Eighth Annual Report



EIGHTH ANNUAL REPORT


No. 98 March 2004

THE WORK OF THE BRITISH-IRISH INTER-PARLIAMENTARY BODY

Introduction

1.  This is the eighth 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 2003.

Political developments

2.  The devolved Northern Ireland institutions remained suspended throughout 2003. In early 2003, there were extensive consultations and dialogue between the British and Irish Governments and pro-Agreement parties on the way forward.

3.  Following this process, the British and Irish Governments published on 1 May a Joint Declaration setting out their joint approach on securing the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The Declaration addressed the issues of the requirements of peace and stability; acts of completion; political institutions; paramilitarism; normalisation; policing and justice; rights, equality, identity and community; and the review of the operation of the Good Friday Agreement.

4.  On the same day, the British Prime Minister Mr. Tony Blair MP announced that elections in Northern Ireland, which had previously been postponed until 29 May, would now be postponed until the autumn.

5.  In September 2003, the British and Irish Governments published the draft International Agreement establishing the Independent Monitoring Commission. The IMC will oversee the fulfillment of commitments in regard to the ending of paramilitary activity, security normalisation and full participation in the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, as outlined in the Agreement on Monitoring and Compliance, published by the two Governments on 1 May 2003. Following completion of the necessary legislative process in the Oireachtas and the Westminster Parliament, the Commission began work in January 2004.

6.  Talks between the two Governments and the pro-Agreement parties in Northern Ireland resumed in the autumn. Following weeks of intensive discussions between the two Governments and the pro-Agreement parties, the Taoiseach Mr. Bertie Ahern and the Prime Minister Mr. Tony Blair met in Belfast on 21 October. The Prime Minister Mr. Tony Blair announced that elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly would take place on 23 November.

7.  The Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair received a report from General de Chastelain, Chairman of the International Independent Commission on Decommissioning indicating that he had witnessed a further act of decommissioning by the IRA. In a public statement General de Chastelain said that this was a bigger act of putting arms beyond use than the previous two acts, and comprised automatic weapons, ammunition, explosives and explosive materials. Mr. David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, stated that the IICD report had not been sufficiently transparent to enable his party to enter into a power-sharing executive.

8.  The result of the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly held on 23 November saw the Democratic Unionist Party emerge with 30 seats, making it the largest party in the Assembly. The Ulster Unionist Party secured 27 seats, Sinn Féin 24 seats, the SDLP securing 18 seats, and the Alliance party 6 seats. The Progressive Unionist Party and the UK Unionist Party both won one seat and an independent candidate also won a seat. Shortly after the election, three Members transferred their allegiance from the Ulster Unionist party to the Democratic Unionist Party.

9.  Following these results, the Governments announced that a Review of the Good Friday Agreement would begin in January 2004.

10.  Other events which had an impact on the Body were the elections to the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly of Wales, which meant that representatives of the devolved assemblies also were unable to take part in the work of the Body from April until the appointment of their delegations in October.

11.  The new delegation from the Scottish Parliament comprised Mr Murray Tosh, Mr Alasdair Morrison, Mr David McLetchie, Mrs Margaret Ewing and Mr Iain Smith as full Members and Ms Helen Eadie, Mr Robin Harpur, Mr Bruce Crawford and Mr Michael McMahon as alternates. New or re-appointed Welsh representatives were Mr Michael German, Mr John Griffiths, Dr Dai Lloyd, Mr David Melding and the Presiding Officer or his representative as full Members and Mr Glyn Davies and Mr Brian Gibbons as Associate Members.

12.  The States of Jersey nominated Senator Frank Harrison Walker as a full Member and Senator Terence Augustine Le Sueur as Associate Members.

13.  Other changes of membership during the year were the replacement in the Westminster delegation of Mr Lembit Õpik by Mr Alistair Carmichael and Lord Alderdice by Baroness Harris of Richmond.

The work of the Body

14.  In accordance with the Rules of the Body, two Plenary Sessions were held in 2003: from 23 to 25 March in Kilkenny and from 19 to 21 October in Ware.

Twenty-sixth Plenary

15.  The Kilkenny plenary was overshadowed by the military action in Iraq and at times in the run-up to the meeting it looked as if the UK Members might be unable to attend owing to commitments in the House, which might well have meant cancelling the session for lack of quorum. Fortunately it proved possible to avoid this. Members of all delegations, irrespective of their views on the justice of the action expressed sympathy to the service personnel involved (drawn, as they were, from all parts of the islands) and to their families, and a number of Members drew parallels between the likely post-war situation in Iraq and that in Northern Ireland, in terms of the need to rebuild communities.

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

"That the Body reaffirms its support for the Good Friday Agreement, which was democratically endorsed by the people of Ireland, both North and South; believes that the full implementation of the Agreement is necessary to ensure peace, stability and sustainable political institutions in Northern Ireland; welcomes the intensive efforts of the two Governments, in consultation with political parties in Northern Ireland, to secure rapid and full implementation of the Agreement, including the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland; calls upon all parties involved to redouble their efforts to achieve a successful outcome to this process; and looks forward to the prospect of the Agreement being fully operational and in place before the Assembly elections on 29 May".

17.  The debate was lively and covered a number of subjects, including the on-the-runs, policing, education and electoral registration in Northern Ireland, as well as matters of more local interest. There was not unanimity on the desirability of holding elections in the current political climate, and Lord Glentoran suggested but did not move an amendment calling on the paramilitaries to 'disarm and go away for ever', but in the end the motion was carried without a vote.

18.  On the Monday afternoon, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Brian Cowen TD, made a statement to the body and answered Oral Questions. This was, as usual, an interesting session and a wide range of issues were covered.

19.  An innovation was a debate on the adjournment (on the subject of fishing and fisheries) which was informed by briefing papers from all the administrations represented.

20.  Other debates were held on the Annual Report of the Body and on reports from Committee C, on Tourism, and Committee A, on the mutual recognition of penalty points.

21.  The plenary made several amendments to the rules of the Body. It shortened the notice period for questions to Ministers from twenty days to ten working days, in the hope of making the questions more topical; it recognized formally the position of the Shadow Chairs of Committees; and it provided for the appointment of sub-committees and committee rapporteurs. It is to be hoped that these last changes will encourage committee activity by allowing for greater flexibility, but in moving the change Mr McNamara stressed that as a concomitant committees would need to exercise greater budgetary discipline.

Twenty-Seventh Plenary

22.  The Twenty-Seventh Plenary took place in Ware in Hertfordshire on 20th - 21st October.

23.  The customary debate on recent political developments, held on Monday morning, took place in the context of the intensive discussions referred to in paragraph 5 (the announcement that the postponed Assembly elections would take place on 23 November came after the close of the plenary. The timing was such that the Secretary of State, Mr Paul Murphy, was unable to attend and it was with difficulty that the Minister of State, Mr John Spellar, was freed to deliver a speech to the body and to answer questions on Monday afternoon. It was, accordingly, with great sadness that Members heard the news the next morning that his wife had died suddenly.

24.  The text for the political motion (drafted at the last minute because of the uncertainty as to what was happening in terms of the situation in Northern Ireland) was, "That the Body remains fully supportive of the Good Friday Agreement as the only way forward for the people of Northern Ireland; recognises the political progress brought about by the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, benefiting all the people of these islands; acknowledges the collective responsibility of all concerned, including the two governments and the pro-Agreement parties, to make the Agreement work; calls upon all parties involved to redouble their efforts to achieve the restoration of the devolved institutions; trusts that the elections to the Assembly, postponed from May 2003, will be held before the end of the year; and looks forward to welcoming a full delegation of Assembly Members to its spring plenary in 2004."

25.  The notion provided the framework for a debate on the political situation and allowed for the expression of disparate views. Most speakers were cautiously optimistic about the future of post-Agreement Northern Ireland (mention was made more than once of the relative peacefulness of the past marching season), but warning voices were heard about disillusionment among the young. Again, while a clear majority of those speaking were in favour of holding the elections in the existing political climate, there were dissenting voices who felt that they would merely increase polarisation.

26.  As always, the debate covered a variety of subjects. There was discussion of the relative importance of the decommissioning of weapons and of hearts and minds and the symbolism of handshakes; condemnation of the intimidation of members of the District Policing Partnerships and an insistence on the importance of Sinn Fein participation in the new policing system; regret that pro-agreement parties other than the UUP and Sinn Fein (and in particular the SDLP) seemed to have been marginalised in the continuing negotiations); sorrow that the major, unresolved, political issues meant that issues of great local importance, from the fisheries crisis to car crime, were not being addressed.

27.  Lord Glentoran moved and withdrew an amendment calling specifically 'on Sinn Fein/IRA to do what Prime Minister Blair had said would be necessary for the resumption of the peace process', and the motion was carried unamended.

28.  On Tuesday morning, in a departure from the Body's usual rule that only elected parliamentarians should address it, at the invitation of the Steering Committee the Body was addressed by Professor Paul Bew, Professor of Irish Politics at Queen's University, Belfast. While it was accepted that he could in no way speak for the Ulster Unionists the Steering Committee felt that with his wide experience and knowledge of Northern Ireland politics he could make a useful contribution to the Body's deliberations. His topic was 'Northern Ireland : Recent Developments', and he drew a rather depressing but nonetheless prophetic picture of the mood of many unionists and the possible outcome of the elections.

29.  The plenary also debated the proposed future constitution of Europe, the substantive report from Committee A on Mutual Recognition of Penalty Points and a report from Committee D on Sellafield: Recent Developments (this was sent not only to the governments and devolved assemblies for comments but also to the secretariat of the British-Irish Council for onward transmission to their environmental sectoral group).

Steering Committee

30.  The Members of the Steering Committee during the year were Mr Brendan Smith TD and Mr David Winnick MP, Co-Chairmen, and Mr Seamus Kirk TD, Mr Michael Mates MP, Mr Kevin McNamara MP and Mr Jim O'Keeffe TD, Vice-Chairmen. Dr Dai Lloyd AM represented the devolved institutions, a vacancy being held for a representative of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Crown Dependencies were represented variously by Mr Donald Gelling MHK of the Isle of Man and Senator Roger Berry of Guernsey. The Committee met on four occasions.

Committees

31.  The work of the Committees during the year is outlined in Appendix 3.

32.  The incorporation of the devolved parliamentary assemblies and the Crown dependencies continues as satisfactorily as may be in the absence of any representation from the Northern Ireland Assembly.

33.  Relations with the Nordic Council are becoming stronger. Primary responsibility has been delegated to Committee B, whose activities in this field are detailed in Appendix 3.

34.  The Body has long held that it has a right to be regarded as the parliamentary arm of the British-Irish Council. Attempts in the year to establish closer relations between Body and Council, however, met with limited success. Although certain papers are exchanged between the secretariats this is a somewhat one-sided process and the Council rejected a request from Committee A to send an observer to its meeting. The Steering Committee is actively pursuing the matter.

35.  The British-Irish Parliamentary Reporting Association continued to provide a verbatim report of the plenary meetings free of charge other than in the provision of accommodation and meals. At its meeting in Ware, the Steering Committee invited the Association to continue this arrangement, and they have accepted.

36.  There were a number of staff changes in the year. Mr Jim Mulkerrins, the Irish Joint Clerk, was succeeded by Mr John Hamilton. Among the Committee Clerks on the English side, Mr John Whatley was succeeded as Shadow Clerk of Committee C by Mr Michael Hennessey (both of the House of Commons) and Dr Christopher Johnson was succeeded as Clerk of Committee D by Ms Audrey Nelson (both of the House of Lords). On the Irish side, Mr David Keating replaced Ms Mariannne Bolger as Shadow Clerk of Committees B and D, and Mr Rory Desch replaced Miss Jennifer Durgan in the Irish secretariat.

Prospects for 2004

37.  For the first time in several years no general election is expected in any member organisation, so there should be less disruption of the pattern of the Body's work. The facility to establish sub-committees and appoint rapporteurs may lead to an increase in the activities of committees. The work of the Body can be enhanced with the re-establishment of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland and the participation of all the political parties entitled to nominate representatives


 
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