Northern Ireland news

State Papers: British Irish Council could be viewed as 'unionist presentational trick'

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill welcome their counterparts to Fermanagh for the British Irish Council Summit earlier this year. Picture: Ronan McGrade.
Éamon Phoenix

OFFICIALS wanted a 'sexy' and theatrical launch for the new British-Irish Council believing it could evolve into a significant institution that would hold the union together.

The enthusiasm of Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook for a "thickening" of the Anglo-Irish relationship was questioned by Secretary of State Mo Mowlam, however.

It was noted that the British-Irish Council (BIC) was particularly important to unionists as a counter-balance to the new North-South Ministerial Council.

Peter Bell, the British Secretary of the Joint Anglo-Irish Secretariat at Maryfield, said it was "an exciting period in crafting a more rewarding long-term British-Irish relationship".

This was partly because, "as the wound of Northern Ireland heals, the interests and affinity of the two westerly English-speaking members of the EU" could be addressed.

"Although it is all too easy to dismiss the BIC as a unionist presentational trick, my hunch is that...this may evolve into a significant institution for managing the affairs of these islands" and even holding the union together. He suggested a "sexy" launch for the new body with, if possible, "the theatre of her majesty the queen and President McAleese cutting the tape".

The new institution was discussed at a meeting between Mr Bell and David Donoghue, the Joint Irish Secretary of the Secretariat in July 1998. In a report to the head of the NIO, Jonathan Stephens, Mr Bell reported a positive Irish response. However, Mr Donoghue was concerned for the safety of the Irish staff within the British-Irish Intergovernmental Council owing to continuing threats from the illegal Loyalist Volunteer Force.

Mr Cook wrote to Mr Blair in July 1998 under the heading `a new British-Irish relationship’.

In Mr Cook's view: "The Belfast Agreement gives an opportunity [which has not been available since 1949] to establish a relationship with our nearest neighbour which is no longer overshadowed by our respective interests in Northern Ireland." As a follow-up, he suggested a "declaration of Dublin" as a public expression of the two governments’ commitment to the new relationship with annual summits and regular ministerial contacts. Mr Blair responded that this was "a very good start".

In a letter to Mr Blair, Dr Mowlam said while she endorsed "the principle of thickening our relationship with Dublin", she was concerned that Mr Cook's proposals might conflict with or undermine the new east-west arrangements. If so, this would create difficulties with David Trimble.

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