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Friday 19 September 2014

Feathers ruffled as ministers try to justify BIC-quity

Published 14/06/2014 | 02:30

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Enda Kenny with, left, Guernsey Chief Minister Jonathan Le Tocq, and the North's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at BIC Summit in Guernsey

It was a lovely day, they all agreed. The weather was only mighty/wonderful/fabulous here on the beautiful island of Guernsey. As was the hospitality, they all hastened to point out. The Chief Minister, Deputy Jonathan Le Tocq, was a great host altogether. Oh, and the meeting had been lovely, too.

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It had been such a nice far cry from the terror-stricken conclaves of recent years as everyone tried not to fall off the economic cliff.

The mood around the table, mused Britain's deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, was one of "cautious optimism". The others liked that one.

"Cautiously optimistic," agreed the Taoiseach, and the North's Martin McGuinness and the Isle of Man's Chief Minister, Allan Bell and Jersey's Chief Minister Ian Gorst.

Everyone, it seemed, was cautiously optimistic. However, seated in their proper place below this happy podium, one member of the Awkward Squad – aka the media – was less enamoured with the whole experience.

What, he demanded to know, does the British Irish Council (BIC) actually achieve? Is it anything more than a talking-shop which after a couple of hours' chinwag releases a joint communiqué woolier than a field-full of merino sheep?

The nine men and women were crestfallen. Crests were plummeting to the floor at a rate of knots. They weren't under any illusions that they were the all-powerful BRIC collective (Brazil, Russia, India, China), but they all thought being part of BIC was pretty cool. Alas, there's nothing like a member of the Fourth Estate to wreck a pleasant political buzz.

The host with the most, Jonathan Le Tocq, did the smart thing.

"I'd like to make a comment on that," he said. "But before I do, I'd ask the Taoiseach if he'd comment first," he added, landing Enda right in it. (Well it had been an Irish journalist who'd done the buzz-wrecking).

Enda winced. "Thanks," he joked to the Guernsey chief, before launching into an explanation as to why the BIC is indeed a useful twice-yearly day out.

"Has this been of major international significance – probably not in the scale of things," he admitted. "But I think this is all about people living within the devolved authorities and on the islands. Just because there isn't a controversy doesn't mean there can't be consent and progress," he pointed out.

Then they were all scrambling to justify their BIC-quity. Allan Bell reckoned it was an effective way of doing business. "I absolutely believe you can achieve an awful lot in five minutes over a cup of coffee than all the public posturing in the newspapers ever achieve."

The North's First Minister Peter Robinson was clearly displeased with the impertinence of the question.

"We need to remember what the context of this body is – it arose out of deep divisions across these islands that have tainted many centuries and an attempt was made to bring people together," he said. "This is not an executive body which takes decisions to do things. This is a body that improves relations."

And Peter was firmly of the view that it has worked.

"I'm happy to say we have our best-ever relationship with the Irish Republic – better than any time in our history, and that's partly because of the relationships built up through these kind of institutions," he declared – which was quite the declar-ation from a chap not overly given to gushing hyperbole.

Beside him, Martin McGuinness was nodding in agreement.

"Do not underestimate the importance of these gatherings," he advised.

At least the barbed question took the BIC members off their collective auto-pilot. They all hastened to explain that at these get-togethers they regularly share information and methods to deal with the huge problem of youth unemployment and the scourge of drug abuse.

And then after a few more questions the members wandered off for lunch. En route to his soup, the Taoiseach stopped to take a swipe at the chairman of PAC, John McGuinness for "over-politicising" the role of the Oireachtas watchdog.

And then he headed back to Dublin – sure it's a mere 45-minute flight on the jet. And didn't he get a lovely day for it, all the same, just lovely.

Irish Independent

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