In July 2007, at a summit meeting in Belfast, Ministers tasked the secretariat of the British-Irish Council (BIC), in consultation with member Administrations, to undertake a strategic review of the Council. The review’s aim was to ensure that the Council operate in the most efficient and effective manner in delivering its work programmes, working methods and support arrangements, including those for a standing secretariat. Ministers considered interim reports from the summit meetings in Dublin and Edinburgh that were held in February 2008 and September 2008 respectively.
Those reports were informed by papers prepared by the secretariat and the participating Administrations, and focused on three main strands: support arrangements, work programmes, and working methods. The strategic review of the BIC is likely to feature on the agenda for the forthcoming summit in Cardiff. A statement to update Members on the outcome of discussions will be made to the Assembly after that meeting.
I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer, and I look forward to reading the report.
I refer the deputy First Minister to the Hansard report of 21 October 2008, when the First Minister said:
“east-west relationships must catch up with the existing North/South structures … the east-west relationships are catching up.” — [Official Report, Vol 34, No 4, p162, col 1].
Is the deputy First Minister not concerned that implicit in that statement is the danger that, as east-west relationships catch up, North/South relationships slow down? Given the ongoing review of the BIC, is he not concerned that at the same time as all that work on east-west arrangements is ongoing, those responsible for the review of the further expansion of North/South implementation and co-operation have not spent even one day considering how to expand North/South arrangements? Does that not give rise to deep concern about what is really happening?
I am concerned only with the proper outworking of the institutions that were established under the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement. Officials from the BIC are working flat out to ensure that the examination and review of all those institutions is conducted in a manner that will result in their working effectively for all the people whom we represent. Many Governments are involved in the British-Irish Council.
Similarly, I want the good work that the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) does to continue. The First Minister and I, accompanied by eight additional Ministers, attended the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in Derry last Friday. We were keen to meet the Taoiseach and 12 of his Ministers who came from Dublin to attend. The responsibility for conducting the reviews of the BIC and the North/South Ministerial Council has been given to officials.
It is important that we who are in Government ensure that the outcome of those reviews is that the institutions work effectively in the interests of all the people whom we represent. It is not a matter of there being a competition between east-west and North/South; rather, it is about ensuring that officials and Ministers in those two important institutions carry out their responsibilities for the benefit of everyone.
The provision in the St Andrews Agreement is for a review group to report its recommendations to the North/South Ministerial Council. The group’s remit was to examine objectively the efficiency and value for money of existing implementation bodies, and the case for additional bodies and areas of co-operation in the NSMC from which mutual benefit would be derived. It was also tasked with having an input into the work on the identification of a suitable substitute for the Loughs Agency of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission.
The review group consists of senior officials and an advisory panel of four expert advisers; two appointed by the Executive and two appointed by the Irish Government.
At its plenary meeting last week, the NSMC welcomed progress by the review group and noted that the expert advisers have completed their report on the efficiency and value for money of the existing implementation bodies and Tourism Ireland. The NSMC has requested that the review group, in consultation with the relevant sponsor Departments and Ministers, consider the recommendations made by the expert advisers and submit a report to the next NSMC plenary meeting. The NSMC requested the review group to complete work on its remaining terms of reference and to submit proposals to an NSMC plenary meeting before the end of this year.
The British-Irish Council is important in that it brings together the constituent parts of the British Isles and is, therefore, something that we support. One of the failures of the Belfast Agreement was that it did not give sufficient emphasis to the British-Irish Council. With reference to the deputy First Minister’s statement that a report will be forthcoming at the next meeting in Cardiff, will he tell us the date of that meeting and how soon afterwards we might be able to see the recommendations being implemented?