New Prime Minister must treat British-Irish Council with the respect it deserves - Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

Taoiseach Simon Harris, Alfred Cannan, Chief Minister of the Isle of Man, and Stormont deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly
Taoiseach Simon Harris, Alfred Cannan, Chief Minister of the Isle of Man, and Stormont deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly at the most recent BIC meeting (Peter Byrne/PA)

The British-Irish Council (BIC) meeting on the Isle of Man last Friday was pretty much a non-event, partly because there’s a British general election in progress, but then it’s always pretty much a non-event.

Bet you didn’t even know there was a meeting. Why would you? If truth be told most people don’t even know what the BIC is, which is a deplorable state of affairs.

The BIC is a body established in Strand 3 of the Good Friday Agreement along with the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and the North-South Ministerial Council. They’re all ratified by the British-Irish Agreement signed alongside the GFA whose official name is the Multi-Party Agreement. The BIC meets twice a year ‘at summit level’ as the GFA states, but it doesn’t because the British have played it down, or to be more precise the Conservative government since 2010 has played it down.

Gordon Brown, in 2007, was the last prime minister to attend though Sunak did attend a dinner in November 2022 when the BIC met in England. The BIC was also supposed to meet ‘at sectoral level’ with ministers from the various administrations considering matters in their area of responsibility. Again, that fell by the wayside.

The Conservative government after 2010 entered their nativist Little Englander trauma, hostile to devolution and to what they saw as ‘outside interference’ in British, for them really English, affairs. This hostility has grown, especially since the advent of Johnson in 2019. Sunak continued the Johnson-Truss practice of to all intents and purposes ignoring the leaders of devolved administrations. For example, Downing Street didn’t respond to requests from Michelle O’Neill for a meeting to discuss the north’s budget.

At last Friday’s BIC, all the leaders from Cardiff, Edinburgh, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, as well as Dublin represented by the Taoiseach, agreed that British prime ministers should attend. John Swinney, Scotland’s First Minister, said he “whole-heartedly” agreed that the British prime minister should attend because, he said, of “the distance” that has developed since the UK is no longer in the EU.

Simon Harris made the same point saying that in the past (pre-Brexit) Taoisigh had the opportunity to meet British prime ministers regularly at European Council meetings but no longer had frequent meetings because, “Britain isn’t in the room anymore.”

The unspoken assumption was that, with the Conservatives thankfully hurtling towards oblivion at what seems to be terminal velocity, ‘normal diplomatic service’ and practical cooperation would resume. There are indications that such rapprochement will happen under a Starmer government.

On July 18, it’s likely to be Starmer who will welcome over 40 heads of government from European states to Blenheim palace for a meeting of the Macron-devised European Political Community which includes non-EU European states. That occasion will begin Britain’s long road back to normal relations with the EU.

However, it will be long and slow and painful too, but it’s a great opportunity for the Republic. In a revealing interview at the weekend, Neale Richmond TD, minister for financial services, said: “We’ll work really closely with the new government. And we want to put out the hand: we really want the UK-EU relationship to be closer.”

Richmond wants to develop closer financial arrangements between the UK and EU than exist within the current memorandum of understanding. He emphasised that Ireland remains “the UK’s best friend within the EU”.

Starmer has several times floated the prospect of a veterinary agreement with the EU which would be to the Republic’s (and the north’s) advantage to smooth non-tariff bureaucracy.

The ideal forum for these sorts of development which affect all the administrations involved is the BIC which now brings together the UK’s devolved administrations with a member of the EU. The BIC’s brief includes “transport links, agricultural issues, environmental issues, health issues, and EU issues”.

All the indications are that progress will be slow because of the ill will and rancour the Conservatives provoked in Brussels. Given that background, other European states will not welcome overtures from Starmer with open arms. They will want evidence of British good faith plus concessions in return like a new agreement on fisheries. The process will take years, but what Richmond was saying on behalf of the Irish government was that Dublin wants to advance Britain’s case for improved relations.

Equally intriguing he also said that Fine Gael’s election manifesto “would contain more detail than in previous campaigns on the future of our island”. A quid pro quo perhaps for assistance with the EU?