Sixth Annual Report



SIXTH ANNUAL REPORT 2001

No. 83 - March 2002

THE WORK OF THE BRITISH-IRISH INTER-PARLIAMENTARY BODY

Introduction

1.  This is the sixth 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 2001.

Political developments

2.  From a Westminster perspective, the most important event was the United Kingdom general election in June. Not only did several long-standing Members of the Body retire from the House of Commons, but the political balance of Northern Ireland representation changed: Sinn Féin increased its representation in the House of Commons to four seats and the Democratic Unionist Party to five, while the Ulster Unionist Party found its representation reduced to six.

3.  From the UK general election onwards, the political situation in Northern Ireland moved with almost bewildering speed.

4.  On 1 July, the First Minister, Mr David Trimble, resigned his post in protest at what he regarded as the slow progress of decommissioning of illegally-held weapons under the Belfast Agreement. He was succeeded as Acting First Minister by Sir Reg Empey. Mr Trimble's resignation was followed by an intensive round of inter-party talks led by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach.

5.  On Saturday 14 July the two Governments issued a statement in which they reemphasised that, while the outstanding issues of policing, the stability of the institutions, security normalisation and decommissioning were best addressed in their own terms rather than being seen as a precondition for progress on any other issue, the Agreement could only succeed if all parts of it were implemented together. The statement concluded:

6.  On 1 August the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Dr John Reid, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, put forward a series of proposals covering policing, decommissioning, normalisation, and the stability of the institutions, with an invitation to the Northern Ireland party leaders to respond by 6 August. The responses revealed continuing disagreement between the Northern Ireland political parties. In order to provide further time for negotiation, the Executive and Assembly were suspended for one day, from midnight on 10-11 August to midnight on 11-12 August, thereby restarting the six-week period under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 during which either fresh elections had to be held or a new Executive formed. The institutions were further suspended from midnight on 21-22 September to midnight on 22-23 September.

7.  On 18 August the Government published a revised plan for reforming the police in Northern Ireland in accordance with the proposals of the Patten Commission. The Secretary of State set a deadline of Tuesday 21 August for the four main parties to consider the plan and indicate their willingness or otherwise to nominate members to the Policing Board for the proposed Police Service of Northern Ireland. The immediate response of Sinn Féin was that the proposals were unacceptable; however, by 21 September the UUP, DUP and SDLP had nominated members to the Board. The change of name from "Royal Ulster Constabulary" subsequently came into effect on 4 November.

8.  At the beginning of the new school term in September, inter-community tensions were heightened by Loyalist protests in the Aboyne district of North Belfast against the route chosen by Roman Catholic parents taking their children to Holy Cross Primary School. The matter was debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 10 September. More generally, there were serious outbreaks of inter-community violence in North Belfast during the latter part of the month, including an attack on a school bus taking children to Hazelwood Integrated College.

9.  On 28 September, the Secretary of State was about to sign an Order specifying the Ulster Defence Association as having broken its cease-fire, but refrained from doing so on assurances that the violence would be brought to an end. He concluded, however, that the level of violence continued to be unacceptable; and on 12 October he specified the UDA (whose political wing, the Ulster Democratic Party, disbanded six weeks later), the Loyalist Volunteer Force and the Ulster Freedom Fighters. In a speech to the Labour Party Conference on 2 October he also announced that he proposed to bring in legislation to strengthen the law against incitement to sectarian or racial hatred.

10.  On 23 October the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reported to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that they had

    witnessed an event-which we regard as significant-in which the IRA has put a quantity of arms completely beyond use. The materiel in question includes arms, ammunition and explosives. We are satisfied that the arms in question have been dealt with in accordance with the scheme and regulations. We are also satisfied that it would not further the process of putting all arms beyond use were we to provide further details of this event.

In addition, the United Kingdom Government began dismantling some of the watchtowers in South Armagh and, in a statement on 23 October, reiterated the commitment of both Governments to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

11.  In response, Mr Trimble concluded that it would be appropriate for the UUP to resume full participation in the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly and the DUP Ministers resumed their portfolios. However, on 2 November Mr Trimble failed to secure a unionist majority in the Assembly for re-election as First Minister. Protracted negotiations followed, during which some of the Alliance MLAs agreed to register as unionists for the purposes of Assembly votes and the Democratic Unionist Party brought an unsuccessful action in the High Court for judicial review of the actions of the Assembly and the Secretary of State. On 6 November, Mr Trimble was elected First Minister and Mr Mark Durkan Deputy First Minister, following which the Secretary of State confirmed that there would be a review of the workings of Strand One of the Good Friday Agreement.

The work of the Body

12.  In accordance with the Rules of the Body, two Plenary Sessions were held in 2000: from 26 to 27 February in Killarney and from 3 to 4 December in Bournemouth.

13.  Much the most important development in the work of the Body itself was its enlargement to incorporate representatives from the new devolved parliamentary institutions and the islands. The debate on how this should achieved had occupied the Body for some considerable time, and at the Twenty-first Plenary in Galway, the Body had agreed to a temporary change in the Rules to permit the Steering Committee to make transitional provision for the accession of the devolved institutions and islands. After considerable thought and some degree of negotiation, the Steering Committee brought forward proposals to the Twenty-second Plenary for changes to the Rules which would provide for representation from the devolved institutions and the Crown Dependencies. The proposals were agreed with only very slight amendment, and the Observers from the candidate institutions became Full Members - a development which was welcomed by the Taoiseach in a speech to the Scottish Parliament on 20 June.

14.  Under the new arrangements:

Twenty-second Plenary

15.  The Twenty-second Plenary was held at Killarney from 26-27 February, shortly after the first case of foot-and-mouth disease had been confirmed in the United Kingdom since 1967. In view of the seriousness of the situation both for Great Britain and the island of Ireland, the Steering Committee proposed an emergency debate on the situation. After a full and rather sombre discussion, the Body agreed the following Resolution:

16.  During the afternoon sitting, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr John O'Donoghue TD, made a statement to the Body and answered Oral Questions. For the first time, Members from the newly-admitted institutions were able to ask questions, and both Ms Patricia MSP and Ms Cathie Craigie MSP asked about the newly-established Irish drug courts and the possibility of Scotland (where a similar proposal was under consideration) benefiting from Irish experience in this area.

17.  The Body then debated a report from Committee D on the cultural significance of parades. The Committee had had the opportunity to take evidence from the Parades Commission, from the Apprentice Boys and the Ancient Order of Hibernians and, in Scotland, from the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Orange Order. It had not proved possible, however, to arrange a meeting with the Orange Order in Ireland, and this was noted with general regret. The report was agreed to without dissent.

18.  The following day began with business reports from the Committees, and an oral Report on the activities of Committee A by the Vice-Chairman, Dr Norman Godman.

19.  The Body then turned to a debate on recent political developments. It was noted that since the last meeting in Galway Dr John Reid had replaced Mr Peter Mandelson as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and that the North-South Ministerial Council had started work. There had also been formal contacts between Committees of Dáil Éireann and the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, the political situation continued to be threatened by sporadic violence in the form of pipe-bomb attacks - particularly against the minority community - and so-called punishment beatings. As on previous occasions, much of the debate centered on weapons decommissioning, demilitarization and policing. The text of the Body's Resolution is as follows:

    That the Body takes note of recent political developments in Northern Ireland; calls on all of the pro-Agreement political parties to redouble their efforts towards the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement; and continues to support the Irish and British Governments in their efforts to achieve this goal.

20.  The Body took note of the Fifth Annual Report [Doc.79]. It further noted that it was likely that this would be the last Plenary before the impending general election in the United Kingdom, and noted the impending retirement from the House of Commons of the Rt. hon. Peter Brooke CH MP, Mrs Maria Fyfe MP, Dr Norman A Godman MP and Mr Peter Temple-Morris MP, all of whom had been long-standing Members of the Body. Subsequently, Mr Gerry Bermingham MP also announced that he would not be standing at the forthcoming election. Subsequently, Mr Brooke and Mr Temple-Morris were created life peers in the Resignation Honours List, and the Body had the pleasure of welcoming them back at the Twenty-third Plenary.

Twenty-third Plenary

21.  The Twenty-third Plenary took place in Bournemouth from 3-4 December. As in 2000, the Body was sent a message of support by the Prime Minister.

22.  The Plenary began with the customary debate on recent political developments, which took place in the context of the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive after a period of some uncertainty. Members welcomed the fact that the institutions established under the Belfast Agreement were once more in full operation but expressed concern at continuing low-level violence, particularly in areas such as North Belfast. Concern was also expressed about the apparent disconnection between the leaders of the peace process and those local communities that did not feel that they were benefiting from it. There was a general welcome for the act of decommissioning by the IRA; but the consensus was that this was only the first step, however important, on a long road. There was a large (though not unanimous) measure of over the new policing arrangements. Members also noted with approval the decision of the Gaelic Athletic Association to remove its ban on members of the security forces playing Gaelic games, in the hope that this would encourage recruitment from the Nationalist community to the new Police Service for Northern Ireland.

23.  The text of the Body's Resolution is as follows:

That the Body reaffirms its support for the Good Friday Agreement and the conclusions of the Weston Park consultation; endorses the views of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister for Foreign Affairs that the outstanding issues relate to policing, the stability of the institutions, security normalisation and decommissioning and that while each of these issues is best addressed in its own terms, rather than being seen as a precondition for progress on any other, the Agreement can only succeed if all parts of it are implemented together; notes the recent political developments in Northern Ireland; expresses the hope that the election of the Rt hon David Trimble as First Minister and of Mr Mark Durkan as Deputy First Minister marks the beginning of a new era of stability in the political institutions of Northern Ireland; and calls on all political representatives to respect the wishes of the people in the referenda to implement the Agreement in full.

23.  The Body then debated the responses of the two Governments to Committee D's Report on the Cultural Significance of Parades. The text of the resulting Resolution can be found in Appendix 2.

24.  As a result of an unexpected hiatus in the programme, Mr Quentin Davies MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was invited by the Steering Committee to address the Body. Mr Davies, who was warmly received by the Body, gave a short presentation on the Opposition's policies in relation to Northern Ireland, and answered questions. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Rt hon Dr John Reid PC MP, then addressed the Plenary, focussing on the importance of the Good Friday Agreement as a vehicle for realising the aspirations of the different communities throughout the British Isles, and answered oral questions.

25.  On Tuesday 5 December, after brief business reports from Committee Chairmen, the Body turned its attention to a debate on Sellafield, on a substantive motion for the adjournment. In a frank debate, concerns were expressed by Members from several jurisdictions about the safety and economic viability of the mixed oxide fuel plant at Sellafield; others, however, took the view that fears about safety were rather exaggerated and that reprocessing was still a necessary part of the nuclear fuel cycle. It was agreed that a transcript of the debate should be circulated to member governments within the British-Irish Council

Steering Committee

26.  The Members of the Steering Committee during the year were Mr Michael O'Kennedy SC TD and Mr David Winnick MP, Co-Chairmen, and Mr Jimmy Deenihan TD, Mr Brian Hayes TD, Mr Michael Mates MP, Mr Kevin McNamara MP, and Dr Rory O'Hanlon TD, Vice-Chairmen. Ms Patricia Ferguson MSP, Mr Séan Neeson MLA and Mr Barry McElduff MLA represented the devolved institutions once they had become full members of the Body. The Crown Dependencies, however, decided to rotate their representation; and meetings were attended on their behalf by Mr Edgar Quine MHK, Senator Pierre Horsfall and Deputy Roger C Berry. The Committee met on five occasions. Mr Deenihan replaced Mr Hayes as a Vice-Chairman during the course of the year.

Committees

27.  The work of the Committees during the year is outlined in Appendix 3. Overall, the UK general election caused an inevitable break in their work-programmes.

Prospects for 2002

28.  The work of the Body during 2002 is likely to be disrupted to some extent by the forthcoming general election in Ireland, and this is likely to impact most of all on the work of Committees. 2002 will be the first full year of the expanded Body, and perhaps the first task is fully to integrate the new Members into the Body's activities. More generally, however, much depends on the continuing stability of the institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement.


 
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