British Irish Institutional Structures: Towards a New Relationship

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Posted on behalf of John Coakley

This blog presents the arguments from a paper in the special issue of IPS ‘Breaking Patterns of Conflict in Northern Ireland’ . Available here

The last years of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first were marked by a steady but little noticed redefinition of the British-Irish institutional landscape. This is all the more striking since it emerges from a significant reformulation of the nationalist narrative, which in the early years of the state, and, indeed, up to 1949, had been marked by a dismantling of links with the United Kingdom.

The most important institution in principle emerged out of the negotiations between Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and Garret FitzGerald’s Fine Gael-Labour coalition: the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference established by the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985. Overtly designed to give the Irish government a voice in the British government’s administration in Northern Ireland, it also placed pressure on unionists to negotiate a power-sharing deal, since the Conference would not have jurisdiction over areas managed by a devolved administration in Belfast.

The Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference survived intense unionist efforts to bring it to an end, and was indeed given new shape as the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference by the Good Friday agreement of 1998. Its permanent secretariat (made up of British and Irish officials) continued on after the new agreement, but its jurisdiction was restricted in practice once devolved government was restored. While it continued to play an active role during the period of renewed direct rule (2002-07), it ceased to meet at political level after that. In addition to ceding responsibility to the new power-sharing government in Stormont – an inbuilt self-enfeebling mechanism written into its original design – its broader function as a forum for British-Irish consultation on a wider range of issues was undermined by the emergence of other channels of communication between the two governments. As well as bilateral and EU-related contacts, these include a new British-Irish structure created in 2012, a Permanent Secretaries and Secretaries General Group, bringing together senior civil servants from the two jurisdictions to plan an intensification of British-Irish cooperation.

Another important new structure is multi-jurisdictional rather than bilateral in composition, but also arose out of the British-Irish negotiations of the 1980s. This appeared in 1990 as the British-Irish Parliamentary Body (since 2008, Assembly), and brought 25 members of the British and Irish parliaments together for twice-yearly meetings. As a consequence of proposals for enhanced inter-parliamentary cooperation under the Good Friday agreement, though, its membership was enlarged in 2000 to include also representatives of six non-sovereign jurisdictions: the devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the crown dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

Finally, a new intergovernmental body links these six jurisdictions with the two sovereign governments: the British-Irish Council, established in 1999 as a direct consequence of the Good Friday agreement (it originated as a quid-pro-quo for the establishment of the North/South Ministerial Council). Since 2008 it has met twice-yearly in plenary format, attended by the UK Prime Minister (or, more usually, his representative), the Taoiseach, the Northern Ireland First Minister and Deputy First Minister, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, and the Chief Ministers of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man.

For all the complexity of this new architecture, though, the intensity of cooperation should not be exaggerated. All three of the major bodies (the Intergovernmental Conference, the Assembly and the Council) had their stated origin in the Northern Ireland problem, but the institution most centrally concerned with this, the Conference, has played a minor role since the restoration of devolved government in Stormont in 2007 and the transfer of policing and justice functions in 2010. The two other bodies, the Assembly and the Council, are important forums for building up mutual familiarity between representatives of their component jurisdictions, for the exchange of information and for the sharing of perspectives on cross-jurisdictional problems, but their functions are purely advisory, not executive.

In an important sense, then, the new British-Irish structures are more important at the symbolic level than in marking any redefinition of power relations. But symbols matter. The dismantling of the functions of the Governor-General and the King in the 1930s and 1940s may have been an exercise in tilting at windmills, but these windmills were of considerable symbolic significance; the recent initiatives at re-establishing British-Irish institutional links represent a similar symbolism, though pointing in the opposite geopolitical direction.

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