Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs announced in December that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) would meet after an 11 year hiatus. The BIIGC met in London on Wednesday.
The body was established under The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 to “bring together the British and Irish governments” to cooperate “on all matters of mutual interest.” The wording in the agreement makes it very clear that the body does not have any remit to involve itself with devolved issues in Northern Ireland.
But Northern Ireland has not had a government for nearly two years, and talk of the BIIGC has been understood in terms of rebooting the power-sharing system that the province is predicated on.
In December Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, made a number of statements implying the body could establish an interim “joint authority” over Northern Ireland. This understandably riled some Unionists, with the implication very much being that Dublin and London could step in and deal with Northern Irish affairs until the DUP and Sinn Féin sort themselves out.
On Monday Owen Polley wrote in Reaction that Coveney and Varadkar are “using the political impasse at Stormont, as well as Brexit, in order to attempt a power-grab that gives Dublin a say over the province’s internal affairs.”
He is right, to an extent. Portraying the BIIGC as a replacement for Stormont is rocky constitutional territory – but maybe Varadkar has a point.
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When Northern Ireland has been without a functioning executive for nearly two years his statements raise questions about what kind of measures should be taken to deal with the ongoing problems in the province.
The power-sharing scheme developed under The Good Friday Agreement exists to bring together republicans and unionists in common purpose. Since Stormont collapsed over a financial row between the DUP and Sinn Féin, this common purpose seems to have vanished. But, the devolved issues that Stormont is responsible for are still vast and with far-reaching consequences. Just because there is no government, it does not mean that there is no one to govern.
We saw an encroachment on Northern Ireland’s devolved powers when prominent Tory women (Amber Rudd, Karen Bradley etc.) held meetings to bring on an abortion referendum in the area. This apparent attempt to undermine the devolved sovereignty of the region caused considerable backlash. But there is a reasonable argument to be made: Mechanisms should be put in place to govern those who live in Northern Ireland fairly and effectively. When Stormont can’t do it itself, should someone else?
The BBC recently reported that four out of the five health trusts in Northern Ireland are among the 10 worst emergency department performers in the UK. But whatever plans there are to improve local NHS services are left with no assembly to implement them.
Power sharing in Northern Ireland is failing, and it’s not so egregious of Varadkar to suggest that something needs to be done about that.