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In Context: The British-Irish Council

The leaders at the summit in Blackpool this month | Alamy

In Context: The British-Irish Council

What is the British-Irish Council?

The British-Irish Council (BIC) is an intergovernmental organisation formed in December 1999 as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. It was agreed on in April 1998 between the British and Irish governments and the parties of Northern Ireland after two years of negotiations. 

The BIC was established to further promote positive, practical relationships among its members and to provide a forum for consultation and co-operation.

Who attends the council?

It has eight members: the Irish and UK governments, who are signatory members; Scotland; Northern Ireland; Wales; Guernsey; the Isle of Man; and Jersey. This is the only international forum where all eight of these members attend together. 

Leaders of the devolved UK governments, along with the UK’s prime minister, the taoiseach in Ireland, and chief ministers from the Channel Islands, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man are the heads of their respective memberships, but they do not always attend the council. Rishi Sunak was the first PM to attend the summit since 2007, and he is the first ever Conservative PM to appear at the council. 

This month, the most recent meeting of the BIC was hosted by the UK’s Levelling Up secretary, Michael Gove. No one from the Northern Ireland Assembly attended as there is an ongoing power-sharing dispute. First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford and the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, joined the talks via video call, while the other leaders, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, attended in person.  

What do they discuss?

The council agrees work areas which individual members take responsibility for. There are currently 12 working areas. Scotland currently is responsible for demography and is partly responsible for energy and social inclusion.

At the most recent summit, the theme of discussion was sustainable growth and regeneration. Delegates discussed the cost-of-living and energy crises, labour and housing shortages, climate change, and the effects of Brexit – including the Northern Ireland protocol. 

How often do they meet?

The council meets twice a year. Although there have been exceptions to this. Most recently, there was one meeting in 2020 due to the pandemic. In total, there have been 38 summits since the BIC’s formation in 1999. 

Where does the council meet?

The council’s headquarters are in Edinburgh, but meetings of the council are often held in hotels, public-owned buildings, and conference centres across the member nations and dependencies. The most recent summit was held in Blackpool. It has been hosted in Scotland five times since 2002. 

The next meeting of the council is scheduled to be in Jersey. 

Quotes from the most recent meeting of the council

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on meeting Rishi Sunak at the British-Irish Council: "It was a cordial and constructive meeting. I think both of us want to try as hard as we can to build a good constructive working relationship. 

"We’ve got deep political disagreements. I think we can all take that as read. But we’ve also got an obligation to work together in the interests of the people we serve. So, I’m certainly keen to build that kind of relationship. He says he is too, so hopefully we’ll see that translate from rhetoric into reality."   

Micheál Martin, Taoiseach, speaking at a press conference at the British-Irish Council on resolving issues of the Northern Ireland protocol: "I think the relationship, certainly between the prime minister and I and both governments, has improved very significantly.
And I think we’re both of a mind to, with our colleagues in the European Union, to get this issue resolved in a harmonious way. 

"And I think the meeting over these two days has again reinforced the importance of all of us working together on shared challenges and shared issues. 

"So therefore, the need to really get this issue resolved is important because we have other bigger issues also; really significant economic challenges coming our way, we have the war in Ukraine."   
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on resolving the Northern Ireland protocol: "I think we all recognise that the protocol is having a real impact on the ground, on families, on businesses in Northern Ireland, threatening Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. And I want to resolve that.

"I’m deeply committed to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. I want to see the institutions back up and running in Northern Ireland because that’s what the people in Northern Ireland need and deserve. I discussed this with the taoiseach, we had a very positive meeting. And what I want to do is find a negotiated solution, preferably, and I’m pleased with the progress that we’re making in these early days."

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