North-South Parliamentary Forum

Interesting article in issue 23 of agendaNI, on the development of establishing a North-South Parliamentary Forum between the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Oireachtas. I was actually gainfully employed by the Alliance Party when David Ford MLA tabled a motion on 28 May 2002, calling for negotiations for such a forum to commence. Not surprisingly, the motion failed, due to unionist opposition.

But I’m disappointed that Alliance has lost apparent interest, leaving it to the SDLP and Sinn Fein to take up the charge. A glimmer of hope comes from the Speakers of both respective Houses (NIA: William Hay MLA; Oireachtus: John O’Donoghue TD), who want to see proposals debated before the next summer recess.

North/South Parliamentary Forum
Peter Cheney (agendaNI)
December 2008-January 2009

Plans for a North/South Parliamentary Forum, involving MLAs and Members of the Oireachtas, have moved a step closer after the two bodies agreed to set up working groups to “develop proposals” for what the proposed body would involve. This was announced after a meeting at Stormont between Assembly Speaker William Hay and Dail Speaker (Ceann Comhairle) John O’Donoghue on 20 October.

The Good Friday Agreement, signed in April 1998, stated that the Assembly and the Oireachtas should “consider developing a joint parliamentary forum, bringing together equal numbers from both institutions for discussion of matters of mutual interest and concern”. The Agreement did not go as far as saying that the forum must be established.

Alliance MLA David Ford brought forward a motion on 28 May 2002 calling for negotiations on a forum to start. Due to unionist opposition, it was defeated by 32 votes to 25.

Supporters of the forum seemed to be on firmer ground with the Proposals for a Comprehensive Agreement, in December 2004. According to that document, the Northern Ireland Executive “would encourage the parties in the Assembly to establish a North-South parliamentary forum bringing together equal numbers from the Oireachtas and the Assembly, and operating on an inclusive basis”. The commitment was repeated word-for-word in the St Andrews Agreement, in October 2006.

Both the Assembly and the Oireachtas are already part of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which draws its members from all legislatures in the British Isles. Originally called the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, this was boycotted by unionists as it was connected to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. However, on the same day as the Speakers’ meeting, it was renamed and the DUP and UUP took their seats in the body.

Alex Attwood, the SDLP’s North/South Spokesperson, explained that the forum was proposed by his party shortly before the Good Friday Agreement negotiations. If a forum is formed, he would like to see it consist of at least 45 members, meeting at least quarterly. It would have no legislative powers of its own but be able to offer “advice and guidance” to each House and the North/South Ministerial Council.

“Deepending personal relations is going to have its own importance,” Attwood remarked. He expects the forum’s agenda to include topics which cross the border, such as energy and the environment.

He suggested that the forum could also lobby for an all-island inquiry into the Omagh bombing, if the bereaved families wished. As an all-island body itself, its views would carry extra weight. Attwood would also like to see the forum focus on “national reconciliation” on Ireland. This would involve helping people understand their shared past e.g. the sacrifice of Irish soldiers in the First World War. Forum members could visit former battlefields together.

Attwood also hopes that the forum will look east and west as well as north and south, as people west of the Bann and west of the Shannon are “not getting their full shout” at present.

Sinn Fein also supports the forum’s formation and made a commitment for this in its 2007 Assembly election manifesto. The DUP has previously rejected the proposal. In the 2002 debate, Rev. William McCrea said it would be “merely a talking shop”. Likewise, the TUV rejects the idea as “yet another expansion of Dublin interference”.

The UUP is “unconvinced” by the case for the forum and says the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly is the best place for co-operation to take place.

Alliance would support the forum’s creation and MLA Sean Neeson says it would strengthen the “close connections” between the Assembly and Dail Eireann. Green Party MLA Brian Wilson is also supportive and thinks it would be useful when dealing with cross-border problems such as pollution and climate change.

William Hay hopes that each party within the Assembly will put forward its views to the working group. Both Speakers would like to see these proposals debated before the next summer recess.

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