Seventh Annual Report



SEVENTH ANNUAL REPORT


No. - 89 March 2003

THE WORK OF THE BRITISH-IRISH INTER-PARLIAMENTARY BODY

Introduction

1  This is the seventh 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 2002.

Political developments

2  The year was overshadowed by the suspension of the devolved Northern Ireland institutions on 23rd October, and by the events leading up to it; this obviously had a serious impact on the Body; some specific implications are discussed in paragraphs 28 to 33 below.

3  Another event which had a major impact on the work of the Body during the year was the Irish General Election, held on 17th May 2002. A number of long-standing Members of the Body ceased to be Members of the Dail, including the Co-Chairman Mr Michael O'Kennedy, Mr Andrew Boylan, Mr Austin Currie, Mr Séan Doherty, Ms. Helen Keogh, Mr Brendan McGahon, Ms. Marian McGennis, Mr Matt Brennan, Mr Proinsias de Rossa MEP, Ms. Ann Leonard and Mr Maurice Manning.

4  The timing of the Irish General Election made it impossible for the new Irish Members to be nominated to the Body before November, which meant that the Committees, through which the Body carries out much of its work, were unable to operate from April onwards.

5.   The new Dáil saw a significant swing to the Government parties since the 1997 election, with the Fianna Fáil party picking up 4 seats and the Progressive Democrat party also gaining 4 seats. The principal opposition party, Fine Gael, saw its vote drop from 54 seats to 31. The Labour Party saw its vote remain static. Major gains were made by the Green Party and Sinn Féin, who picked up 5 and 4 seats respectively. 13 independent Members were also elected, which was an increase of 6 since 1997.

6.   The new Oireachtas configuration necessitated a change in representation on the Body as follows. Government nominated 14 Full Members and 11 Associate Members; Fine Gael nominated 5 Full Members and 4 Associate Members; Labour nominated 3 Full Members and 2 Associate Members; Technical Group (independents) nominated 2 Full Members and 2 Associate Members; Non aligned Independents nominated 1 Full Member and 1 Associate Member.

7  The only changes to British membership during the year were the replacement of Ms. Gillian Merron as an Associate Member by Mr Gareth Thomas (Clwyd West) and the resignation in December of Ms. Jean Corston as a full Member. Ms Corston, who had not been replaced by the end of the year, resigned due to her other heavy responsibilities as Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party and of the House of Commons Human Rights Committee. Despite this heavy work-load she had been an assiduous attender at committee meetings.

8  A reshuffle of the UK cabinet on 22nd October 2002 resulted in the replacement of Dr John Reid by Mr Paul Murphy as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Mr Murphy, who was from 1997 to 1999 Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office, is no stranger to the affairs of the Body, and he kindly agreed to replace Dr Reid as guest speaker at the Body's plenary meeting in Manchester on 25th November, and to take questions.

The work of the Body

9  In accordance with the Rules of the Body, two Plenary Sessions were held in 2002: on 24th and 26th March in Dublin and on 25th and 26th November in Manchester.

Twenty-Fourth Plenary

10  The twenty-fourth plenary took place in Dublin on 25th and 26th March.

11  Several responses had been received to the debate on Sellafield held in November 2001 in Bournemouth, but in order to give Members time to study these they were held over for debate until the next plenary session, meanwhile being referred to Committee D.

12  The main debate of the Monday morning session took place on the motion:

13   On the Monday afternoon there was a debate on a motion, proposed by Ms. Shona Robison MSP, welcoming the joint Scottish-Irish bid to hold the European football championships 2008 and, after a well-informed debate the Body resolved

    'That the Body welcomes the joint Scottish-Irish bid for the European Championships,2008; recognises that Euro 2008 provides a great opportunity for both Scottish and Irish tourism; and, looks forward to Euro 2008 further enhancing relations between both nations'.

14  During the afternoon sitting, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Brian Cowen TD, made a statement to the Body and answered Oral Questions.

15  The following day began with business reports from the Committees.

16  The second debate of the day, on the Annual Report of the Body for 2001, elicited a number of interesting comments about the way the Body conducts its work, ranging from a demand for more women on the Steering Committee through ways and means of encouraging Unionist participation to the proper balance between ministerial speech and question time.

17  A wide-ranging debate on the future of Europe was held on a substantive motion for the adjournment

Twenty-fifth Plenary

18  The Twenty-fifth Plenary took place in Manchester on 25th and 26th November.

19  The Plenary began with the customary debate on recent political developments, which took place in the context of the suspension of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly.

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

21  The Body then took note of the responses of governments and executives to the resolution agreed in Dublin on the joint bid to host the European Football Championships.

22  A debate on a Scottish motion congratulating the Nordic Council on its 50th anniversary was initiated by Mr Murray Tosh MSP (the Scottish Parliament having recently hosted a seminar of the Council). A delegate from the Council, Mr Asmund Kristofferson of Norway, Chairman of its Environment and Natural Resources Committee was invited to take part in the debate, and the Body resolved

    'That the Body congratulates the Nordic Council on its 50th anniversary; notes the benefits that the Council has brought to the peoples, regions and nations of the Nordic areas in terms of social, political and economic co-operation; and believes that links between the Body and the Nordic Council should be encouraged'.

23  The Assembly was then addressed by the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr Paul Murphy. In the subsequent question session, an unprecedented 13 questions were reached, Mr Murphy at one point causing amusement by reading out that part of his brief that stated 'This question will not be reached'. Members having previously expressed interest in having more questions answered, this was a cause for satisfaction.

24  On Tuesday 5 December, after brief business reports from Committee Chairmen, the Body again turned its attention to a debate on Sellafield, on the motion 'That the Body takes note of the Report of Committee D: Culture, Education and Environment on Sellafield: an update [Doc No 85], and agrees with the conclusions and recommendations of the Report which should be forwarded to both Governments and devolved administrations for their observations'. The debate showed that the strength of opposing views had not subsided since the debate in Bournemouth and the motion was amended to read 'That the Body takes note of the Report of Committee D entitled 'Sellafield: an update' which should be forwarded to both governments and the devolved institutions and the British-Irish Council for their observations'.

25  In the course of the debate on the adjournment of the Body, Mr Mackinlay circulated a paper containing various ideas for improving the status of the Body; these included formally monitoring the work of the British-Irish Council, inviting Ministers from both the Dail and Westminster to attend each plenary and answer questions (without prejudice to the address by the guest speaker), making further efforts to secure the presence of Prime Minister Blair, holding a plenary session in Northern Ireland and holding part of the session in 'select committee mode'. Other suggestions were made, including setting the dates of the plenary sessions further in advance, and the importance of getting Unionist participation was raised again.

26  Both at the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth plenaries, attendance at the Tuesday session was sparse. Members may care to consider whether there is any way in which the pattern of sittings can be altered to make it easier for them to attend for the whole of a plenary session.

Steering Committee

27  The Members of the Steering Committee from the Oireachtas and the UK Parliament before the Irish General Election 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. After the election the Irish Members were replaced by Mr Brendan Smith, TD (Co-Chairman), Mr Seamus Kirk, TD, and Mr Jim O'Keeffe (Vice-Chairmen). Ms Patricia Ferguson MSP (succeeded by Mr Murray Tosh MSP) , Mr Séan Neeson MLA and Mr Murray Tosh MSP represented the devolved institutions once they had become full members of the Body. The Crown Dependencies were represented at meetings by Mr Donald Gelling MHK, Senator Pierre Horsfall and Deputy Roger C Berry . The Committee met on four occasions.

28  Following suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly, it fell to the Steering Committee to consider the position of the Members from the Assembly.

29  According to Rule 1 of the Body, the BIIPB is composed of 'representatives of the participating institutions'.

30  The rules are silent on the position of the representatives of institutions which have been suspended, Rule 2d referring only to the term of office of a Member or Associate Member expiring 'on the certification of his discharge by his nominating institution or when he ceases to be a Member of that institution, whether by dissolution or for any other reason'.

31  The MLAs have not ceased to be members of the Assembly; they continue to draw a proportion of their salary and to carry out their constituency functions. The Assembly does not, however, function at any collective level; no meetings of either Assembly or its Committees are held.

32  Under Rule 8e, however, the Steering Committee has a duty to act 'as appropriate to the best interests of the Body'.

33  At its meeting in Dublin on 4th November, the Steering Committee decided that it would not be appropriate for members of an organisation that was not operating at an institutional level to participate in the Body's activities, and Lord Alderdice, Speaker of the Assembly, was informed accordingly.

Committees

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

Other developments

35  The incorporation of the devolved parliamentary assemblies and the islands continues in general satisfactorily (though as mentioned above, Northern Ireland is not at the moment playing an active role). In particular the representatives of these institutions have played a major role in another new development of 2002, the developing of relations with the Nordic Council.

36  Following an invitation from the Nordic Council, Mr Michael O'Kennedy TD, Mr Kevin McNamara MP, Mr Sean Neeson MLA, Deputy Roger Berry and the Joint Clerks attended a seminar on 'Nordic Democracy' in Reykjavik in April. A number of useful contacts were established; in particular an exchange of views on the question of Sellafield was held with the Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources The Members attending agreed that relations should be maintained, and the Council was invited to send a delegation to the Manchester plenary; this invitation was accepted by the Chairman of the Committee, Mr Asmund Kristofferssen, and the Clerk of the Committee, and they combined their attendance at the plenary with a visit to the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant.

37  A further invitation from the Council, to send members to its jubilee conference in Helsinki, was accepted by Mr Neeson and Mr Brian Gibbons AM but the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly resulted in Mr Gibbons attending alone, accompanied by the British Joint Clerk; he found the experience interesting and also profited by it by making useful contacts in the health field to forward his study of healthcare delivery systems.

38  The Scottish Parliament hosted a seminar of the Council on 19th November; the Steering Committee was invited to send representatives but the date was too close to the Manchester plenary. The British Joint Clerk went as an observer.

39  While at the Manchester session, Mr Kristofferssen met members of Committee D to discuss topics of mutual interest. Committee B agreed to carry out an inquiry into relations with the Nordic Council. It looks likely therefore that the year's work will be taken further.

40  In another, more domestic development, the newly-formed British-Irish Parliamentary Reporting Association has taken on, without charging a fee and on an experimental basis for the time being, the responsibility of producing the transcript of the Body's plenaries. The Body is grateful to the Association and its members.

Prospects for 2002

41  The work of the Body during 2003 is certain to be interrupted to some extent by the forthcoming elections in Scotland, Wales and, it is to be hoped, Northern Ireland. More generally, however, much hangs on the possibilities of the reinstatement of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.


 
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