i wrote this for The New European in May.
No UK Prime Minister has attended the British-Irish Council since 2007.
When she met the Irish Taoiseach in January, Theresa May made it clear that she wanted to try to ensure, post-Brexit, a ‘seamless, frictionless border’ between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The UK Prime Minister subsequently made her case for the maintenance of the UK as a ‘precious union’ when she attended the Scottish Conservative Conference. She said that in the UK, ‘we are four nations, but at heart one people’. She claimed that ‘facts and logic’ were on the side of the UK.
At one level, it is reassuring to hear, after the damning of experts and expertise last year by Michael Gove, and the tabloid huffing and puffing over Spain’s claim to Gibraltar, that facts and logic matter. But negotiations, particularly when they involve sensitive issues of national sentiment, require emotional intelligence as well. Informal relationships matter.
There is growing concern in both the UK and Ireland that the hard Brexit currently being pursued will not only be damaging to the economy north and south of the border but will lead to the re-imposition of border controls. That itself raises fears about historic tensions re-surfacing. Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan said last week that there was ‘no upside’ to Brexit. Tony Blair, as UK Prime Minister one of the architects of the peace process, warned in Ireland last week that the potential ‘hard border’ presented a real threat to the workings of the Good Friday Agreement.
In that context, it is perhaps surprising how little engagement has taken place by senior Conservative politicians with institutions like the British-Irish Council. The sitting Taoiseach has only missed one out of the 28 British-Irish Council meetings that have taken place since its inception. No UK Prime Minister has attended since Gordon Brown in 2007. David Cameron never went (though Nick Clegg, as the Liberal Democrat Deputy PM did on several occasions): and the current Prime Minister, Theresa May, has never attended either as Prime Minister or as Home Secretary. Additionally, UK Cabinet Ministers other than what Whitehall used to call the Territorial ministers (the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) have attended roughly just half of the meetings.
The sitting Welsh First Minister has attended 23 out of the 28 meetings and the sitting Scottish First Minister, 21 out of the 28 meetings. Aside from when the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended, the sitting Northern Irish First Minister has failed to attend only once.
The British-Irish Council is a strange entity. Indeed, Jonathan Powell, formerly Tony Blair’s chief of staff, described it in his book on the Good Friday Agreement negotiations as a ‘bizarre’ organization. Jonathan says that it was created because the Unionists wanted it as a means of solidifying ‘East-West’ relationships alongside the ‘North-South’ relationships.
Bizarre it may be, but it has now endured for almost twenty years, and held 28 meetings in that time. In my days as a Welsh Minister, I attended two meetings, as well as contributing to working groups and events organised under its auspices. The BIC seemed valuable more for the opportunities to build informal relationships with counterparts from Ireland and the other devolved administrations, rather than for any formal business carried on. What is startling is how little attention has been given to it by senior Conservative politicians. Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major is known to be worried that the current Conservative government is paying too little attention to the situation in Northern Ireland.
The presence of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man obviously adds another layer to the meetings, but it is the one formal forum where the devolved administrations, the UK Government and the Irish Government convene together. In the context of Brexit, it could play a useful informal role, if taken seriously.
Internally in the UK, inter-governmental consultative mechanisms such as the Joint Ministerial Committee exist but have significant flaws, as the Welsh Finance Minister told the House of Lords EU Committee in March. There is a strong case for strengthening such mechanisms, ensuring at the very least proper preparation for the meetings.
In her comments on what might happen to powers repatriated to the UK after Brexit, the UK Prime Minister initially sounded as if she were opposed to strengthening the powers of the devolved administrations, saying she did not want the UK to become ‘looser and weaker’ through additional devolution. The Great Repeal White Paper is vague on these issues, but confirms that the devolution settlements will have to be reviewed in the context of the Brexit negotiations. This is not altogether surprising, as membership of the EU is specifically referenced in devolution legislation. But it does raise the consequence of a clash of referendums: the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have endorsed their EU-linked devolution settlements in referendums with results more emphatic than the margin in the Brexit referendum.
The sense, however, of a UK Government determined to resurrect an old-fashioned unionism with a stronger Westminster at the core, comes through at every move by Mrs May and her Cabinet colleagues, Her opposition to a ‘looser union’ puts her on a collision course with pro-union politicians such as the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who has argued extensively over past years for precisely such a ‘looser union’ as the best way to protect the UK’s future as a state. Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown takes a similar view and has argued that Westminster’s version of parliamentary sovereignty no longer applies.
Facts and logic are all very well – but will Theresa May invest the necessary time and energy in building the informal relationships that could smooth the Brexit negotiations? The data doesn’t lie. Her approach, and that of her Cabinet, to the British-Irish Council, suggests that respect for institutions beyond Westminster is limited. Mrs May is storing up trouble, both for the UK’s long-term relationship with Ireland and other EU members, and with the devolved administrations. It’ll be a bumpy ride.
Leighton Andrews is Professor in Public Service Leadership at Cardiff Business School and a former Welsh Government Minister.