British-Irish Council

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 2nd February 2000.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 2:30 pm, 2nd February 2000

The debate today is on motion S1M-481, in the name of the First Minister, on the British-Irish Council. There is an amendment to that motion. I ask members who wish to speak to press their request to speak buttons now.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour 2:35 pm, 2nd February 2000

I am delighted to speak in this debate.

Before I start, can I say that I am not always in favour of bringing clerics out of retirement to make small public speeches, but on this occasion it was entirely appropriate. I was delighted to see Canon Kenyon Wright standing in a building that is being put to a purpose that is very important to him, and for which he worked tirelessly.

In a sense, this will be a low-key debate, which I do not imagine will be a matter of enormous controversy. The debate will also, perhaps, be tinged with a little anxiety and unwelcome uncertainty.

The genesis of the debate on the British-Irish Council was a letter that I received from David McLetchie, who urged upon me the need to consider that development and its future implications. We readily agreed to have the debate, despite the current rather difficult circumstances of the Good Friday agreement, and to outline some of the hopes—and perhaps some of the realities—of what we may expect when the British-Irish Council is fully operational and takes its place as part of the machinery of the Good Friday agreement.

It is hardly necessary to say that any discussion of the council today turns our thoughts inevitably to the current situation in Northern Ireland. I very much hope that the institutions established—including the British-Irish Council—will endure. For reasons that I have hinted at, I do not wish to dwell on that situation. The most that we can do today, as friendly politicians, is to express our support and encouragement to politicians on all sides in Northern Ireland as they attempt to deal with the very complex issues that they face.

I have never been involved directly in negotiations over the peace process in Northern Ireland, but I know many of the players and have always been awed by the commitment and determination that they have shown to find a way forward. I hope that those characteristics will stand them in good stead in the approaching period. I hope, certainly, that the British-Irish Council will be part of the future and that we will be able to play a very useful part in the future of the Good Friday agreement.

One of the reasons why I am here today is to report to Parliament on the council's first meeting, which took place shortly before Christmas. While that meeting showed, to some extent, the characteristics of introductory passage, and the report is of necessity conditional, the council made an encouraging start.

As members will know, the council emerged from the peace process and was founded on the Good Friday agreement. That agreement looked to the day when the three—then as yet unformed—devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would join the United Kingdom and Irish Governments in a council based on discussion, co-operation and consensus. The council's role would be

"to promote the harmonious and mutually beneficial development of the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands."

"Islands", very properly, has been given a comprehensive definition. In addition to the devolved Administrations and the Irish and UK Governments, there are representatives from the Government of the Isle of Man—an organisation that has, perhaps, been rather more in our thoughts recently because of the Solway Harvester—and the authorities in the bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey. The council represents a fairly wide spread of interests from the length and breadth of the islands that we inhabit.

With devolution to Scotland and Wales secured, the progress made in Northern Ireland last October and November was remarkable, and resulted in the formation of the Northern Ireland Executive Committee, which put in place the foundations on which we could start to build the British-Irish Council.

As I said, there is a little hint of uncertainty about the situation in Northern Ireland at present, but I am sure that, in the longer term, the work that has been done already will bear fruit.

The first meetings of all the bodies envisaged by the Good Friday agreement followed swiftly, such as that of the North-South Ministerial Council. We also had the first meetings of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and the British-Irish Council on the same day—17 December.

Those who attended the meeting in Lancaster House all recognised the origins of the British-Irish Council, stressed its role in developing and strengthening the new arrangements for Northern Ireland and welcomed—indeed, celebrated—the progress made towards a peaceful and prosperous future for Northern Ireland. They all recognised, also, the more general validity of the council in expressing the interdependence of all the peoples of these islands. To put it simply, we all have much in common and, potentially, much to learn from one another.

Those who spoke at the first meeting of the council all shared one other belief: the council will be meaningful only if it brings real benefits to all the people of these islands. As I said earlier, the first meeting was inevitably, in large part, an occasion for expressions of good will and commitment, but it was no less significant for that. I thought that the speeches were not simply dignified, but full of optimism and hope.

It may seem an odd thing for me to say, but I was conscious of—and tremendously encouraged by—the fact that the meeting worked well. Rather than just a series of delegations coming in as little, isolated units to make a point of view, a genuine exchange of views, informality and conversation took place, in what civil servants are wont to call the margins of the meeting. I thought that the atmosphere was remarkably relaxed and friendly, despite the evident history of difficulty.

We moved quickly at that meeting to identify a range of subjects on which the council would focus in the period ahead. I occasionally see rather over-ambitious definitions of the possible future role of the British-Irish Council, so it is worth making the point that no one envisages that it is—or will be in the immediate future—other than a place for the exchange of ideas, building contacts and learning from one another. I read at least one book recently that suggested that the council might become a legislative body, and another that suggested that it might replace, in some rather ill-defined way, the United Kingdom. While those are interesting ideas—

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

Well, well—it depends how they develop. [Laughter.]

However, I made that point seriously, as sometimes journalists put questions to me that are based on the assumption that the council has power to legislate, or at least to take decisions that are binding on the parties. It is important to put the council into perspective.

We want to share experiences and to learn from one another. We have mutual interests—a tremendous range of areas on which our interests coincide, overlap and perhaps occasionally even collide—where those discussions can bear fruit.

The subjects on which we will focus are drugs, social inclusion, transport, the environment and the knowledge economy—a fairly formidable list of major subjects. The idea is not that the council will be in permanent session, but that there will be occasional gatherings of the full council, in between which working groups will prepare papers, explore possibilities and conduct conversations in a civilised and, I hope, productive way on the chosen topics.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing Scottish National Party

The First Minister's definition of the policy aspects of the council was interesting. However, it seemed to me that we should also consider with the council of the isles issues such as fisheries and tourism. Forums on drugs and fisheries also exist within the European Union. Should not more emphasis be placed on those issues?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

I understand Margaret Ewing's interest in those areas, particularly fishing, given her constituency interests.

Such decisions are always a matter of choice, but the choice was not made by a single delegation. There was a general view that the areas that I mentioned were the right starting point. That does not exclude informal discussion or exploration of further subjects. There was a wish to ensure that we did not just throw everything to the centre of the table and end up achieving very little. We felt that some concentration and definition were required for the work.

We, with the National Assembly for Wales, took lead responsibility for the council's consideration of one very large area of importance: social inclusion. My colleague Wendy Alexander has been to Ireland and has been talking to other parties, including obviously the Welsh, who carry joint responsibility for preparing papers on areas of particular study, and deciding how to tackle policy areas that are, inevitably, rather amorphous. That will be a useful and interesting discipline for us, which I hope will be productive for stage-managing—if that is the right word—the discussions that will follow.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The First Minister referred to working with the National Assembly for Wales. From what he said about Scottish involvement, it sounded as though he was talking about the Scottish Executive working with the National Assembly for Wales. Is that his view, or is there a parliamentary dimension that would involve work being carried out on behalf of the Scottish Parliament?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

I have, of course, not failed to read the SNP amendment. There is—and was, long before I saw that interesting document—a passage in my speech about interparliamentary matters.

On the narrow point that John Swinney raised, I was talking about the Scottish Executive, at least at this stage. The work involves putting together agendas and preparing papers for consideration at the plenary or working party sessions. It requires some direction at ministerial level, but much of it will involve experts and will be about gathering the right sort of information and monitoring what is happening in various areas to get the right slant. I think that that is an Executive job. It does not preclude—and certainly does not exclude—the growth of interparliamentary contact at a later date. I promise that I will say a word about that.

I have talked about the subjects on which the council must prove its worth. There will be a meeting later this year in Dublin, in June—assuming that all goes well and we are fully operational by then. Obviously, the wish is that the council can and will make a difference to people's thinking and to the actions of Governments, and will perhaps give us a better-informed and better-focused structure of government across the islands. I am confident that good things can emerge from the council.

The responsibility that we have been given on social inclusion reflects the fact that we have done a great deal of work on social inclusion in Scotland. Some of the mechanics of that work, and the practicalities of some of its aims, have been controversial, but the Parliament has paid a great deal of attention to social inclusion and the social justice agenda.

The document that we published recently—"Social Justice—a Scotland where everyone matters"—has been widely recognised as a radical step forward, with its commitments to full employment and its measurement of how we can plot and chart our way towards the end of child poverty within a generation.

We want to add to our store of knowledge and our experiences through the work of the British-Irish Council. Social justice provides a fine example of why the council ought to be there: such sharing and drawing on one another's knowledge will be valuable. We share common problems; that allows us to learn and to put in context the experience of others.

The problems of my home city of Glasgow, for example, have much in common with those of other great industrial cities around the Irish sea, such as Liverpool or Belfast. I will defend my city's record with great energy, but that is not the point of today's debate. We can learn from the other parties, and vice versa: I look forward to the development of that principle.

Rural areas should not be ignored—I say that simply in passing. I contend that there is a clear community of situation between the western isles, north Wales and the west of Ireland. In some ways, the similarities are more striking, and the experiences directly relevant. I know that a great deal of work has been done in Ireland on rural affairs and I look forward to improving my knowledge of some of the initiatives and examining whether they would travel well in terms of what the Executive can achieve in Scotland. Responsibility for making the council's consideration of social justice positive and meaningful lies, therefore, with the Scottish Executive and the National Assembly for Wales. Such a level of co-operation will be very useful.

The success of the council will depend on the extent to which it proves to be a useful vehicle for improving the lives of the people of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom and Ireland. I believe that it will do so—partly because the commitment to achieve that exists, but also because when we get down to constructive work there will be genuine enthusiasm for such work and the progress that it will make possible.

The United Kingdom is a complex idea—one that is defiant of instant analysis. Some of us have spent our lives trying to analyse it, without necessarily coming to completely satisfactory conclusions. Its constituent countries have much in common socially, economically and culturally. It follows, also, that there are many differences between them, but the relationships between them are important. The council must capture the reality of those relationships, whether that is based on what happens in Westminster, in a devolved Scotland or in Ireland and Wales. We need a system that expresses the social, economic and cultural realities of all the constituent parts of these islands and we can achieve that.

The British-Irish Council fits well into the model that we require. It brings together a range of institutions that have different competencies that reflect their place in the constitutional framework. The Prime Minister said at the first meeting that the council builds on what we have in common and respects our differences.

I am very pleased that the relationships that have been formalised in the council have strengthened and grown satisfyingly on an informal basis. I was delighted to visit Dublin in October, and I was also delighted to welcome to Scotland the Irish President, Mary McAleese. I have had more than one visit from the Taoiseach, and Mary Harney has also visited.

All sorts of interesting initiatives exist that are not political in nature but are culturally important, such as the Research Institute for Irish and Scottish Studies headed by Professor Tom Devine at the University of Aberdeen. I visited the parallel development at University College Dublin. At that level, there is more work being done on, more understanding of and more inquiry into the complex interrelationships between Scotland and Ireland than we have seen for many long years. We should all recognise that our histories are intertwined—not always happily, but always significantly. The more common understanding that exists, the better. If you had been in Glasgow in the past few weeks, Sir David, you would have been able to enjoy the Celtic Connections festival—another form of co-operation between Ireland and Scotland that is a little less academic and rarefied, but which some might venture to say is more enjoyable. I leave that to members' judgment.

I would like to close on the point that John—that John—

Members:

Swinney.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

Mr Swinney said that more in hope than in expectation.

I suspect that the only people who dream about Mr Swinney are the members of the committee of which he is convener. They wake up crying, "Help! How can I escape?" That is not true and not fair—I am told that he is improving.

I want to make a brief reference to the SNP amendment, with which I sympathise. We want to build relationships sensibly and practically at a parliamentary level. We should, perhaps, think of doing so in the British-Irish Council structure, but we cannot do so at the moment. There might be other ways of doing that—other options can be explored.

Strand 3 of the Belfast agreement envisages that there should be such developments in parallel with the council. Some people have talked about the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body that already exists—I am not sure that we should join that or follow slavishly such a pattern. It is a matter for the Parliaments to consider and on which each must reach decisions based on consultation with the other elected bodies. That is the best way that the issue can be taken in hand.

There are cynics who say that there is no particular evidence from parliamentary life that travel broadens the mind, but I believe that there is great use for proper and judicial discussions and experiences. There is no reason why, if Governments and Executives and suchlike benefit from that kind of contact, there should not be similar benefits for those who serve as elected members in other and equally important ways. I endorse the view that there is much to be gained from such links and that it would be useful to consider how we can best encourage and establish them.

The British-Irish Council is a significant new institution. We stand ready to make a significant contribution to its work—I am sure that I speak for everyone in the Parliament. It represents a real opportunity for these islands to learn and work together to improve the lives of their people.

I do not want to sound sanctimonious, but I think that it is right to say that our thoughts are very much with those who are looking for a way forward today—literally today—in Northern Ireland. None of us has a right to try to second-guess what the outcome may be. From my experience, I am sure that the commitment and the wish to make progress are still very much alive. Let us hope that that becomes the force that moves events in the next few weeks.

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the establishment and recent inaugural meeting of the British-Irish Council; believes it has an important role to play in the promotion and development of harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships among the peoples of these islands, in promoting co-operation between the participating administrations within their competencies and in working together on issues of importance to the peoples they serve; welcomes the fact that the Scottish Executive has lead responsibility, with the National Assembly for Wales, for co-ordinating the Council's consideration of social justice issues, and intends to develop corresponding links with the Parliaments concerned.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party 2:56 pm, 2nd February 2000

The First Minister's speech contained some interesting and refreshing innovations. I heard him say that he sympathised with a Scottish National party amendment—that is not something that I often hear him say. I hope that it means that he is of a mind to accept the amendment, which is meant as a positive contribution. As this debate develops, perhaps I will get the opportunity to say as much.

The First Minister said that members of John Swinney's committee were dreaming about him, although he did not specify their names. He also said that we recently had the opportunity to visit "seltic" connections in Glasgow. I am not sure whether he meant to say that—and perhaps to offend half the city—but Celtic Connections has been an important festival for a number of years.

I heard the First Minister say that he did not think that analysis of the United Kingdom had yet reached a satisfactory conclusion. I sympathise with that attitude. [Laughter.]

I agree with the First Minister about the importance of this debate in the Scottish Parliament. Obviously, much of our focus is on Northern Ireland—that is unavoidable and quite right. The difficulties of the peace process, particularly over the past few days, cast a shadow over today's debate. However, we do not serve the cause of the peace process by allowing that to deflect us from taking an optimistic view of the future and, in particular, the part that the British-Irish Council—or council of the isles—can play in that future.

The peace process has been through difficult times. All 129 of us must hope that in the days and weeks ahead a way can be found to secure peace and to foster the new democratic structures in Northern Ireland. We, as a Parliament, send our good wishes to those who are working to overcome those difficulties and to secure stable and just peace, free from the use or threat of violence. For understandable reasons, we are not direct participants in the peace process. However, we can be more than mere onlookers. We can—and should—explore the positive, proactive role that the Scottish Parliament can play in the peace process. The council of the isles offers such an opportunity.

The different terminology used here—British-Irish Council and council of the isles—is explained by the genesis of the idea. It was originally a suggestion by the unionists in Northern Ireland, which was made because people in the unionist camp wanted to see an east-west dialogue as a balance to north-south dialogue. What makes it particularly exciting and interesting is that the concept has now been embraced across parties and communities and, indeed, in both the south and the north of Ireland.

The First Minister said, and I can confirm, that there is real enthusiasm across the communities for the Scottish dimension of the council of the isles and an expectation that we can play a positive role in its development. Whether that is through multilateral meetings of the council itself or through bilateral meetings, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Irish Government and the other participants can be brought together for important work.

Bilateral meetings were an important feature of strand 3 of the Good Friday agreement. I believe that the Scottish Parliament should establish regular contact with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the other participants in the council. We should work together on the practical projects that the First Minister outlined, such as transport, tourism and tackling poverty; we should learn from one another's experiences. By those practical endeavours and by working together with respect for one another and for our democratic institutions, we can achieve positive results to benefit Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the other participants in the council. Those arrangements form part of the overall picture of the council of the isles and we should regard today's debate as an opportunity to further that work.

The SNP welcomes the creation of the British-

Irish Council. As the First Minister said, and as we indicate in our amendment, it is not just a body for Governments and Executives, but one that should have a parliamentary dimension. Where appropriate, representation should not be just from the Executive, but from the Parliament and its committee structure. That is in line with the second part of strand 3 of the Good Friday agreement, which says:

"Membership of the BIC will comprise representatives of the British and Irish Governments, devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales".

We welcome the subjects that will be covered by the council and the meetings between Executives and Governments. We are particularly pleased that the Northern Ireland Executive is taking the lead on transport. I remember the 10 years that I spent as a Westminster MP noting—until the arrival of my colleague Alasdair Morgan, at least—the many transport debates about the south-west of Scotland in which Northern Irish MPs made the running. They took the lead role and pled for investment in the infrastructure of the south-west of Scotland to make the Euro-route to the north of Ireland a reality.

I am not going to nit-pick about the topics for discussion. I am slightly surprised that education is not on the current work programme. I would have thought that there are outstanding examples of the way in which the participants in the council have already learnt from one another on that subject. In 1996, I went with Winnie Ewing to the Irish Republic and met Ruairí Quinn, the then finance minister. At that time, he was presiding over the fastest-growing economy in the European Union—the current finance minister can also make that boast. I asked to what he owed such tremendous economic success. His reply was highly significant. He did not say that it was his previous budget or the latest clever manoeuvre in the fiscal strategy; he said that 20 years before, in the 1970s, there had been a tripartisan agreement to invest in the education system of the Irish Republic. That took place at a time of huge economic stringency. The Labour party, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael came together in an educational convention and decided that Irish education needed that investment if the country was to equip itself for the future.

One of the key models that was used to redefine the Irish educational tradition was the Scottish system. At that time, Ireland looked to Scotland as an example of progress in education. Many of the features of the current education system in the Irish Republic reflect the fact that it adopted key aspects of the model of Scottish education—and I remind members that, in the republic, tuition fees for students in higher education have been removed completely. The huge success of education in the Irish Republic has been shown in almost every survey of European countries in the past few years. Ireland learned from Scotland in education and I suspect that it may now be able to teach us things from its recent educational experience.

People were slightly surprised initially by the inclusion of the islands—the channel islands and the Isle of Man—in the council of the isles. However, as the First Minister rightly said, the response of the small island Government on the Isle of Man to the recent tragedy in the fishing community—indeed, our thoughts lie with the on-going efforts to raise the Solway Harvester—may have things to teach the Westminster Government and this Executive and Parliament. This morning, I spoke to the Chief Minister of the Isle of Man, Mr Don Gelling. He said that he hoped that the efforts to meet the wishes of the families concerned would bear fruit in the very near future. I sent him our best wishes and thanks—I know that the Deputy Minister for Rural Affairs and the constituency MSP, Alasdair Morgan, have also done so—for the approach that the Isle of Man Government has taken to the tragedy.

There is a learning process at various levels of government in the islands that makes the council of the isles—the British-Irish Council—a welcome and potentially productive development. We can look to learn lessons from economic factors in the Irish Republic. I also want to consider the Good Friday agreement and say why I think that bilateral exchanges could be a welcome addition to the multilateral council.

The Irish Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs has said:

"Our record economic growth has enabled us to achieve things that only a decade ago seemed far beyond our reach. Unemployment has been halved since 1996, employment has substantially increased and, as a recent report . . . has shown, we have made significant inroads in combating consistent poverty."

The outstanding Irish economic performance in recent years indicates that, as we exchange information through these institutions, no Scottish minister will, I hope, be able to say again, as Lord Macdonald did only 18 months ago, that Ireland might be a good place for a stag night, but not for an economic policy. I see that the First Minister is shaking his head, but Lord Macdonald did say that—whether he meant to say it is another question. The First Minister should be pleased that he no longer has responsibility for such unwise statements—this Parliament, too, will be pleased about that. Removing outdated impressions of other countries in these islands and of the institutions of other states is surely part of the process of learning about economic policies that have been successful elsewhere and might be applied in Scotland. I am certain that such remarks will never again be made by a Scottish minister.

Section 10 of strand 3 in the Good Friday agreement expresses the hope and expectation—it has been reflected in statements from all the Northern Irish parties—that there will be bilateral contact as well as the formal council meetings. It says:

"In addition to the structures provided for under this agreement, it will be open to two or more members to develop bilateral or multilateral arrangements between them. Such arrangements could include, subject to the agreement of the members concerned, mechanisms to enable consultation, co-operation and joint decision-making on matters of mutual interest; and mechanisms to implement any joint decisions they may reach."

That does not mean just talking about matters of mutual interest; it looks for mechanisms to implement decisions. The First Minister is right to say that the council is not a federal body making decisions. Arrangements are based on the levels of decision making of the participants. However, where agreement can be reached on a multilateral or bilateral aspect as provided for in strand 3 of the agreement, we should expect action to follow. The council is not just a talking shop, but an institution where action will follow based on mutual or multilateral agreement.

I am confident that, in taking on board the hope for aspects of parliamentary and Executive participation, we can find common ground in this Parliament and that we can recognise that bilateral as well as formal multilateral aspects of the council can be productive as we chart the way ahead.

Although the First Minister asked us not to be overblown in our expectations for these developments, those expectations should not be too negative. In The Herald on 18 December 1999—perhaps the First Minister was referring to this article—Benedict Brogan felt that the first meeting of the council hinted at a federal future.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

I see some acknowledgement from the Deputy First Minister; he was undoubtedly pushing that issue at that meeting. From our point of view, an arrangement that consists of two state Governments, three devolved Assemblies and Parliaments and three island groups could easily be changed into an arrangement consisting of three sovereign Governments, two devolved Assemblies and three island groups.

The SNP has long considered the Nordic Council a model of co-operation between sovereign Governments, island groups and other participants on matters of joint interest. Although our hopes for the council of the isles might go beyond the First Minister's agenda—and beyond even the Deputy First Minister's agenda—they are sincerely meant to make a positive contribution to the future.

I hope that, in this debate, the whole Parliament will reflect our good wishes to the people currently engaged in difficult decisions in the north of Ireland. In the light of that, I also hope that the First Minister is not only sympathetic to the SNP amendment, but will be able to accept it.

I move amendment S1M-481.1, to insert at end:

"recognising that this Council is not just for members of the various governments but should also have effective Parliamentary representation."

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

In view of the number of members wishing to speak in the debate, speeches will be limited to four minutes. I call David McLetchie to open for the Conservatives.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 3:13 pm, 2nd February 2000

In our manifesto for the elections to the Scottish Parliament, we made a specific commitment to playing a full part—as parliamentarians and as an Executive—in the British-Irish Council. We believe that the council represents a great opportunity to foster closer relationships between the people of these islands. That is why I invited the First Minister to hold a debate on the subject in the Parliament at the earliest opportunity—I am delighted that the Executive has responded to that request—and also why I have subsequently asked whether the Executive intends to report on proceedings of meetings at the British-Irish Council so that we are kept fully informed about the council's deliberations and the matters under discussion.

As a result, I welcome the fact that the First Minister has given the Parliament a report on the proceedings of the first meeting of the British-Irish Council in December, and I hope that, when he or his colleagues return from the next meeting—which is scheduled for June in Dublin—they will present a similar report to the Parliament. Furthermore, I hope that this new constitutional dimension will inform debates in the Parliament on a range of issues and will be taken into account in our committees' consideration of those matters of mutual interest that form the council's agenda.

That is, of course, if there are any future meetings of the British-Irish Council. The First Minister mentioned the tinge of anxiety and concern that surrounds today's debate. Alex Salmond referred to the good will in this chamber for the peace process, and I am happy to associate my party with the sentiments that both members have expressed.

There is a great deal of good will. The First Minister was kind enough to acknowledge my interest. We should also acknowledge the contributions of other members: George Lyon, Jamie Stone, Hugh Henry and Margaret Ewing, in motions and in questions, have offered support to the peace process and to the concept of joint working with members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the other Governments and Administrations included. There is an enthusiasm for involvement, which is reflected in our conduct today and in what has been said so far in the debate.

I agree with Mr Salmond's amendment on behalf of the Scottish National party. The formation of a parliamentary and interparliamentary dimension to the British-Irish Council would be helpful; it might build on existing interparliamentary links through the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. It would be advantageous to this Parliament to establish close working relationships because, as the agreement acknowledges, we have many issues of joint concern.

The First Minister indicated a number of the action areas in the work programme agreed at the December meeting of the British-Irish Council. As mentioned already, one is transport, on which the Northern Ireland Executive has lead responsibility. The development of transport links with Scotland is crucial to the regeneration of Northern Ireland's economy, which has been blighted by the troubles for the past 30 years. Those links are also important to the development of the Scottish economy, particularly in Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway. The sea link to Northern Ireland is vital to both countries and we must upgrade port facilities and improve access to ports such as Stranraer.

That means considering the roads, particularly the A75 and the A77. We welcome the Executive's decision as part of its roads programme to upgrade the A77, but we do not think that the route action plan for the A75 is sufficient—further dualling of that road is needed. Unless the Executive is prepared in future budgets to commit more resources to the development of the road network and to giving motorists, hauliers and businesses a fairer deal and return on the substantial amounts of money that they pay in taxes to the Exchequer, it is difficult to see how we can play our part in improving transport links with Northern Ireland, as envisaged in the agreement. Road haulage is a further area that would benefit from common standards of training, safety and operational procedures, which I hope will be examined in the British-Irish Council.

Air services could be improved by a common approach to the development of international flights to and from airports within the British Isles and to the expansion of air freight services. The British-Irish Council's most valuable role may be in identifying transport needs throughout the British Isles and in coming up with practical solutions.

I was interested to see that drugs are part of the initial work programme. That is an area about which we can learn from the experience of other countries. I was pleased to note that the Government of the Republic of Ireland is the lead Administration in this policy area, as it has adopted the sort of tough policies to combat drug abuse and dealing that we included in our manifesto for the Scottish elections and with which other parties sympathise. The Deputy Minister for Justice, Mr MacKay, was in Dublin for a two-day visit in November to look at how drug dealers are tackled and at asset confiscation.

As we know, the Dublin Government created a Criminal Assets Bureau with sweeping powers, notwithstanding the fact that there are provisions in the constitution of the Republic of Ireland that jealously guard the rights of private property. The system that it has introduced allows the respondent to be present at each stage of the civil proceedings, and gives the targeted individual seven years in which to show that the assets were not derived from the proceeds of crime and drug trafficking. There is further protection in cases where it can be shown that seizure or freezing orders were made wrongly.

I understand that Mr MacKay returned from his Dublin trip converted to the Irish approach to dealing with drugs barons and the seizure by the courts of their ill-gotten gains. However, since his return and since the press announcements that accompanied it, barely a cheep has been heard in this Parliament on that subject. I wonder if this is another area in which the minister's aspirations have been thwarted by the ill-considered decision of his Labour colleagues in Westminster to incorporate the European convention on human rights into our domestic law—Mr MacKay and his colleagues in the Scottish Executive may discover that they cannot deliver the tougher anti-drugs measures that the Irish have been able to implement as a result of not incorporating the ECHR into their domestic law.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

On a point of information, is Mr McLetchie aware that there have been no asset seizures in the Republic of Ireland? The Irish Government has put the structure in place, but as yet has been unable to use it. That is indicative of the similar problems that we would have in Scotland.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

That is an interesting observation. I must say that I was relying on the report of the minister. His enthusiasm for the powers that were given to the Criminal Assets Bureau is considerably greater than that which Mr Quinan has evinced. A clarifying statement by the minister—a few more cheeps—would be welcome and would inform the debate in this Parliament.

This situation illustrates an important point. As we have seen in relation to drugs seizures, temporary sheriffs and—as we discussed last week—tuition fees, the Executive needs to be much more open in this Parliament in disclosing its legal advice on these matters. That would make it clearer to us, and to the public, whether the incorporation of the ECHR into our domestic law is hampering, or may hamper, the fight against drugs, and imperilling the confiscation of drug-derived assets. In addition, that information would tell us what general limitations European law, and the incorporation of the ECHR into domestic law, imposes on the legislative competence of this Parliament. As parliamentarians, we are entitled to know that information across a range of issues. Drug asset seizures is an example to add to those that we have already seen in this Parliament where such clarification is crucial.

Photo of Keith Raffan Keith Raffan Liberal Democrat

I have not been too happy in the past few minutes about the direction in which Mr McLetchie's speech is going. Will he make clear his party's position on tackling drug misuse? Does he agree that, to get the balance right, it is equally important within the British-Irish Council that, as well as sharing best experience of enforcement, we share best experience of treatment and of education if we are successfully to tackle drugs misuse?

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I could not agree more with Mr Raffan. This is a rare occasion, and I do not expect to say those words too often in this Parliament, but I agree with his sentiments on these matters—as he rightly says, we need a concerted approach. We need a multi-agency and multi-dimensional approach to tackle drug trafficking and abuse throughout the British Isles.

As many members will be aware, in Northern Ireland the paramilitaries have been heavily involved in drug trafficking and the drugs trade, and it will be crucial to the success of the peace process for us to co-operate in cracking down on that problem. It will also be crucial for our police forces to swap information on, and ideas of, best practice on how to tackle the problem in the round. In that respect, I am happy to associate myself with Mr Raffan's comments.

I note that social inclusion is another topic for discussion and that our Executive and the Welsh Cabinet are the lead Administrations in that area. The mere repetition of the social inclusion mantra does not make social inclusion strategies more likely to succeed. Conservative members have considerable reservations about the Scottish Executive's approach to the resolution of social problems, which seems to us to attempt to deliver an agenda from on high, rather than to devolve real power in areas such as housing and education to individuals and communities. In our view, the Executive has so far failed to address the problem of rising crime, which blights so many of the communities that we want to include in our society. We must acknowledge that, without a framework of law, no social inclusion strategy will ever work.

People in Northern Ireland know that only too well. The regeneration of communities in Northern Ireland will take place only if the punishment beatings stop and control of communities is wrested from the paramilitaries and given back to a police force in which all can have confidence and which is committed to the rule of law and to challenging the rule of the lawless. Law, freedom under the law and the rule of law are paramount in everything that we seek to do through our social inclusion strategies.

We must compare large housing estates in this country with those in Ireland to see whether there are joint approaches and ideas that could help us to tackle problems on the multi-agency and multi-dimensional basis that Mr Raffan mentioned.

The British-Irish Council offers an opportunity to emphasise the links that exist between Scotland and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Cultural links could be strengthened through greater support for bodies such as the Columba initiative. A similar initiative should be introduced to recognise the links that connect Scots with people in Ulster.

Those issues must be addressed, but there are others that need more immediate attention. One of those is the British-Irish Council's name, which is inelegant and, in some ways, misleading. The breadth of the body would be emphasised by adopting a name such as the council of the isles, which is in common parlance among many commentators anyway.

We would like to see Scotland, in particular Glasgow, as the base for the permanent secretariat of the British-Irish Council. I hope that the Executive will press that case with conviction. There are obvious connections that make Glasgow an appropriate and worthy home.

We welcome the British-Irish Council. We thank the Executive for according some of its time to allow the matter to be debated in the chamber. We believe that the British-Irish Council can be an important part of the whole process. We believe that it can be successful and that, if it concentrates on practical goals and not on impossible aspirations, it will work to our mutual advantage. We wish the council well, as I am sure all members do. I support the motion and the amendment in the name of Mr Salmond.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 3:29 pm, 2nd February 2000

I, too, want to refer to the situation in Ulster. The 1 o'clock news today led on a story about children and parents demonstrating at Stormont about the lack of provision of hot meals. It was ironic that, meanwhile, the ship that is the Northern Ireland Assembly was sadly drifting once again towards the rocks. Like the First Minister, I do not want to dramatise the situation, but we have been here before. I hope that we will get through.

One thought occurred to me, which I am sure occurred to all of us yesterday and today: what a pity that the terrorists could not find it in their hearts to make just a first move. However, in fairness, the peace and the cease-fire have held for far longer than any of us dared hope. Let us hope that David Trimble can stay in, but I suspect that the die is cast. He is in an impossible situation. However, we all hope and pray that we will get there in the end.

Rightly, speakers so far have talked about Ireland—and, really, this is about Ireland. I would like to dwell on Ireland to back up what I will say thereafter.

Alex Salmond referred to a stag night in Ireland. I had a stag night in Ireland, and I would like to say that I have happy memories of it, but—Ireland being Ireland—the memory is a little on the hazy side. I have known Northern Ireland since 1977. My wife hails from County Armagh and I have come to know the province very well—like Ben Wallace and Mike Rumbles, although they will know it better than I do. I have seen an enormous change between 1977 and recent times.

When I first went to Armagh, there were bombed-out buildings that were like gaps in the fair smile of Ireland. We walked in fear. We were scared to go into a tobacconist's in case it was on the wrong side of the line in Armagh. That line could have been in Portadown or Omagh—it was repeated right across the province. Like so many people in Ulster, I have heard the distant thump of a bomb. Ben and Mike have been far closer than I have. I have heard that bang and that distant rattle of rifle fire.

As we all know, it is all rooted in history. Alex Salmond will know better than I do, but it is possible to go back to Strongbow, to the flight of the earls, to Cromwell's invasion, to the martyrdom of Oliver Plunkett, to the battle of the Boyne, to the Grattan parliament and to the agrarian outrages—it is all there.

At each stage, Ulster moved forward step by step. One word is a key to show the way it was—the word boys. A study of Irish history tells of the Whiteboys, the Steelboys, the Oakboys, the Peep o' Day Boys and, last but not least, the Apprentice Boys. The word shows how people formed themselves into groups and bands, and fought and killed each other.

About three or four years ago, I happened to be over there when Drumcree blew up again. As we get older, we gain a fear of heights; as we get older, such things scare us more. I can remember being in Armagh when the atmosphere was ready just for a match to set it off. It was just about to go up. We have been that close. Yet, in recent times, things have improved greatly. Ireland now is far from the Ireland that I once knew. When James Joyce described Ireland as

"the old sow that eats her farrow"— that destroys her own children—he was not far out. But in recent times it has been different.

I remember, a few years ago, going into Kate's Bar in Port Salen in County Donegal. I do not know how many members know County Donegal, but I can recommend Kate's Bar for a football special for the kids or for a pint of Guinness. The first time I went in, people—complete strangers—were going into unmentionable Ulster subjects. Remember that Donegal is one of the nine counties of Ulster. They asked questions such as, "Where did you go to school?", "What do think about the situation?" and "What about that bombing?" The people were from both sides of the sectarian divide. In the wider province of Ulster, one found some years ago that there was a form of civilised conversation and attitude. In recent times, in the city of Armagh, I have seen the change. It is reflected right across Ulster. People are no longer scared to go into shops in case it is the wrong shop; they are no longer scared to engage total strangers in conversation.

That is where I am coming from as regards the British-Irish Council. That institution can do a great deal to heal the divisions. One of the problems of Ulster in the past was highlighted to me when I went to a conference when I was a councillor. I met a group of unionists clustered round the bar. I am not telling this story because they were unionists. I recognised one of them from Armagh and I engaged him in conversation. He asked, "What are your politics?" I replied, "I am independent," which I was then. He said, "Does that mean you are a republican?" I said no, and I explained. I tried to get people to mix—there were also people from Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour party.

Those members who are parliamentarians in another place may know this, but it is by pulling people together and going out to meet them that we will make progress. Alex Salmond talked about wider parliamentary involvement; that is important. It is about taking people on board—not just the high heid yins, but ordinary back benchers such as myself. The process must be inclusive.

Margaret Ewing referred to pursuing such issues as fishing. Why not? Members have also mentioned the east-west divide, as well as the north-south divide. Why not? From my north Highlands perspective, I would love to see an investigation of the rural versus city divide—I mean not just London, but Edinburgh and Glasgow. There is much good work to be done.

As Liberal Democrats, we see this as a way towards federalism and we welcome it. We welcome it because it is part and parcel of the peace process and can make a big difference. We live in difficult times right now, but let us hope that things come right. Meanwhile, we must show our commitment to all the British Isles. I have no doubt that we all sing from one hymn sheet.

In closing, let me give an example that I think is of use to us all. The Nordic Council is a successful model of co-operation among institutions at different levels. It includes big ones and wee ones, from the Faroe Islands, which are not much different from Shetland, to Sweden, which has a big population. The British-Irish Council should focus on the bread-and-butter issues that I mentioned and could bring together people of similar interests—we share a common language, after all. I recommend the Nordic Council to this Parliament as a model.

I shall draw to a close now, as I know that many members would like to contribute to the debate. To me, it is simple. We are lucky here. We disagree from time to time and we howl at one another, but we are lucky to be here as a Parliament that is young but which—dare I suggest it—works. We are not under the threat of extremists who could stop us tomorrow if they felt like it. By supporting the council, we will extend a hand to our little brother or sister, the fledgling democracy across the Irish sea. Doing that will send the right message and I am glad that there is unanimity on that. I hope that, in our own small way, we can help the situation in Northern Ireland. I hope that what we say today will be printed in tomorrow's papers over there, although I rather doubt it.

Photo of Andy Kerr Andy Kerr Labour 3:38 pm, 2nd February 2000

As all members acknowledge, we live in difficult times. Anxiety is felt all round the chamber, but so too is the good will that we extend to those involved in the peace process. In a sense, I have a direct involvement, in that my local member of the UK Parliament, Adam Ingram MP, is a minister of state over there. Through all the ups and downs, I have seen the anxiety and stress on his face during what have been delicate times. Times are delicate again, but I am sure that we will get through this situation and beyond.

I welcome the establishment of the British-Irish Council. It strengthens the union, allows us to work in partnership throughout the British Isles and complements our work in the Parliament. It generates assistance for the peace process, and that is to be welcomed.

As convener of the Transport and the Environment Committee, I cannot ignore the fact that transport and the environment are two of the five action points. Like others, I hope that relationships will develop, enabling people to learn from one another. I am sure that members of my committee are looking forward to getting involved in that process. There is a genuine desire to ensure that the British-Irish Council works.

In a sense, there are many similarities between Scotland and Ireland with regard to conurbation—the central belt being comparable to the Dublin-Wexford belt—and rural areas. Parallels can be drawn and we can value each other as north-south neighbours conducting a positive debate through the British-Irish Council.

I was interested in what was said about the seizure of assets in relation to drugs. The point that Lloyd Quinan made was certainly not my understanding of the situation. However, I am sure that we will get further detail on that from the Deputy Minister for Justice, who was over in Ireland learning about the seizure of assets. That is one positive step forward which I hope we can take. We can also learn from each other on the social inclusion agenda. The Transport and the Environment Committee is currently interested in concessionary fares. I know that Ireland has a good concessionary fares scheme and offers free travel. We want to learn from how that operates. We can learn from best practice and take the best from each other's systems for delivering public services and democracy.

I take the point that was made about the condition of the Irish sea and the travel and tourism links that can be made. I know that plans are being made for direct sea links between Scotland and the low countries—there are opportunities for the Irish economy, both north and south, to benefit from that. Many good and positive initiatives could come from an exchange of ideas.

The First Minister's original point was that there is a genuine need to improve people's lives. That is what the British-Irish Council is about, and we are all signed up to it. I hope that the current difficulties are overcome and that this Parliament—whatever relationships are established—will help ensure that the British-Irish Council is a successful body.

Photo of Dr Winnie Ewing Dr Winnie Ewing Scottish National Party 3:41 pm, 2nd February 2000

Northern Ireland is a land that breaks the heart of all who love her, yet the people remain of the most astonishing good humour and wit. During my long connection with the European Parliament, I was privileged to be a personal friend of every Irish member from every party, north and south of the border. Most of them ran visitors groups and asked me to speak to them—there was no language barrier. I must have had question-and-answer sessions with 4,000 or so people from Ireland, north and south. I found the good will that all of them showed towards Scotland very endearing. I once asked them how they remained so cheerful, given the background against which they had to live. They replied, "It is being cheerful that makes it possible for us to continue." A long time ago, when I was the MP for Hamilton, I was fortunate to spend an evening with President De Valera. It is remarkable how far we have come since then, because in his frank conversation with me, the republic's constitutional claim to the north still featured. That shows how much has been conceded by the different sides during the long history of this process.

Mr Stone boasted about his connections with Ireland through his Irish wife. I have an Irish daughter-in-law and an Irish granddaughter, which is highly satisfactory.

On the fragility of politics in the province, I would like to quote a one-time British ambassador to Dublin, who said:

"This is a land where words can become weapons".

For that reason, every word that people use has to be very carefully chosen. I would like to pay a tribute to Mo Mowlam, because however often she was suddenly interviewed in difficult situations, her words were always beautifully chosen. I gave her that tribute when she addressed the European Parliament during the British presidency of the European Union.

However fragile the situation in Northern Ireland is at the moment, we must carry on with our preparations for this bridge-building exercise. Like Mr McLetchie, I would like to suggest a site for the secretariat—the town of Ayr.

On transport, all the Irish and Scottish members of the European Parliament co-operated in securing support for the Ballycastle-Campbeltown ferry. However, we wanted to go further than that. We wanted a link between Stranraer and the republic—a four-cornered route that would have helped tourism in all the countries concerned.

At this point, I was going to make an appeal to the First Minister. He is not here, so I will make an appeal to the Deputy First Minister. I appeal to the Executive to accept our amendment.

Our amendment contains no time limit. Strand 3 of the Good Friday agreement says that the elected institutions should be encouraged to develop interparliamentary links. We ask the Executive to show some of the spirit that we are asking people in Northern Ireland to show against the enormous difficulties that they face. We ask the Executive to co-operate with a reasonable proposition as put forward in our amendment.

The people of Northern Ireland are up against it in every way. Mr Trimble shows great courage, but both sides display intransigence. If we in this chamber cannot co-operate on opening the door to democracy in the council of the isles by agreeing that there should be parliamentary representation, what right have we to advise the people of Northern Ireland?

When I was in the European Parliament, I was impressed by the way that the Irish members from both sides of the border voted for any project that would benefit either side of the border. Ian Paisley voted for anything that would benefit the republic and the members from the republic voted for anything for Northern Ireland. That shows an admirable spirit of co-operation.

I ask that the Executive consider the Nordic Council. To begin with, it did not have parliamentary representation, but it has now. Mo Mowlam said that we could learn lessons from the Nordic Council because of its attitude towards parliamentary representation.

We have witnessed a political breakthrough. We have seen people sitting down together whom we would not have believed would ever do so. We cannot let the progress stop now. I hope that our words can convince the people of Northern Ireland that we care desperately, that we understand all the difficulties and that we will not try to use words that will make things worse.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion Labour 3:47 pm, 2nd February 2000

On the day that David McLetchie said that he agreed with Keith Raffan, it gives me great pleasure to say that I agree with everything that Winnie Ewing just said. I was particularly interested to hear that she was a personal friend of every Irish member of the European Parliament. If those Irish members were anything like the Irish members whom I befriended in Westminster, she would have to have had a very strong constitution indeed. Perhaps she has a stronger stomach for drink than I was able to develop in the 13 years that I spent in Westminster.

I agree with what Winnie Ewing said about words being weapons. We have to be careful with our words when talking about Irish politics. One of the gratifying things about the debate so far is the way in which nobody has tried to exploit it for any narrow political agenda. That would not be the case if this subject were being debated at Westminster. That stands the Scottish Parliament in good stead.

I endorse what other members have said about the uncertainty of the future of the peace process in Northern Ireland. All of us realise that the alternatives to the peace process are too awful to contemplate, for everyone in the British Isles and particularly for those who inhabit the northern part of the island of Ireland.

If the council of the isles does nothing other than contribute in a small way to keeping the peace process going in Northern Ireland, it will have served its purpose much better than other institutions have served theirs for the past 300 or 400 years.

I was interested in what Alex Salmond said about the British-Irish Council starting as a unionist idea and ending up on the other side of the nationalist divide as the council of the isles. It is supported by Sinn Fein and the other republicans. That shows that, in politics, nobody knows where an original idea might end up. We have to be careful about that.

I agree with Alex Salmond that the Scottish Parliament can and should play an important role in the council of the isles. I am just a little bit concerned about an element in all the speeches of the front-bench spokespeople. Donald Dewar, for example, said that he could see no future in the council of the isles' becoming a legislative body. Andy Kerr said that he thought that it would strengthen the union. Jim Wallace referred to a federal future for the council of the isles, and Alex Salmond talked about co-operation between sovereign states in some kind of confederal relationship that might replace the United Kingdom in the long term. Perhaps that is an alternative to independence in Europe, and we have seen the first of it here, this afternoon.

I would be disappointed if people approached the council of the isles from that constitutionalist perspective. I am currently reading a book by Mr Tom Nairn, entitled "After Britain". I am sure that Alex Salmond and the Scottish National party would have great fun reading it. It is a good read. Tom Nairn warns against those who would elevate the reform of the state above reform of the social conditions of those who live in the state, and above the economy that determines the social conditions of too many of the citizens of these isles. To proceed in that way would be a mistake.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

I am grateful to John McAllion for his advice on reading material. I hope that he has also been watching Andrew Marr's programme over the past two evenings.

Are not constitutional aspects and social objectives related? Surely, this institution above all others makes a case for both, as it arose from a constitutional dilemma but has practical social and economic objectives. We would not be providing a service if we did not state our ambitions for Scotland's participation in such a body that makes the case for independence and interdependence at the same time.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion Labour

I agree with that. However, I do not want the council of the isles to become a battleground on which to fight the old constitutional arguments that we fight in this chamber. We should try to concentrate, when we can, on the social and economic agenda, and on what we can learn from each other in the different Assemblies and Parliaments in the British Isles. That is why I support unreservedly the SNP's call for a parliamentary dimension to the council of the isles. I hope that the Executive will be able to accept the principle, at least, and debate the way in which it can be implemented.

As members will know, I recently convened a Scottish friends of the Good Friday agreement group in the Scottish Parliament. I have been authorised to write to the Presiding Officer, the Speakers in the Dáil and the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Irish Consul, and the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, to announce the establishment of that group and to try to work out with all those bodies how we can define the role of the back benchers under the Good Friday agreement and within the council of the isles. That is absolutely essential.

For example, back benchers can bring a new dimension to the debate on social inclusion. Housing is an issue that is dividing people in Scotland. Northern Ireland has had a much worse housing situation than we have ever had in our country, over the past 20 years. However, in spite of the troubles, and through the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, it has made leaps and bounds that we have not been able to make. We can learn from it and it can learn from us. I look forward to the back benchers' being given a chance to play their role in that learning process.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

In calling George Reid, I apologise for promoting and moving his party earlier, when I referred to him as John Reid. That was entirely accidental. I now call John Reid—sorry, George Reid. I have done it again. As George Reid is the Parliament's representative on the British-Irish Council, I intend to allow him some laxity of time.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party 3:53 pm, 2nd February 2000

This will not be a particularly party political speech; rather, it will be a report back to the Parliament on the previous plenary of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, in Cambridge, which I attended on behalf of the Scottish Parliament. In particular, I shall touch on the various models of any future council of the isles, which was discussed there, which would allow the continuance of sovereign representation between London and Dublin, while allowing parliamentary participation from Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man.

At the suggestion of the Presiding Officer, I shall also report briefly on discussions that he held during the recent meetings of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, in Sydney, with the Speakers or Presiding Officers of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Welsh Assembly, the House of Keys, and the bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey. In particular, I ask members to note the proposal that a conference of Presiding Officers be established, with the first meeting to be held perhaps as early as March or April.

It is a delicate matter, given the current fragility of the peace process in Northern Ireland, to consider the future of constitutional relationships in our shared islands at a time when some forces in Ulster seem determined at all costs to get back to the past. At Cambridge, a number of MPs and TDs argued that any discussion of a parliamentary council of the isles should be deferred until the British-Irish Council was fully up and running. That was not the view of Mo Mowlam, who urged them not to be "overcautious". She hoped, she said, that Scotland and Ireland would participate in British-Irish business as "more than observers".

There were also members at Cambridge who referred to the Lothian lecture of the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. I quote one extract from his remarks, of relevance to this debate:

"The Good Friday Peace Agreement . . . coupled with devolution across the UK will, we hope, lead to a new spirit of co-operation and friendship between the different component parts of these islands. It will be difficult in future for anyone to adopt the reductionist position that Britain equals England or London. In future, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will have a political personality of their own."

In that spirit, MPs and TDs in Cambridge moved on to consideration of strand 3, section 11 of the Good Friday agreement. It states:

"The elected institutions of the members will be encouraged to develop interparliamentary links".

Discussion on that immediately ran into two difficulties, about which I will be quite frank. First, how could members of sovereign Parliaments debate matters within their exclusive competence, such as foreign affairs, defence and decommissioning, alongside representatives of devolved Assemblies? Secondly, how could parity of representation between London and Dublin—they currently have 25 members each—be secured?

The Irish have a problem, which we shall face in this chamber, as a small Parliament, at some point in the future. They cannot detach more than 25 TDs from the Oireachtas, without it coming to a virtual halt. If Scots, Welsh and Ulstermen were involved, the fear is that the British voice would be louder, but if the Westminster contingent were shrunk, the fear is that some pan-Celtic majority might arise.

A number of models were discussed, although no decision was taken. There was some agreement, however, that one way forward—at least initially—might be for any parliamentary council to have two commissions. Commission 1 would be composed exclusively of members from Westminster and Dublin, which would consider sovereign matters such as security. Commission 2 would consider devolved matters, and would be composed of members from all Parliaments and Assemblies, with no in-built majority. Both commissions might come together in plenary session, although the body would, of course, be deliberative.

At Cambridge, no final view was reached. The body decided to wait and see. However, Mo Mowlam yet again reiterated remarks made by her at the 17th plenary, that the Nordic Council model was one from which lessons could be learned.

We have heard a bit about that from Alex Salmond. I will make two points. First, the Nordic Council was not suddenly imposed top-down by Governments, but grew bottom-up from citizens movements and the Norden Association formed in 1918—a bit like the patient networking done by civic Scotland in building this Parliament. Secondly, the real work of building a Nordic identity has been done not by ministers but by ordinary parliamentarians in the council bringing together—across frontiers—employers, trade unions, women's groups and local authorities.

Regardless of what happens short term, I hope that we can continue a similar process here. Members of the consultative steering group went to Ulster to brief parliamentarians. Joan Stringer, of the CSG, chaired the forum on equal opportunities.

The Columba initiative is an excellent example of how communities these days transcend national frontiers. It brings together students from the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland and Scotland in the youth parliament of the greater Gaidhealtachd.

There are also parliamentary matters of daily devolved politics: our common links in natural gas and electricity supply; radioactive discharges into the Irish sea from Sellafield; munitions dumped in Beaufort's dyke; the rural environment; crofting; ferry and transport links; co-operative ventures in education; peripherality in the European Union; and parliamentary follow-up to the work being done by Wendy Alexander as lead minister on social inclusion in the council.

"Se obair làtha tòiseachadh—It's a whole day's work getting started," I said to one TD at Cambridge. He replied, characteristically, perhaps, in view of the Ulster experience, "Se obair beatha criochnachadh—Finishing the job can be a whole lifetime's work." The logic of devolution is that we have to get started. Regardless of what happens in Ulster over the next few days—and all of us pray that men and women of good faith and common sense will prevail there—Scotland will want to keep talking to the other communities and countries in our shared islands.

In his winding-up remarks, I very much hope that Jim Wallace will welcome the creation of the Presiding Officers' conference as a small step down that road. I also hope that he will confirm his support for committees, or parts of them, and individual MSPs meeting on matters of mutual interest with colleagues from Belfast, Cardiff, Dublin, London and the smaller islands.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour 4:01 pm, 2nd February 2000

As Jamie Stone said, the British-Irish Council offers a new dimension for Ireland and, as several members have said, for Scotland and this Parliament. It recognises that we, too, have a role to play in assisting Ireland to move forward and in providing an appropriate role for Scottish ministers, as the Executive accountable to this Parliament, working within the family of nations in these islands.

It may be of interest to members that David McLetchie, Alex Salmond and others used the name council of the isles. In this context, it is important not to be caught by history, as that name has a certain historical resonance. The last Council of the Isles existed to advise the head of clan Donald when, as Lord of the Isles, he was, effectively, an independent ruler. Indeed, the last Council of the Isles was put out of business by the last Scottish Parliament, some 500 years ago. It is clear from today's debate that the message of good will from the new Scottish Parliament to the new council of the isles will be very different.

The political and cultural traditions of Gaelic Scotland are relevant to today's debate. The cultural connections and the economic parallels between the western peripheral areas of Scotland and Ireland are ancient yet still very strong today, as colleagues who represent the Highlands and Islands will acknowledge and as George Reid just reminded us.

The strong links between central Scotland and parts of Ireland, built over centuries of migration in both directions, are well known. Donald Dewar mentioned the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, which was recently established at the University of Aberdeen, which is in my constituency. The institute is of great significance, but it is not an isolated phenomenon. University College Dublin, the Queen's University of Belfast, the University of Aberdeen and the University of Strathclyde have worked together over a period of years to build on shared interests and ties through the Irish-Scottish academic initiative and to develop the recent renewal of a sense of community between our two countries.

That work is not merely academic: it is about changing perspectives, reflecting changing communities and influencing communities. I believe that the council of the isles, or the British-Irish Council, creates an opportunity to contribute to that developing sense of identity of a community of interest that Scotland and Ireland share.

Alex Salmond spoke about bilateral aspects—I hope that they will include direct co-operation between Scotland and the Governments of both southern and Northern Ireland.

I have no doubt that all parts of these islands have much to learn and to gain from working together through the council in the years to come. It will be an important and positive development that will both strengthen British-Irish relations and underpin the devolution settlement of which this Parliament is part.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative 4:04 pm, 2nd February 2000

Prior to last year's elections, the First Minister said:

"we"— that was not early use of the royal we, as he had held a meeting with Mo Mowlam

"can see a wealth of opportunities for new relationships and dynamics within the British Isles. We can start to realise these aims now through our work on the BIC."

Today, he followed that up by saying that he hopes that the council will bring

"real benefits to all the people of these islands".

I for one completely concur with those sentiments.

I would like to expand on the subject touched on in David McLetchie's speech, not from what John McAllion would call a narrow political point of view, but because it is a topic of great importance if linkage between Scotland and Ireland is to be fostered and strengthened. I refer to the vital importance of transport links to Northern Ireland and Eire through the south-west of Scotland and the unacceptable state of those links at present.

It is a fallacy to argue, as many do, that nothing has been done for the past 20 years. If members do not believe me, they have only to ask the residents of the many towns and villages that were by-passed during the Conservative period in government.

Just before the Executive tries to claim—if it does—credit for the £10 million improvement at the Glen near Dumfries, I am happy to inform members that that too was brought about and sanctioned by the previous Conservative Government. It was an Administration committed to road improvement, unlike the present one, which is committed more to driver persecution.

Despite the fact that real improvements have been made, an awful lot more needs to be done. It is said that the first 30 mph restriction on a drive from Portugal to Stranraer is at Crocketford in Galloway—and that the second is at Springholm, about five miles further on. Needless to say, a Conservative Government would have by-passed those villages as part of its road improvement plan, whereas this Executive seems content to ignore their plight.

The A77 is also in need of major attention between Ayr and Stranraer. These two major links to the Loch Ryan complex, Stranraer and Cairnryan, the A77 and the A75—which, significantly, and as Alex Salmond pointed out, is a recognised Euro-route, although it is often referred to locally as a Euro-goat-track—are the major British links to Northern Ireland, the brave new Northern Ireland, which so greatly needs our help, support and encouragement in these very tricky early days of peaceful co-existence. We all want that to succeed, and the British-Irish Council was first proposed towards that end.

From a recent seminar in Stranraer organised by Dumfries and Galloway Council came a call for an all-party and, perhaps more important, all-parliamentary group from the European Parliament down, to press for urgent improvements to the A77 and A75. I commend Alasdair Morgan for facilitating a meeting of such interested parties.

It is interesting that the most vociferous calls at the seminar came from representatives of all parts of Ireland. Those roads are absolutely vital for trade and tourism. To ignore their further upgrading is frankly to ignore the future economic prospects of the south-west of Scotland and Northern and southern Ireland. It is my fervent hope that the British-Irish Council can help raise that issue up the political agenda.

I have a similar hope—although I am not so optimistic that it may bear fruit—that the council may seriously consider the issue of Beaufort's dyke. As part of the Scotland to Northern Ireland interconnector project, underwater cables are to be laid through an area of sea bed on which lies a mind-boggling variety of munitions, explosives and other unwanted ordnance, much of which is liable to be washed ashore when disturbed.

Whereas both Westminster and the Scottish Executive are content to pass the buck on this important issue for people in the south-west of Scotland, perhaps it is not too much to ask that the British-Irish Council may have the courage to address it and give real meaning to the First Minister's optimistic appraisal of the council's relevance a year or so ago and in his speech this afternoon.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat 4:09 pm, 2nd February 2000

The interest and focus of much of this debate centres on happenings in Northern Ireland. It is good to see this institution lending tremendous support to our colleagues in Northern Ireland in the hope that they can see their way through their current difficulties.

There are very strong bonds between Scotland and Ireland. I have many relations on both sides of my family who live in Ireland. In the context of the small economy of Bute, my first experience of the Irish people was of the tattie howking squads coming every summer to work the farms along the west coast of Scotland. Most summers, they started on the east coast and working their way to the west, either singling turnips or picking potatoes—quite a backbreaking job. Many of them were, of course, left behind.

Three or four such people worked with my family for many years after the tattie howking squads stopped coming. It is with great interest that we look to the events that are unfolding in Northern Ireland.

I happen to be fortunate in that when the Northern Ireland Assembly was set up, I was a guest at a conference in Dublin on rural issues. It was attended by representatives of all the Celtic nations and the UK. We were there to discuss the common challenges and problems that face our rural economies. It was tremendous to discuss with delegates, over a beer in the evening, the hopes and aspirations that were being expressed as a result of the setting up of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The first meeting between representatives of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Government of Eire took place on the Monday after that conference.

Speaking to taxi drivers in London and to some of the delegates who were left behind after the conference, I found that there was a great sense of hope and expectation. More than that, however, there was a sense of wonder that the two sides in Ireland were sitting down and that their representatives were having a political debate about the day-to-day issues of health, education and tourism, rather than guns and religion. There was a sense that new opportunities were being developed because of the setting up of a new political institution. I greatly regret that the peace process seems to have hit another major obstacle. We must hope that a way forward can be found.

I will move on to the institution of the British-Irish Council. When I worked with the National Farmers Union of Scotland, I took many opportunities to visit the other Celtic countries. The experiences of rural Wales, rural Ireland, rural Eire and rural Scotland have much in common. There was a formal apparatus that regularly brought together all the farming unions and there were many common causes that locked us together. Such an experience should be made available to the members of this Parliament and the Parliaments of the other Celtic nations and the UK. It is important that all parts of the British Isles have a way to exchange ideas and to communicate with parliamentarians from other parts of the isles.

The challenge for the Scottish Parliament is to talk about issues other than Scottish issues—we must look wider. We could be accused of navel-gazing on many occasions because we look no further afield than Scotland. The council of the isles gives parliamentarians a great opportunity to discuss the challenges that face all our countries. Where there are common opportunities there will be policy failures as well as policy successes, but it is important that that discussion takes place. I ask that structures be set up to allow such debate to take place so that ideas are swapped.

No part of Britain has as rich and deep a connection with Ireland as Argyllshire. We have a permanent link—I hope—via ferry between Ireland and Scotland.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I must wind up.

Argyll means the boundary of the hinterland of the Gael. The very name suggests the idea of a cultural crossroads. As the First Minister knows, I have added my support to an initiative to bring the council of the isles to Islay—I hope that the Executive will do everything it can to support that cause.

Photo of Colin Campbell Colin Campbell Scottish National Party 4:14 pm, 2nd February 2000

I was charmed earlier to hear a quotation from George Santayana:

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

I used to have that over my classroom door. The children thought it meant that they would be punished if they did not remember their homework. That, however, was not the message: the message was, quite simply, that if we do not remember the lessons of history, we will make all the same mistakes again. It was interesting, in the context of today's debate, that that was the lead-in.

I suppose that I have indulged in a little co-operation with the Irish already because, in the October vacation, with the assistance of the Irish Government, I visited the Departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs in Dublin and the Irish Naval Service. Wearing my defence hat, which is irrelevant in here, I was interested in how the Irish go about the process of international co-operation. I met the principal officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs and I was interested to discover how determined the Government is to press forward in every possible way to bring peace to the world at large and to make whatever contribution, however large or small, in diplomatic or military terms, to bring about peace.

Exactly the same ends are being pursued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. What the Department of Defence, in spirit and in purpose, was doing, was identical to what is being done by the British Government.

Margaret Ewing talked about issues such as fisheries protection. The Irish Naval Service carries out fisheries protection, coastguard, search and rescue and drug interdiction operations, as do the British forces and the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency.

What was interesting in that dialogue was that there are areas of sea to the north of Ulster and to the south-east of Ireland that are the subject of technical dispute over ownership between the British and various elements of the Irish island. However, when it comes to the bit, there is perfect co-operation between the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency, the Royal Navy and the Irish Naval Service on activities that go in and out of those areas, to meet the needs of fisheries protection, drug interdiction, coastguarding and search and rescue. The UK reciprocates in that.

I am sure that members will already have grasped the point that I am trying to make.

Although my particular interest was relations at a more international level than the council of the isles, the point was to confirm that we have common interests worldwide. We have a shared vision and a shared commitment to international peace and reconciliation. In my negotiations and talks, there was a tremendous lack of parochialism, much good humour—naturally, because it was Dublin—and a huge commitment to progress.

The council of the isles represents that commitment to progress. It represents a way for all the organisations, nations, islands, parts of islands and devolved assemblies taking part in it to raise their sights and look forward. In the past, Ireland's problem has been that it has been stuck in its history. It must learn from that history to make progress. The organisation that is being discussed today, and the possibility of parliamentary participation in it, is such a way forward.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 4:18 pm, 2nd February 2000

I start by expressing the hope that the British-Irish Council has a future. The recent news of the possible suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly is of concern to us all. The difficulties being experienced in Northern Ireland put into perspective the problems that have been exercising political minds here in Scotland over the past couple of weeks. I am sure that we all fervently hope that a solution can be found that enables our sister administration in Northern Ireland to continue to operate.

The British-Irish Council enables the Irish Government, representatives from the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, and the four Governments of the UK to work together on areas of mutual interest. Importantly, it should provide opportunities for us to learn from each other's experience.

The First Minister has reminded members that the Irish Government has been involved in pioneering work on tackling drugs misuse. Its views on the success of its efforts, and even on those areas that have been less successful, will serve to inform us.

I hope that a mechanism will be found to enable the proceedings of the next meeting of the council, in Dublin, to be reported to the Scottish Parliament so that we can hear at first hand what has been going on.

I am sure that Irish successes in tourism—particularly cultural tourism—and promotion of the film industry, for example, will also be of interest to members of the Scottish Parliament when we consider our strategies for those matters. There will also be increasing opportunities for educational links, especially as distance learning techniques and communication processes are rapidly improving.

There are strong and historic links between Northern Ireland and the south-west of Scotland, not least in mutual interests in economic issues, particularly transport. I want to make a plea for the A75 Euro-route; I hope that there will be many opportunities to highlight its importance. For members who may not be familiar with the area, the sea crossing between Belfast and Stranraer is a key transport link between Northern Ireland and Scotland—and the rest of the UK—for both freight and passengers. Access to the main motorway network, north and south, is gained via the A75, which runs for more than 100 miles through Galloway and Dumfriesshire, parallel to the Solway firth.

Many of us who represent that area, at different levels of government—councillors, MPs and MSPs—feel that the economic significance of the route, not only to Dumfries and Galloway, but to Northern Ireland and the north of England, has been underestimated over the years. I will not try to make a party political point about this, because it is a cross-party issue. Despite funding having been made available to upgrade some sections of the road, convoys of cars and lorries leaving Stranraer on their way to the M6 and the M74 are frequently still travelling together when they reach the Annan by-pass. I know that as a result of being trapped behind them on occasion.

I look forward to the British-Irish Council providing another avenue for discussion about the economic importance of the A75 and other trade routes. I hope that informal interparliamentary links will be forged, allowing members representing constituencies in the different Parliaments to discuss matters of mutual interest. There is genuine cross-party support and cross-sectoral interest in promoting the inclusion of the A75 in future strategic roads reviews. That is one small example of the type of discussion which, if it is followed by meaningful action, will prove that the British-Irish Council is not just a high-level talking shop, but presents a real opportunity to make progress on matters of mutual interest.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party 4:23 pm, 2nd February 2000

Over the past few years, I have been fortunate enough to attend informal discussions at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, just outside Dublin. I would like to pay tribute to the work of the centre, particularly the work it does with young people in breaking down barriers. Perhaps we could take some lessons from the centre's groundbreaking work.

Such off-the-record discussions provide a great insight into the workings of the peace process. I witnessed at first hand how those with apparently diametrically opposed views could sit down together to work out what they needed to move things on. I am sure that those discussions and many others like them have contributed enormously to the peace process, resulting in the formation of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Because of the commitment and determination of such people, I am sure that, despite the current difficulties and the possible suspension of the Executive, a way forward will be found, as it has happened time and time again.

The idea of a council of the isles was often spoken of at Glencree. It was seen as an opportunity to further understanding and co-operation not only between Governments or Parliaments, but between the peoples of the isles.

My belief in the importance of such a council was further strengthened when I took part in a council of the isles study tour in the United States, before Christmas. The tour was organised by the Irish institute of Boston College. There was great excitement as the Northern Ireland Executive was being formed while we were out there. There was some awareness of the Scottish Parliament among the people I met, but their interest outweighed their awareness. As the only MSP on the tour, I spent a huge amount of time answering questions about our new Parliament. There is a great deal of good will toward Scotland out there, on which we can build.

One of the most important aspects of the tour was the opportunity it gave to build relationships between elected representatives from the various parts of the isles. Our discussions ranged from the opportunity for bilateral discussions between the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly to transport issues and environmental concerns, and the idea of an alliance to expand the tourism market by attracting visitors wishing to sample the Celtic experience.

The possibilities are varied and plentiful, but to allow them to happen we must ensure that the council of the isles develops its own dynamic, as indeed this Parliament has started to do. It is essential that interparliamentary—and not just ministerial—links are developed. As has been said, that concept is encouraged in strand 3 of the Good Friday agreement.

I hope that the Deputy First Minister will recognise the importance of parliamentary links and accept the SNP amendment, so that this Parliament speaks with one voice in support of the council of the isles.

Photo of Keith Raffan Keith Raffan Liberal Democrat 4:26 pm, 2nd February 2000

The First Minister quoted the aim of the British-Irish Council, which is:

"to promote the harmonious and mutually beneficial development of the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands."

That is a worthy sentiment, if somewhat inelegant phraseology. That aim underlines what Mr Alex Salmond and David McLetchie said today: that the original designation—the council of the isles—is more appropriate. The council is about the totality of relationships between all the different legislative—and, in the case of the National Assembly for Wales, non-legislative—parliamentary bodies in these islands.

I agree with much of what has been said about the Nordic Council as a possible model. The Nordic Council does an enormous amount of work at a vast array of levels, such as resolving problems about the acceptance of medical and other academic qualifications. The Scandinavians consider the difficulty we have accepting Irish medical qualifications bizarre. I do not understand the full technical details. The council also addresses much more significant and complex issues.

The Nordic Council, which has its genesis in the independence of Norway in 1905, has acted as an organisation for conflict resolution and the healing of division, as indeed the European Economic Community and then the European Union have done. Perhaps the most significant contribution of the European Union, other than the obvious economic benefits, has been to heal the divisions within Europe and to produce—sometimes at our expense in these islands—a strong Franco-German alliance following three wars between those countries in the past 130 years. The British-Irish Council—the council of the isles, as I would prefer to call it—has a similarly important role.

I agree with Mo Mowlam and George Reid, whom I have heard report back on the meeting of the British-Irish Council at Cambridge to the Parliamentary Bureau, that we should not hold back from forming a parliamentary tier. We should do that as soon as possible, as it might help the situation in Northern Ireland that is the unfortunate background to this debate. I have distant relations in the Irish Republic. Like other members, I hope that we will once again come through this difficult situation.

I am sometimes teased in the chamber about my previous incarnation as a north Walian MP, but that experience had some value—I am glad to see Mr Salmond smiling. Even SNP members will recognise that I bring experience to this chamber that other members do not have, not least in relation to transport communications from Ireland through Holyhead. The Welsh do not gloat quite so much as SNP members do about the Irish economic miracle as they realise that the Irish are not getting quite so much from the European Union as they once did. I am being slightly mischievous—I am not going to enter into party politics.

Experience of being a north Walian MP informs my views on certain issues and has value, not least because we can learn, in some cases, not to follow the Irish way of doing things. For example, I do not believe that we should follow their lead on forfeiture of assets or some of their environmental policies. I remember losing an inward investment project in my north Wales constituency to Cork, because Cork imposed much more lax regulations on that chemical project than we were prepared to impose.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

I want to fit in the two remaining speakers. I call John Young, to be followed by Lloyd Quinan. They will both get in if they stick to three minutes.

Photo of John Young John Young Conservative 4:30 pm, 2nd February 2000

The timing of this debate is appropriate in view of happenings in Northern Ireland, where communication structures are being implemented that might set an example for the future. In July 1998, Dennis Canavan asked about the composition of the British-Irish Council and whether parliamentarians will be represented. The then junior Northern Ireland minister, Paul Murphy, who referred to Mr Canavan as his honourable friend—although he might not do so now—said that the answer was no and that the council would be composed of Governments and Executives in the British Isles. At present, a British-Irish interparliamentary body consists of a number of UK MPs, peers, TDs and senators. Strand 2 of the Good Friday agreement lists the various institutions that will be established—because of the time restriction, I will not name them all—and I think that the average person will have difficulty understanding why so many groups are referred to in this context.

Will the British-Irish Council be effective if disputes arise? In 1929, Eamon de Valera's ministry abolished the oath of allegiance and refused to pay the interest on moneys borrowed to purchase land for farmers. As a result, Britain levied duties on Irish imports and refused to negotiate with the Irish Free State at the imperial economic conference in Ottawa in 1932. Decisions that were taken in Dublin in 1937—particularly that the Irish Free State's national territory would include the whole island—started a rollercoaster that had a considerable impact during the war years.

As we have heard, the British-Irish Council, or council of the isles, emanated from the Nordic Council, which now consists of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the Åland Islands. In many ways, that was a more natural bonding than the British-Irish Council. Through the centuries, the countries had been linked nationally and enjoyed common historical roots, and the same overall religion, traditions and ideology. There was a logic to the establishment of the Nordic Council.

I understand that the idea of the British-Irish Council emerged as a late entry in the Good Friday agreement. We were advised that it would consist of the two sovereign states of the Republic of Ireland and the UK, the three devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and the three crown dependencies, the bailiwicks of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

However, the one big omission is England. The question I want to ask my SNP colleagues is, who speaks for England? How can we have a British-Irish Council that does not include England? The main transport links for—indeed, the survival of—Jersey and Guernsey are dependent on England and France, which are not included in the council.

The Scottish Executive is a lead Administration on social inclusion, but can we service and fund that responsibility? We can hardly service the Mound at the moment. The council's indicative list of about 30 subjects includes tourism and fishing, which have been mentioned several times.

Alex Salmond made the point that the council must not be a talking shop, which is a danger. The next summit will be in Dublin in June, when the subject will be the important issue of drugs. Although I hope that the summit succeeds, I would say that the jury is still out on the council.

Presiding Officer, you will pleased to hear that I have cut out much of my speech.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Thank you very much for your brevity. I hope that Lloyd Quinan will follow suit.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party 4:34 pm, 2nd February 2000

With the greatest of pleasure, Presiding Officer.

My connections to Ireland, north and south, go back a very long way both in my ancestry and, more important, in my working life. In 1980, I worked on a cross-community programme in Belfast called the Divis project, which would now be termed a social inclusion project and which worked with young joyriders who had been victims of the paramilitaries in their communities. That project worked enormously well. We turned a number of children away from the idea of stealing cars and running the risk of being killed on the streets of Belfast, and eventually got them into work. However, the greatest sadness is that the project fell apart the following year during the hunger strikes. That made clear to me how fragile things were in the north of Ireland.

A number of years later I went back to make a television programme that was the first to be seen on British television about the punishment shootings and people exiled to Scotland. We must recognise that a large number of people live in Scotland who have been driven out of their homes by paramilitaries on both sides. Through the council of the isles we can broker their return to their homes.

The advances made in social inclusion and anti-poverty strategies in the republic and the six counties are significant. In the six counties, under the administrative guidelines on policy appraisal and fair treatment, all policies are proofed—and I hope we will do the same—for religious and political opinion, gender, race, disability and age. We can learn from that.

The national anti-poverty strategy that has been in place in the Republic of Ireland for three years has brought unemployment from 11.9 per cent to 6 per cent, and long-term unemployment from 7 per cent to 6 per cent. There are structures already in place that we can learn from.

It is only with the involvement of the Parliament as well as the Executive that we will all begin to understand that despite the tragedies of the north of Ireland and the great problems that the republic has had, imaginative and innovative ways to overcome those problems and to address social ills, like those in this country to which John McAllion referred, have been found.

Even some of the contributions today, all of which have been constructive, show that we still have a gap of understanding. I used to say to people that the only way to understand Northern Ireland is to go there. I do not believe that that is the case any more, but we should make sure that when unfortunate situations like that of the past 48 hours happen, we are not gloom merchants. The situation will be overcome because the people of the island of Ireland want peace. We can play a part. I urge members to support the motion.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Thank you, and I thank all members for co-operating and making sure that everybody could speak.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative 4:37 pm, 2nd February 2000

We welcome the Executive introducing a debate on this subject and, in so doing, embracing David McLetchie's suggestion. It has been an interesting and well-informed debate with a welcome, very courteous exchange of views.

The title British-Irish Council has a slightly sterile and restrictive redolence akin to a dreary post-second world war trade mission—that is not the ambience that we want for the new body. To me, council of the isles has a ring about it that is substantive and romantic. St Columba and Ossian would have empathised with that name and with the spirit of the entity. Nor should the council of the isles conjure up a public perception of a peripatetic group of aquatic bureaucrats observing tokenism by circumnavigating their way round the British Isles.

The council's composition and activity are important, as is its location. We feel that a permanent chairman and the imaginative inclusion of an interparliamentary dimension would be fruitful and strengthen the structure. The prospect of locating the permanent secretariat in Glasgow is alluring and would be a fitting tribute to the traditions of St Mungo. I suggest to Dr Ewing that the honest men and bonnie lasses of Ayr might indulge me in that view.

The First Minister spoke of speeches to the council full of optimism and hope. That is welcome and this party applauds those sentiments. He also considered that the council could be a forum for discussion where interests coincide, overlap and collide. That aspect is very significant. This party endorses the First Minister's view, but adds that there must be rigour and candour in the pursuit of the objectives.

Having regard to the matters that the council of the isles may discuss, specifically communications, Alex Fergusson and Dr Elaine Murray referred to the A75 and the A77 south of Ayr. Those roads are vitally significant to improving access between Scotland and Ireland, as are the expansion of our air travel and air freight. This chamber expects the Scottish Executive to pursue those matters with vigour.

In relation to drugs, Mr McLetchie rightly pointed out the instructive visit that the Deputy Minister for Justice, Angus MacKay, recently made to Dublin, but of that we need to hear more, because so far there has been silence. I would like the Executive to confirm whether the European convention on human rights is proving to be an impediment to the implementation of Irish solutions.

Again, I find myself agreeing with Mr Raffan. He is right to allude to learning through the council about treatment and rehabilitation models in relation to drugs abuse.

Alex Fergusson pertinently commented on the current battle, which is the interconnected cables that will be laid over the North channel. Beaufort's dyke is an important element of that. This is precisely the sort of useful, relevant and important issue that the council can embrace.

Social inclusion is a vital area for the council to consider, but the input from Scotland will be flawed if it proceeds from a didactic and lofty standpoint, and if it is redolent of the Executive delivering input from a think tank, and not giving families and communities real control.

In conclusion, this party wishes the council of the isles well and supports the initiative, the motion and the amendment, but whatever else happens, we are emphatic that this council must not be empty tokenism.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 4:42 pm, 2nd February 2000

The First Minister referred to this debate being tinged with anxiety, and others have reflected that concern. We all hope that developments on the other side of the water are successful. I hope also that the enthusiasm of all participants for the council of the isles will be a factor that works towards peace, albeit not the most important one, because surely the best argument against violence is a successful working democracy.

I am glad to speak in this debate as the member for the constituency in Scotland that is closest to Northern Ireland. It may be closest in geographical terms, but at many times in the past few years it seemed like Northern Ireland was a million miles away because of the differences that were apparent between the two countries. Yet underneath those differences, the people living in Scotland and Northern Ireland shared exactly the same economic and social problems, which we all wanted to solve, and which would be better solved by working together. Certainly, for the south-west of Scotland, there are significant benefits from having connections with the Irish. I say Irish, because it is not just the Northern Irish connection.

There has been some interchange of population, I suspect more towards us than away from us in recent years. There has been significant tourism, which has gone up and down as the peace process has ebbed and flowed. In addition, as other members have alluded to, there is significant commercial traffic across the Stranraer-Cairnryan to Northern Ireland route, which is not just the shortest sea crossing from Scotland to Northern Ireland, it is the busiest ferry route in the British Isles, with the exception of the Dover-Calais route.

Other members have alluded to the problems of the A75 and the A77. I have a vested interest in that matter, because my house is on the speed-restricted area at Crocketford. As I woke up at 5 o'clock this morning it did not seem to matter much whether the convoy of lorries that Elaine Murray described was going at 30 mph or 40 mph, because a dozen heavy goods vehicles make a lot of noise first thing in the morning. Regardless of who was responsible for the improvement in the glens, as far as the journey from Dumfries to Stranraer is concerned, it is a case of 1 mile of dual carriageway there and 74 miles to go.

I do not want to use that as a stick with which to beat the Administration. I was conscious, as were Dumfries and Galloway Council and the other participants at the seminar to which Alex Fergusson referred, of the opportunities that the peace process provides for ordinary members to get together to pressurise their various Administrations to put pressure in turn on the Scottish Administration to develop the A75, which is a route that is of benefit not just to Scotland, but to Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Recently, therefore, I have written not only to members of Parliament on this side of the water, but to members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, TDs for the other counties in Ulster and MEPs from Ireland. I hope that the peace process will develop in a way that allows us to exploit the encouraging responses that I have received.

The council of the isles, as it is set up, is a result of the peace process in Ireland, but it is not just about Ireland and the United Kingdom. As has been explained, the council includes Guernsey and Jersey. For that reason, the best title would be the council of the isles.

The council also includes the Isle of Man, which is close to my constituency too and is visible from there on a good day. Recently, our closeness was shown in tragic circumstances. The generosity and speed of response of the Isle of Man Government in the loss of the Solway Harvester has already been alluded to. We must learn lessons from that.

Over the years, the links between the Isle of Man and Scotland have diminished. There used to be regular summer excursions by boat from Garlieston to the Isle of Man, which have long since gone. It is to be hoped that the council of the isles and the recent tragic events will allow Scotland to start a new relationship with the Isle of Man.

Other issues such as Sellafield, which has been mentioned, will be of great interest to all the participants. Sellafield is a positive issue for England, due to the number of jobs that are created in Workington and round about. However, for the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, Ireland and Scotland it is a negative issue, due to the pollution, which knows no boundaries and touches all our countries. By getting together I hope that we will be able to find some resolution to the problem.

The amendment has had support from all sides of the chamber. I am glad that that is the case. It seems sensible that members, in addition to Administrations, should be involved. It seems particularly reasonable given the various electoral mechanisms that are in place in the different countries involved in the council of the isles—power-sharing Executives, proportional representation systems with coalitions and first-past-the-post Governments. It is logical that all shades of opinion from all the Parliaments should be represented in some way.

However, I emphasise that the intention, wording and spirit of the amendment was not to replace the involvement of the various Executives and Governments in the council, but to give the opportunity for an extra dimension of involvement by ordinary members.

To avoid any doubt, I ask leave to move a manuscript amendment to the SNP amendment, to leave out:

"is not just for members of the various governments but" and insert:

"as envisaged in Strand 3 of the Belfast Agreement".

I hope that that amendment will command wide support throughout the chamber.

In conclusion, the kind of relationship that can be fostered between the constituent nations of the British Isles is far healthier than the idea of superiors and dependants within that relationship. The council of the isles is an embryo; it is deliberately vague. However, therein lies its potential for finding co-operative solutions to common problems. That potential must be nurtured.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat 4:49 pm, 2nd February 2000

Everyone will agree that this has been a constructive debate. We have shown that the Parliament is able to raise its sights above domestic issues to deal with issues that are of considerable importance and moment.

Lloyd Quinan said that when dealing with matters relating to Ireland there was often a gap of understanding. Our debate today has been well informed and some of that gap of understanding has been bridged by the personal experiences of a number of the people who contributed to the debate. I am thinking especially of Shona Robison's references to the Glencree centre, which brought an interesting new dimension to the debate. I am sure that members would like to learn more about it.

I congratulate Mr McLetchie, not only on the constructive tone of his speech but on the fact that he managed to turn his speech into a mini-debate on transport, drugs, social inclusion and the European convention on human rights.

As we all know, this debate takes place against a fragile background in Northern Ireland. I contrast the present tension there with the atmosphere of hope that pervaded the inaugural council meeting in London in December. As parliamentarians, our thoughts today are very much with those who are trying to find a way out of the current difficulties. We wish them every success.

The British-Irish Council will be what we make of it. There have been suggestions that we should make a new name of it, as it is more often called the council of the isles. However, I am reliably informed by my colleague Alasdair Morrison that if that name is translated into Gaelic—Comhairle nan Eilean—the British-Irish Council will have the same name as the Western Isles Council, so there may be some practical difficulties there.

As Alasdair Morrison said, the potential for the council is great. Both Alex Salmond and Margaret Ewing questioned whether there should be wider discussions on topics such as tourism, fisheries and education. I would like to point out that, in addition to the lead topics, the council agreed an indicative list of other issues that would be suitable for the work of the council, including agricultural, health, regional, energy, cultural, tourism, sport and educational issues. Someone mentioned that education was not on the list. It is not on the main list, but it was listed as being an area that could be developed, possibly bilaterally.

The British-Irish Council will be a forum for discussion where we can share best practice and learn lessons. It can support and help to develop further the links that we already enjoy with other administrations in these islands. It can be a vehicle for joint action in which we can work on initiatives that will make a real difference to the lives of the peoples of all these islands.

In many of the contributions today, we have heard examples of areas in which there might be useful dialogue and useful work done, not only in the council but in the bilateral arrangements. Alex Fergusson, Elaine Murray, Alasdair Morgan and Alex Salmond all referred to the importance of transport links, and made strong pleas for improvements to the A77 and A75. Over many years, especially during Scottish question time at Westminster, I shared Alex Salmond's experience of MPs from Northern Ireland making the point very clearly about the importance of transport links.

References have been made to cultural links. I agree with George Reid on the importance of the Columba initiative. It was established to foster closer cultural and linguistic ties between the Gaelic-speaking communities of Scotland and Ireland. I can report to the Parliament that my colleague Alasdair Morrison recently visited Dublin and met Minister Eamon O'Cuiv. Alasdair Morrison has been invited to attend the next sitting of the youth parliament in Derry in March, which ministers from Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will attend. That is indicative of the kind of developments and relationships that are already building up.

Drugs will be the principal subject for discussion when the council next meets, which I hope will be in Dublin later this year. The Irish Government will take the lead responsibility in that. Angus MacKay has already visited Dublin to try to gain more insight and information into Ireland's strategy for tackling drugs. There are no simple panaceas. We want to examine and to tackle drug trafficking from as many angles as possible. Examining the Irish experience is important. There was a rare moment of concord between Keith Raffan and David McLetchie when it was pointed out that it was not a question of enforcement but a question of learning about, and sharing experience on, treatment and rehabilitation.

Lloyd Quinan made a point about the Criminal Assets Bureau in the Irish Republic. It has already identified and seized several million pounds of criminal assets. That is a matter of public record, and appears in the bureau's annual report. European convention on human rights issues must be carefully considered. We know that any legislation passed by this Parliament must comply with the European convention on human rights. It is also important to point out that the confiscation of criminal assets is already in place and we are examining how we can make it more effective.

The Scottish Executive and the Cabinet of the National Assembly for Wales have been give the lead responsibility for the council's consideration of social inclusion. I look forward to further discussion and debate in this chamber on the progress that we make on that matter. It is well known that social justice is a key plank of our programme for government in Scotland, which sets radical targets for full employment and ending child poverty. Through the British-Irish Council, we can look forward to learning from the experiences of Ireland and of other devolved Administrations in creating opportunity, tackling poverty and delivering social justice, and to sharing our experiences with them.

One or two members talked not only about the council but about bilateral involvement. It is worth recording the fact that last week Wendy Alexander and Jackie Baillie were in the Irish Republic. They accept that action is an important part of bilateral co-operation. During their meetings in Ireland, they were able to consider not just general social inclusion issues and anti-poverty strategies, but also a new role for rural post offices in the future. They met representatives from credit unions to see what lessons could be learned there, and visited peripheral estates where exclusion is being tackled through information technology training for the long-term unemployed. That is indicative of the sort of practical learning from and sharing of experience that I hope will inform our debates and the way in which we tackle key problems.

As I indicated, the next-but-one summit will be in Scotland. George Lyon kindly offered Islay as a venue. A decision on where that summit should be held has not yet been made, but consideration will be given to all proposals. This spring, we plan to bring together ministers with responsibility for social justice in the various Administrations to give a real impetus to our work and to engage with the enthusiasm that exists throughout the council.

The location of the secretariat was also discussed. Annabel Goldie backed Glasgow, and at least one other member put in a bid for that city, but there are no plans for a centralised secretariat. That might accord with Winnie Ewing's proposal that we locate the secretariat in Ayr; it could go round the country as different by-elections emerge. [Laughter.] I suspect that my colleagues in Wales might suggest Ceredigion as an appropriate place for it this week. It is important to point out that the secretariat is a joint effort by the two sovereign Governments, in consultation with other members. It is, one might say, a virtual secretariat, and does not need a single location.

A recurring theme throughout this debate has been the importance of parliamentary links. I particularly welcome George Reid's contribution as a constructive and positive measure. The Executive certainly supports the development of interparliamentary links in these islands in parallel with the British-Irish Council. I am pleased that Mr Morgan has proposed his manuscript amendment, as there would have been a technical difficulty in accepting the amendment as originally drafted.

The Executive and the whole Parliament will be happy to accept the manuscript amendment, because the spirit of this debate has been that if the principle of sharing and learning applies to Administrations, it also holds good for Parliaments. We hope that strong interparliamentary links will be established in parallel with the British-Irish Council. The founding agreement of the council suggests that that might happen through the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. We want to explore how it can best happen, but I am sure that the whole Parliament would endorse the principle.

The British-Irish Council is a modern institution for a modern constitutional framework. It reflects positive and constructive relationships within these islands and Scotland's place in that framework. We will contribute to and benefit from the relationships that it enjoys. As I said, it was founded in an atmosphere of hope, it is being taken forward with enthusiasm and commitment, and I believe that it will result in better lives for people not only in Scotland but in all these islands.