Fifth Annual Report



FIFTH ANNUAL REPORT 2000M

No. 79 - January 2001


THE WORK OF THE BRITISH-IRISH INTER-PARLIAMENTARY BODY

Introduction

1.  This is the fifth Annual Report of the Body since it was decided at the 11th Plenary Session in May 1996 that such a Report should be made. The current Report summarises the work of the Body in 2000.

2.  The year 2000 was a momentous one in Northern Ireland's progress towards peace and security. It began with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly in full operation at last. On Friday 11 February the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr Peter Mandelson, and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr John O'Donoghue, received the second report of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning under the chairmanship of General John de Chastelain. At midnight on the same day, however, in the face of increasing political uncertainty as to the future of peace process the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland suspended the operation of devolved government and reintroduced direct rule from Westminster. The suspension continued until midnight on Monday 29 May, when devolved government was restored. As a result, the activities of the Body were carried on against a background of some uncertainty.

The Work of the Body

3.  In accordance with the Rules of the Body, two Plenary Sessions were held in 2000: from 14 to 15 February in Westminster and from 9 to 10 October in Galway.

4.  During the year there were several changes to the Membership of the Body on the British side. Everyone associated with the Body was deeply shocked and saddened by the tragic death of Michael and Nichola Colvin in a fire at their home. Michael had been a long-serving Member of the Body and was Chairman of Committee B, and Nichola was a regular attender at Plenary sessions. Several Members and staff attended their memorial service at Romsey Abbey.

5.  Perhaps the main issue facing the Body itself has been its own future development. It has been the intention of the Body since the advent of devolution to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales that its work should be broadened in some way to incorporate representation from the three devolved parliamentary institutions and from Guernsey, the Isle of Man and Jersey. Although representatives from Guernsey, the Isle of Man and Jersey addressed the 17th Plenary in York, and representatives of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales addressed the 19th Plenary in Cambridge, progress was hampered by the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

6.  Representatives of all six institutions were invited to a meeting with the Steering Committee in June 2000, and it was agreed that they should send representatives (with the right to speak, but not to vote) to the 21st Plenary.

Twentieth Plenary

7.  The Twentieth Plenary was held at Westminster from 13 to 16 February in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the first meeting of the Body on 26 February 1990. The Plenary was convened in the Grand Committee Room, Westminster Hall (which is the venue for the experimental additional sittings of the House of Commons, some of which take place simultaneously with sittings in the Chamber itself). The television cameras were present, and Sky Television broadcast the occasion live. The Chairman in the Chair began by reading a message of support and congratulation from the Prime Minister, and the Plenary then heard a statement by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland which was followed by parliamentary questions. At the conclusion of that day's proceedings, Madam Speaker held a reception for Members and staff of the Body.

8.  The Body reconvened in Church House, Westminster, to debate the Fourth Annual Report, and the Report of the Committee on Culture, Education and the Environment [Doc. No. 72] on Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (the Gaelic College in Skye) and the Columba Initiative, and the Warrington Project and the further Responses of both Governments and of the Northern Ireland Executive to the Report of the Committee on Culture, Education and the Environment on matters relating to Education and Inter-Community Relations within Northern Ireland [Doc. No. 73]. In the course of the debate on the Motion for the Adjournment on the following day, Mr Kevin McNamara announced he and Ms Jean Corston had met Mr David Blunkett MP, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, on the previous day, and Mr Blunkett had agreed to provide Government funding for the Warrington Project.

9.  The Body then debated the Report of the Committee on Economic and Social Affairs [Doc. No. 70] on the Future for Small Farms in the Rural Economy, together with the Responses of both Governments to the previous Report of the Committee on European and International Affairs on matters relating to Common Agricultural Policy Reform [Doc. No. 71]. Considerable dissatisfaction was expressed at the response of the British Government to the Report on theCAP, and it was agreed that a further response should be requested.

10.  On the second day, the Body held a wide-ranging debate on the progress in implementing the Belfast Agreement against the background of the suspension of devolved government three days previously and the hope that the devolved institutions would be revived as soon as possible. As on previous occasions, much of the debate centred on the lack of progress on the decommissioning of terrorist weaponry. An Amendment proposed by Lord Glentoran to make explicit reference in the Motion to the need to implement all aspects of the Agreement including the decommissioning of all illegally-held arms by all paramilitary groups; after debate, the Amendment was withdrawn. The text of the Body's Resolution, which was agreed unanimously, is as follows:

    That the Body, on the occasion of its tenth anniversary, renews its commitment to work towards peace and understanding between all our peoples and to the continued working cooperation between the two sovereign Parliaments; welcomes the very substantial progress that had been made since its last Plenary in the implementation of the Belfast Agreement; however, notes with the utmost concern the serious difficulties now being encountered; calls on all parties to do everything in their power to secure the earliest re-establishment of the democratic institutions in accordance with the overwhelmingly expressed decision in referenda in the island of Ireland, North and South, and the full implementation of all aspects of the Agreement.

Twenty-first Plenary

11.  By the time the Twenty-first Plenary took place in Galway, devolved government in Northern Ireland had been restored. In pursuance of the aim of widening the membership of the Body, the Plenary was attended by representatives from the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the States of Guernsey, and Tynwald. The representative from Guernsey also represented the States of Jersey. All were invited to take a full part in the proceedings.

12.  The sitting began with full morning's debate on recent political developments introduced by Brian Hayes TD, who has succeeded Charles Flanagan TD as the senior Fine Gael member of the Irish delegation and Chairman of Committee A on Mr Flanagan's appointment as Opposition Chief Whip in the Dáil. The text of the Body's Resolution, which was agreed unanimously, is as follows:

    That the Body, conscious of the difficulties being faced by the two Governments and the parties in their efforts to achieve the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, welcomes the progress made so far, and urges both Governments and all parties to redouble their efforts to overcome the present problems.

In the afternoon the Taoiseach, Mr Bertie Ahern TD, made a statement to the Body and answered parliamentary questions. After a brief suspension, the Body turned to debates on Government Responses to Committee Reports on Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and the Columba Initiative, and the Warrington Project, on the Future for Small Farms in the Rural Economy, and on Common Agricultural Policy Reform

13.  The main business on the second day was a debate on the future of the Body, and an amendment to the Rules to enable the Steering Committee to make transitional provisions which would bring representatives of the other parliamentary institutions into membership. While there was a general consensus that the Body should be enlarged to incorporate representatives from the new devolved parliamentary institutions and the islands, a note of caution was sounded by those who were concerned to preserve equality between the two sovereign parliaments. After a lively debate, the Body agreed the following Resolution:

    That the Body takes note of the Discussion Paper on the Future of the Body [Doc. No. 77] entitled 'The Future of the Body - A Further Consideration'.

With Mr O Caoláin abstaining, the Body then agreed a temporary change in the Rules to permit the Steering Committee to make transitional provision for the accession of the devolved institutions and islands, preferring Mr Bermingham's amended version to the original draft proposed by the Steering Committee.

Steering Committee

14.  The Members of the Steering Committee during the year were Mr Michael O'Kennedy TD and Mr David Winnick MP, Co-Chairmen, and Mr Charles Flanagan TD, Mr Brian Hayes TD, Mr Michael Mates MP, Mr Kevin McNamara MP, and Dr Rory O'Hanlon TD, Vice-Chairmen. The Committee met on five occasions. As noted above, Mr Hayes replaced Mr Flanagan as a Vice-Chairman during the course of the year. Representatives of the devolved institutions and the islands attended the meetings on 19 June, 8 October and 4 December.

15.  At its meeting on 4 December the Steering Committee considered the issue of the mechanisms by which representatives of the devolved institutions and the Crown dependencies could be brought into active membership of the Body. The Committee decided that this would be best achieved by offering them full membership, but that the position of the two sovereign parliaments should be protected by a change to the Rule on voting to provide that any motion, in order to pass, would have to be supported by a majority of British and Irish Members present and voting.

Committees

16.  At its meeting on 20 June the Steering Committee decided that the names of the Committees should be changed to reflect the changes in responsibilities arising from the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland, as follows:

    A:  Political Committee
    B:  European Affairs Committee
    C:  Economic Committee
    D:  Environmental and Social Committee.

At its meeting on 4 December the Steering Committee further decided, in the light of the potential accession of members from the devolved institutions and the Crown dependencies, Committee A would be renamed the "Committee on Sovereign Matters".

Prospects for 2001

16.  The prospects for the Body for 2001 depend most of all on two issues: progress in developing the Body into a parliamentary assembly which brings together parliamentarians from throughout the territory of Great Britain and Ireland, and the continuation of peace in Northern Ireland. As to the first, the Body is feeling its way towards an expanded role; the second is dependent upon the efforts of others.


 
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