past difficulties and to deliver on the spirit and letter of the Agreement. The Minister asked for ideas on what should be done to mark its anniversary next year; one such was to create an actual space, a place of commemoration that people could visit.

The Rt Hon Conor Burns MP, Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, focused on the differences that have arisen over the application of the Protocol in his talk at the Conference. He sensed there was a renewed appetite on all sides to have a go at resolving them. He hoped that would be through negotiation, rather than unilateral action and he wanted British/Irish relations to move on from Brexit issues and grow closer. It was good that there had been no upsurge in paramilitary activity, despite the tensions over trade and the Protocol, but more progress must be made on building inter-community understanding. The Minister noted that a ten-year-old's design for a rug in a recent competition included sectarian scenes.

Picking up a central theme of the Conference, which was looking ahead to the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and taking stock of the past as well as the future, Dr Evelyn Collins CBE, Chief Executive of the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland, reflected on changes and challenges for equality since 1998. Much progress had been made. Paying due regard to equality and good relations is now a statutory duty, there is protection against discrimination on a greater number of grounds, and fair participation in the labour market for Catholics and Protestants is broadly in line with labour market availability. Northern Ireland is much more diverse now than it was in 1998 and attitudes to difference have become much more favourable generally, for example, 84% of those surveyed in 2016 had favourable attitudes to LGB people compared to 57% in 2008. There are more complaints about discrimination on grounds of disability than religion and some progress in respect of the composition of the PSNI and in the political and public participation of women. But more needs to be done. There should be a move from process to outcomes in implementation of the equality and good relations duties and this requires leadership. Northern Ireland lags behind in legislative protection, with no protection against age discrimination in respect of goods, facilities and services, and no requirements to monitor pay by gender, its disability employment rate is the lowest in the UK, the rate of hate crime is increasing and the budget for the Equality Commission has been reduced. There needs to be a strong and effective legal framework in NI and a clear and sustained focus in improving equality. Equality is a contested issue, played out as a zero-sum game, and as if equality were a finite resource. And yet, just as it was in 1998, equality is the key to progress.

The Most Revd Dr Michael Jackson, Archbishop of Dublin, addressed the Conference during the Sunday morning ecumenical Service of Prayer. Discussing the connection between over-reliance on social media in the West and the prioritisation of individual senses of identity, he invited the participants, as public influencers and as public policy makers, to question what constituted their individual and their shared hierarchy of urgency. For him, the contemporary quests for expression of identity were not the same as the lifelong quest for a corporate and global self-understanding. This needs to be centred and developed in relation to events and people who change and whose fortunes change and whose circumstances are far and away beyond their control from the day they are born.

(The full text of the Archbishop's address is at https://dublin.anglican.org/news/2022/09/04/a-hierarchy-of-urgency-archbishop)

In a powerful talk that mixed readings from her work with memories of the past and experience of the present, the award-winning poet Gail McConnell intertwined many of the strands of the Conference and showed why politics matter, why reconciliation must be much more than a pious aspiration. Her work explores parenthood, queerness, gendering, identity and, in The Sun Is Open, the life and death of her father, murdered by the IRA when she was three. Remembering her own excitement at the time of the Good Friday Agreement and the hope it gave of progress towards a more tolerant and peaceful Northern Ireland, she said that a genuine democracy would only emerge when we can deal with loss. Gail's reading of her poetry was deeply moving and was received with at first silence, and then a standing ovation.

The final session of the Conference brought together four recently elected MLAs - Phillip Brett, Cara Hunter, Kate Nicholl and Emma Sheerin - for an informal discussion that ranged over their reasons for becoming involved in politics, their experience of election campaigning, senses of identity among young voters, and flags, bonfires and cultural symbols. Although they represented different Parties, much more united them than divided; they all agreed on the need to listen respectfully to differing views, to recognise diversity, to give a voice to those who otherwise could feel left behind, to make Northern Ireland a welcoming place for everyone. Asked how they would want the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement to be commemorated, they said it was all about people, not polarised spaces. Reconciliation is vital. Politicians can bring about change.

The Conference ended on an extremely hopeful and positive note. Afterwards, a participant wrote: "It was a complete success. The BIA has historically provided a safe and discreet forum for conversations that would otherwise be difficult or impossible elsewhere. With functioning institutions and good inter-governmental relationships this forum has sometimes (thankfully) been less important; but, given current political and diplomatic conditions, it is more essential than ever. And the open sessions continue to provide superb briefings as well as access".



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