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Ireland and Britain, the Republic and Northern Ireland, so many meetings, so many photos… July 18, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Britain, Ireland, Northern Ireland.
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Just briefly, on the British Irish Council and after. Last week I wrote about the potential that had for changing the nature of the relationship. But I also noted that it might have an instructive effect in indicating to the DUP and Ian Paisley that the nature of the relationship within the UK was changing.

From the reports of Mondays doings in Stormont it is clear that he has engaged with relish with the Council. I think this is telling, but it also indicates the nature of the institutions that have been established and how they might develop. You genuinely couldn’t make up some of the reports:

Referring to the unresolved issue of British funding for Northern Ireland’s infrastructure, Dr Paisley said he and Martin McGuinness had discussed funding directly with Gordon Brown. Further talks involving the prime minister and Alistair Darling, the new chancellor of the exchequer, would be held “before September”.

“The prime minister was enthusiastic about it,” said Dr Paisley. “He said he hoped to be back many times in Northern Ireland, and he was getting more and more to know what our hardships were.”

He said the North’s financial difficulties were of the British government’s “own making”.

Well…yes. His new found Ulster nationalism lite is quite striking. Or is it old found? Paisley was always adept at tailoring his pronouncements to be just a shade more ambiguous than many would give him credit.

But as if to provide a degree of balance:

Without directly referring to the comparative advantage enjoyed by the Republic over Northern Ireland in relation to rates of corporation tax, Mr McGuinness stressed the need for “a level playing pitch for all of us on this island” about how foreign direct investment was attracted.

It is clear the the DUP regards the Council as a means of at least paralleling the North South components of the GFA. But it also strikes me that the clear rapport between Paisley and Alex Salmond of the SNP is such that there is an awakening realisation of just how these institutions can work as a means of demonstrating a very different Unionism to that seen before, one which engages and negotiates and which is in some respects striving to a redefinition of identity. It is also fascinating to see how both Paisley and Martin McGuinness have reined in any tendency to make glib but destructive points about the processes they are engaged in.

Hard not to agree with the IT when it reports:

Yet while the SNP leader offers Mr Brown a non-confrontational approach in the interest of delivering prosperity for the Scottish people, Mr Salmond also provides the DUP with an opportunity to shape an “islands-wide” approach to co-operation on a wide range of issues.

Here are five different representatives (six if we accord a dual status to the NI representation) working with two sovereign states and three subsidiary entities. This broader stage upon which the players walk must be considerably more satisfying than the formerly Westminster-centric structures. After all, few would balk at the prospect of leading something more akin to a ‘nation’ than a province?

Yet this ‘new’ Northern Ireland although very different in terms of the political structures within it, is in some respects throwing up questions that were much older.

Minister of Finance at Stormont in the 1940s, Hugh Pollock, saw Northern Ireland as an ‘autonomous state with a federal relationship to the United Kingdom’. The Minister of Labour John Andrews took a different line when he said:

…Statements are often made which assume that Northern Ireland is autonomous or in the position of a Dominion…in fact…it is no more than a subordinate authority…to which sovereign legislature for its own convenience has devolved certain limited functions in respect of local services…

Is it possible to see the former definition now beginning to overtake the latter within a federalised context that incorporates but is not exclusive to the UK? A sort of conglomerate entity that works closely together on these islands into the foreseeable future.

Still, one has to wonder about Gordon Brown, or at least his speech writers. He announced that:

…he was particularly pleased to visit Stormont as the new executive was settling down to business.

“I believe that we have entered into a new historic time for Northern Ireland,” he said.

New and historic. Somehow that doesn’t quite scan…

As for yesterday. Strangely less compelling than Monday. It’s all bread and butter stuff. Transport. Infrastructural development.

The meeting heard news of a £400 million Irish Government-funded major roads programme that will provide dual carriageway routes within Northern Ireland.

They will serve both the north west and the eastern seaboard corridor from Belfast to the ferry port of Larne ,and the Northern Ireland Executive confirmed its acceptance, in principle, to take forward the two projects.

Ministers also agreed to proceed with the restoration of another section of the Ulster Canal – part of a £100 million scheme that will eventually provide navigable water from the north of Northern Ireland through to the River Shannon and across the Republic.

Smiles and lots of photos of the happy interlocuters. And yet, if the former hinterlands of Derry and Belfast can be reconnected across the border through improved infrastructural links that alone is a significant step forward. That the RoI is investing significant funds in the North is a further step, that an Ian Paisley led Executive accepts this is…intriguing. That they are actually talking…amazing, although is it my imagination or does Peter Robinson look just a little less than ecstatic in the photograph? And there is Eamon Ryan of the Green Party at the front right.

And they’ve already scrawled a date for another get together.

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