BBC News

British-Irish conference to meet in London

By Gareth Gordon
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

image copyrightPacemaker
image captionDesperately seeking something - but is the conference a solution to the Stormont impasse?

A major bilateral British Irish conference is to be held for the first time in more than a decade.

The British-Irish InterGovernmental Conference (BIIGC) was last held in the Irish town of Dundalk in February 2007.

Now the teams have been called from the sidelines for a meeting in London on 25 July.

The Irish government, Sinn Féin and the SDLP had called for its return because of the current impasse over restoring the Stormont institutions.

Unionists oppose the idea, dismissing it as a "talking shop for non-devolved matters".

The conference aims to promote bilateral co-operation between the British and Irish governments.

There are some footballers whose value appears to increase incrementally the more time they spend on the sidelines

Especially if the team they sometimes play for is losing without them.

image copyrightAFP/Getty Images
image captionNI Secretary Karen Bradley will be attending the conference in July

If it's not stretching the rules of analogy too far, consider the BIIGC just such a player.

The last meeting in February 2007 was, at that time, considered so important that the BBC's extensive archive cannot turn up a single frame from it.

We have looked - ever since Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called for it to be brought back into play at the tail end of last year.

Now, like a coach finally worn down by a losing run that never ends, the British government has given in and declared "game on".

The news came hours after Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley made a rare appearance before the media.

image copyrightPA
image captionTaoiseach Leo Varadkar called for the conference to be brought back into play

She told the media, again and again, that the government was searching for a "basis" to restart talks.

But if you are still looking, then you are not finding, and so - in the absence of any other idea - the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference is having a reunion.

What does it mean? That depends who you ask.

It's unlikely the DUP is as relaxed about it as the party is trying to sound; the party's deputy leader Nigel Dodds dismissed the conference as a "talking shop" with no powers over devolved matters.

Make no mistake: This is a move the DUP wanted to avoid. After all, anything that can be sold in any way as "joint authority" is something to cause unionists shudders.

image captionDoes the conference spell light at the end of the political tunnel?

Sinn Féin said the conference was a "welcome if belated step", and a sign of "joint stewardship".

But when Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy was asked how significant it was, he told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme that "remains to be seen", and that it was "very much up to the will of the two governments".

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood wants the conference to agree a package of legislation on issues like an Irish Language Act and equal marriage.

But that is not quite what the DUP has in mind, and it holds some influence over Theresa May and her government.

So we wait for the BIIGC to come off the subs' bench and onto the field of play.

Will it be as good as some people claim?

Or will it quickly be found out as the player it never was?

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