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British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly

Volume 546: debated on Thursday 21 June 2012

Before I call Mr Laurence Robertson, let me point out that the debate is heavily subscribed and I have therefore imposed a five-minute limit on each Back-Bench contribution after that of Mr Robertson.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the work of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the Backbench Business Committee for this opportunity to discuss the work of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which I shall refer to as BIPA. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Minister and other right hon. and hon. Members for attending the debate—the good turnout demonstrates that the work of this body is recognised.

BIPA was started in 1990 as the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body to foster a common understanding between the bodies represented on it. It has 68 members, including 25 from both Houses of the UK Parliament, 25 from both Houses of the Irish Parliament, 15 from the United Kingdom’s devolved institutions, and one member from each of the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, so a wide area is well represented.

A parallel body at ministerial level, the British-Irish Council, was set up in 1998, and at this stage it is appropriate for me to say that BIPA seeks closer links with that body. BIPA holds two plenary sessions a year, one in the UK and one in Ireland. The 44th plenary session was held in Dublin between 13 and 15 May, and, not for the first time, it was attended by the Taoiseach. In addition, all members present were welcomed to the President’s official residence at Phoenix park by Mr Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland.

I would like to quote from a speech made by the Taoiseach to BIPA:

“I know from my own time as a member of the association the importance of the work of BIPA. Now that I am Taoiseach, I can see very clearly the contribution you continue to make in support of peace, prosperity, reconciliation and political friendships and understanding between these islands.”

A strong commendation indeed. The Taoiseach referred to the importance of British-Irish relations, and his sentiments are borne out by the facts, especially with regards to securing the peace in Northern Ireland and trade.

The UK is by far Ireland’s biggest export destination and, in turn, Ireland is the UK’s fifth largest export market. As the Prime Minister has said on many occasions, we export more to Ireland’s 4.5 million people than we do to the third of the world’s population in China, India, Russia and Brazil. That important statistic is rather worrying in some ways, and I suggest not that we reduce our trade with Ireland, but that perhaps we should try to increase it to further corners of the world. Even in recent times of economic difficulty in 2010-11, trade between Ireland and the United Kingdom actually increased.

Issues such as trade were discussed at the plenary session in May by a number of speakers, including senior executives from Glen Dimplex, Greencore and GlaxoSmithKline, and the importance of trade links was referred to by the Irish Finance Minister. The plenary session also heard from the Irish Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, who referred to the fact that 600 passenger and freight services and 60 air routes run between the UK and Ireland every week, resulting in 2.9 million British visitors to Ireland last year alone. Those are startling statistics.

The Irish Health Minister told the plenary session that Ireland is looking to learn from the UK’s experience of health care. We heard from Darina Allen from Ballymaloe cookery school about good healthy food, and from Dr Maurice Manning on the importance of correctly handling the decade of centenaries that we are now in.

Interestingly, the plenary session also approved a motion by the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), a former co-chair of BIPA, which expressed concern about the proposal to close RTÉ’s offices in London. I hope he will raise that matter in a few minutes if he catches your eye, Mr Speaker. Finally, the work of the four sub-committees—on sovereignty matters, European affairs, economic affairs and environmental and social affairs—reported to the plenary session. I thank committee members for their work in preparing reports on important issues, not least one on flooding, which is an issue close to my heart, given that I represent Tewkesbury.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his assiduous activities as co-chair. Does he believe, like me, that we need to take the sub-committee reports further in Parliament and the devolved Assemblies? A lot of hard work has gone into them, but perhaps more action should sometimes come out of them.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very good intervention. Developing close relationships with the British-Irish Council would be a start, and we could report to that body about the assembly and sub-committee’s work. I wanted this debate to highlight the existence of BIPA and its work. There is a long way to go to get the Government to take on board what we are doing, but at least this is a start—the Minister is here and listening—and I certainly think the hon. Gentleman makes a very good point.

The plenary session was expertly arranged by the Irish members and secretaries. In particular, I pay tribute to my co-chairman, Joe McHugh TD, who is a skilled, dedicated and helpful co-chairman, for all his work and the support he gives me as a relatively new co-chairman. The legendary Irish hospitality was also on full display at the plenary session, as I am sure everybody can imagine, including at the President’s house. The Irish take BIPA very seriously, as was reflected in the Taoiseach’s speech that I read out earlier, but there has been suspicion and concern in the past—this is no reflection on the work done by my predecessors and previous BIPA members—that it is not taken quite as seriously on the British side. That is one reason I wanted this debate and why I am so pleased to have secured it. We are striving to match the enthusiasm and commitment of the Irish, and we will hold the 45th plenary session, from 21 to 23 October, in Glasgow. We look forward to going there. I said that there had been a trade or economic theme to the plenary in Dublin, and we hope to follow a similar line in Glasgow, when I am sure we will be treated to many interesting lectures and discussions about some of the products we might find in Scotland.

I would like to thank our staff on this side of the Irish sea, Robin James and Amanda Healy, for their hard work in putting all the meetings and everything else together. Without their help, we could not hold the meetings. We will be visiting Dublin next week for steering committee meetings, and on Monday we will discuss how we might move things forward, including how we might bring to the Governments’ attention the work of the steering committees, as was mentioned earlier.

Some people consider BIPA a talking shop, but, given the history between the two countries, particularly the terrible experiences in Northern Ireland, I would suggest that talking is extremely important for relations with Ireland and within Northern Ireland. Had we not had people talking in the past, we would not have achieved the relative peace we have in Northern Ireland—I say “relative”, because challenges still lie ahead. Just last night on “Newsnight”, there was a harrowing report about some activities in parts of Northern Ireland. There are people who want to wreck the peace process and return to the bad old days, so I would suggest that if BIPA is a talking shop, it is a very useful talking shop, because it enables us to get together with people who perhaps have different views and aspirations, but who all agree that democracy and talking to each other are the way forward.

As many people in Ireland said and continue to say, relations between our two countries are at an all-time high. I was greatly privileged last year to be in Ireland for part of Her Majesty’s visit, and I have to say it was an awesome visit. The success of the visit, of course, was down to Her Majesty’s enormous dedication and extraordinary talents, but it was also down to the extremely warm welcome and wonderful preparations on the Irish side. It really cemented relations to an extent that had not been seen before. We look forward to future relations with Ireland. If BIPA has made a contribution to the development of peace in Northern Ireland and the close relations between the UK and Ireland, I am pleased to be part of that, and I pledge to work as hard as I can to help steer the organisation in the right direction.

I do not want to speak for any longer, because several Members wish to speak, but I want again to thank you, Mr Speaker, and the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us the time to debate this issue and to bring to Parliament’s attention this body’s work and to report the news of its most recent activities.

The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) will also have 10 minutes in which to speak.

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak and to follow the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who is doing a very good job as the co-chair of this important assembly. The Backbench Business Committee should be congratulated, because this is the first time in 22 years that the assembly’s work has been debated on the Floor of the House of Commons. It is none too soon, because the assembly, formerly known as the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, has played an enormous role in the development of peace in Northern Ireland and in relations between Britain, Ireland and, in more recent years, the devolved Parliament and Assemblies.

My own involvement, first as co-chair of the body and then as a Northern Ireland Minister, goes back to 1998, when I addressed the body in Dublin not long after the Good Friday agreement was signed. The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed to the body’s work from 1990 to 1998, and he was right that it was a talking shop, but before 1990 there was no talking. The whole purpose of the body was to bring together parliamentarians from London and Dublin to break the ice in the hugely tense relations between Britain and Ireland at the time. If Members cast their minds back to the 1990s, they will remember some very difficult occasions, and harrowing and dreadful events, that had to be dealt with, but, in all those years, the body stuck it out, talked together and went to sessions in Britain and Ireland to deal with those enormous issues. The assembly, whose first chair was Peter Temple-Morris, certainly did a tremendous job in helping to bring about peace in Northern Ireland.

The assembly has taken on a unique new role in recent years. Although it is called the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, it brings together parliamentarians from the devolved Administrations—from Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast—and from Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man. That is an important development, because no other body in these islands brings together parliamentarians from all those different Administrations and jurisdictions. And it has proved very successful. Best practice is shared between parliamentarians, and meetings are held between members of the assembly, whether formally or informally, right across all the islands represented.

A welcome feature over the past few years has been the involvement of the Democratic Unionist party. Over the last number of years its members, as well as members of the Ulster Unionist party, have played an enormous role in bringing forth the case for Unionism in the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. The Social Democratic and Labour party—and, indeed, Sinn Fein—have been members of the assembly for many years as well. It is that enormous wealth of experience of parliamentarians from right across the islands that has made the body completely different from any other.

Members may recall that the peace process in Northern Ireland was divided into three—just like Caesar’s Gaul. The third strand of it was east-west relations—the relations between Dublin and London. What was envisaged—and what is now in existence—was a parliamentary aspect to that, namely the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, but also, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury has said, the British-Irish Council, which represents the Governments of Britain and Ireland and the devolved Administrations. There is, in my view, room for improvement in relations between the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and the British-Irish Council. They both deal with similar issues—relations between our different countries. I hope that the Government will look seriously at how the British-Irish Council will deal with BIPA in years to come—I also hope that the Minister will refer to that in the wind-up. When I was a member of the British-Irish Council, I addressed the assembly on the very issue of improved relations. I admitted then—and I still believe—that there is certainly room for improvement.

I wish to conclude on the issue of RTÉ and the presence of that important television and radio company here in Britain. For many years now it has had a significant presence in Westminster. RTÉ proposes to close down that presence because of the enormous financial pressures that it is under. I understand that, but members of the assembly have debated the issue in Dublin and an early-day motion has been tabled here in the House of Commons. It is our belief that RTÉ should still have a presence here in Great Britain, albeit not necessarily in its current form. It could be, for example, that RTÉ might share an office with another television or radio company, just as the BBC does in Dublin. However, given the continuing importance of British-Irish relations, the enormous significance of the Irish diaspora here in Great Britain, the fact that tens of thousands of British people work in Ireland and the political importance of the relationships between these islands, it is important that RTE should retain its presence here. I hope that the Minister and the shadow Minister will be able to comment on that important issue as well.

The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly has been a tremendous force for good in the last 22 years. It has certainly helped to improve the peace in Northern Ireland. It has brought together politicians from wide and disparate backgrounds, which, more recently, has meant that it has become a forum for parliamentarians from the devolved Administrations as well. It has gone from strength to strength. I am delighted that we have had the opportunity to address this important issue today in our House of Commons.

It is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), who has served both as the British co-chairman and as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) on securing this debate. I say that for a number of reasons, one of which has no relation to British-Irish relations. This debate sets an important precedent for this House, because there are a number of parliamentary bodies on which Members are represented, but about which we hear very little in the Chamber, such as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, as well as the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I hope that we can perhaps prevail upon the Backbench Business Committee to consider those bodies as subjects for debates in this House as well.

I pay tribute to two former Members of this House for the work they have done on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. We have already heard about Peter Temple-Morris—Lord Temple-Morris—who was the founding co-chairman on the British side. He is to be commended. I would also like to mention a former Conservative colleague, Michael Mates, who, through all the years of the Conservative party being in opposition, was the British co-vice-chairman—a post I now hold—on the Conservative side. He certainly made it his job to rally Conservative Members to participate fully in the assembly.

The interesting thing about those two, and about my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury and me, is that our links with Ireland are very tenuous. We cannot claim family links, through grandparents or great-grandparents, but we share a belief that if British and Irish people talk together, many of the problems that have been seen to divide us can actually unite us. In these islands the British and Irish people share history, economic links, a language, a legal system and culture. All that was brought together in the recent visit by Her Majesty the Queen to Dublin. I hate—I always have, and I think everybody in this House would too—the IRA and what it brought about, but it had a view that was shared in Dublin and by most Irish people. Although I have the greatest of respect for nationalists, whether they are Irish nationalists, Scottish nationalists or Welsh nationalists, I think they are wrong. However, I admit that in a democracy they must be able to present their views, and that is absolutely right. However, there is more that unites us in these islands than divides us.

I chair the European affairs committee in the assembly. We have recently produced reports for the assembly on EU migrant workers, a problem that both jurisdictions have had to cope with in the economic downturn. We have looked at other European Union policies, in particular, some of the EU’s regional policies, whereby apparently disparate regions in different countries have come together to find economic solutions. We are currently looking at the implications of the European convention on human rights in all our various jurisdictions.

I think we do tremendous work, but I want finally to make a plea to the Minister. I feel that the east-west dimension, which includes the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, should work much more closely together.

Let me say what an honour it is to follow the hon. Members for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and for North Dorset (Mr Walter) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy). Let me also congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury on securing this debate.

I am vice-chair of committee C in the assembly, which deals with the economy, a subject that is—if I said “popular”, that would probably not be the right word, but it has certainly had a lot of attention focused on it. I hope that both Governments will look at, and take on board, our recent report on small and medium-sized enterprises and the problems they are experiencing. It was an excellent report, and we are going to look at credit unions next.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said, the next plenary session will be in Glasgow. I can assure him and all those attending from this and other Houses that they will have an excellent time. I know that those who practised drinking Irish whiskey will be looking forward to the real thing, so I invite them to try it when they come to Glasgow.

One thing that has come out of what has been said so far is the fact that the United Kingdom and Ireland have never been so close. Her Majesty the Queen had a lot to do with that. I believe that her visit signalled a togetherness that was not there before and that a lot of hatreds were buried that day when she set foot on Irish soil. The people of Ireland took her to heart, and it has been said many times since how much they appreciated her going there. The visit will have a lasting effect on the relationship between this country and Ireland.

The Irish nation has had a great influence on the west of Scotland. More than a few people came over during the potato famine and other sad times in Ireland. My own grandmother came from Ireland, although, sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet her and find out her story. That is my loss, and I need to bear it. There are many people of Irish descent in the west of Scotland, and the rivalry is still there between those on either side of the divide, although not to the same extent that it once was. We live as one nation these days and get on together a lot better. I believe that that is because of the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom. The leadership that has been shown by both Parliaments has had a lasting and increasing effect, on both sides of the Irish sea.

The need for co-operation has never been so great, particularly in times such as these. I say that as one who is involved with the BIPA economic committee. Ireland is important to this country, and we are important to Ireland. It is only right, therefore, that we should have mutual respect for each other and a mutual desire to work with each other. I believe that that co-operation will become even greater in the years to come, and that, as we come out of recession, there will be opportunities on both sides of the Irish sea to build up those relationships even more.

I look forward to a time when BIPA is not only taken for granted but looked at and listened to in the same way as other such bodies throughout the world are looked at and listened to. We have brought forward a lot of good ideas and put many good reports to both Parliaments, and I look forward to seeing the Government’s response to our report on small and medium-sized enterprises. It is remarkable that the problems affecting those over the water in Ireland are so similar to the problems in this country. We are similar, we are the same people and we speak the same language. We in Scotland certainly hold Ireland very dear. We have more than a little respect for the country and many of us regularly take holidays there. It is important that the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly should go forward, for the benefit not only of this House but of the Irish people.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) on securing the debate. They are, of course, current and past co-chairs of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and I am pleased to recognise their individual contributions to that important institution.

My own history with the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly—and the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, as it was—goes back some considerable time. I attended a plenary session in Cork as long ago as 2004, when I was a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee under the chairmanship of the then right hon. Member for East Hampshire, Michael Mates—whom my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) has mentioned—who also sounded out whether I would like to become an associate member of BIPA, which I subsequently did.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset mentioned closer co-operation. I understand that the new British-Irish Council standing secretariat, established in January 2012 in Edinburgh, has met the BIPA secretariat to discuss the implementation of the various areas for improvement. I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome that as a constructive move forward. The right hon. Member for Torfaen asked about RTÉ, a matter that concerns us all. RTÉ is an independent broadcaster, and it must make its own decisions, so I cannot comment further on that.

Relations between the British and Irish Governments and the levels of political stability in Northern Ireland have greatly advanced since the time I attended that meeting in Cork. We are a world away from the situation in 1990 when the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body was established to provide a forum for parliamentarians based in Westminster and Dublin to discuss areas of mutual concern. We can all reflect on those changes and welcome them wholeheartedly. At that Cork meeting in 2004, most of the proceedings were taken up by discussions on the prospects for arms decommissioning and the need for all the main Northern Ireland political parties to enter into talks.

BIPA played an important role in developing understanding between parliamentarians from the United Kingdom and our colleagues in Ireland in those years, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen reminded us. It was set up to get people to talk, when they were not doing so. It is worth remembering that, as we consider BIPA today. At a time when getting together to talk was a huge step for some of the Northern Ireland parties, members of BIPA talked and explored ways in which progress might be made. BIPA’s subsequent expansion in 2001 extended the desire to gain mutual understanding of each other’s positions to the Northern Irish and Welsh Assemblies and to the Parliaments of Scotland, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

It might be difficult or impossible to quantify properly, but none of us should doubt the value of BIPA. The Secretary of State has been an attendee at several plenaries now. I share his enthusiasm and look forward to attending again. Perhaps even more important are the opportunities for building relationships offered by talking long into the evenings at BIPA gatherings. As here at Westminster, having contact in—I shall use a euphemism—a relaxed environment with those whose views we think we oppose often reveals more shared insights than we realise. That was certainly my experience over several pints in Cork. I would not seek to emulate the record of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), but I remember drinking a fair few on that occasion. At that Cork meeting, our main concern was that the Northern Ireland Assembly should get up and running again. In 2004, it was two years into a five-year suspension. Many issues in Northern Ireland remain to be resolved, but we are much further on than we were.

It is instructive to note that the most recent BIPA plenary was taken up not by Northern Ireland politics but by consideration of the deepened understanding and co-operation between the British and Irish Governments, and of the commitment given by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in March to explore ways of enhancing that relationship even further.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) when he talked about the recent BIPA reports that he had been involved in, and about the large number of people from Ireland who live on the west coast of Scotland. I can attest to that fact, as the former Conservative and Unionist candidate for Greenock and Inverclyde in the 1997 election. I fought Greenock and Inverclyde, and they fought back. They won. Among the many people of Irish descent associated with Scotland is that great actor, Sir Sean Connery, who resides in the Bahamas and supports Scottish independence from there. It is a nice warm place from which to do it. I believe that his grandparents came over to the west of Scotland from Ireland.

The activities of the recent BIPA plenary built on the historic visit by Her Majesty the Queen to Ireland last year. At BIPA in Dublin last month, the Taoiseach called that visit “ground-breaking”. That is only one of many superlatives used to describe the event when it is mentioned. When we discuss the current state of British-Irish relations, it is mentioned often. As we continue to celebrate Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee year, I want to acknowledge again her personal contribution to our relationship with our nearest neighbours.

I look forward, along with the Secretary of State, the First Minister and others, to welcoming Her Majesty to Northern Ireland next week. I know that that welcome will be extended by many thousands of people from across the community. Indeed, we heard earlier this week that the supply of 10,000 tickets being distributed to members of the public by Ticketmaster had been exhausted within six minutes. Those answering the telephones at the Northern Ireland Office, who have been more used to press inquiries over the years about one political development or another, have been besieged by people wanting to know how they too can join in the celebrations on the Stormont estate. That might not be entirely welcomed by my staff on the end of the phones but it is, I feel, a positive development and a clear indication of the high regard in which Her Majesty is held in that part of her realm.

The BIPA plenary in May discussed the commitment given by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach to continued and increasing co-operation. That is essential as both countries face the economic challenges of which we are all, alas, so well aware. Details are already emerging of increased collaboration on making our businesses more globally competitive, on ensuring that we share progress in research and development that is to our mutual benefit whenever possible, on increasing trade between our countries and on generating sustainable employment as we both seek to grow our way out of these difficult economic times. We are committed, alongside our Irish friends, to ensuring this is more than a token gesture. The outcomes will be discussed at summit level annually, and I know that officials across Whitehall are already engaging with their Irish counterparts.

I have personal experience of the importance of sharing understanding with colleagues in the Irish Government. My discussions with Jimmy Deenihan, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht have, I hope, provided us with a useful basis on which to approach the forthcoming decade of anniversaries and commemorations. We know better now than ever before that a shared understanding of how we might remember and interpret the events of the past has an important impact on our future direction. We are committed to ensuring that such anniversaries are handled sensitively, and in a way that enhances understanding and cohesion rather than challenges those goals.

There is so much more I could say about this excellent institution if I had the time. I think that the British and Irish Governments, members of BIPA and its committees, and its attendees share an understanding of the challenges we all face. In particular, we can welcome much more progress over the years in relation to its work on Northern Ireland.

On Tuesday, I was pleased to be able to welcome the First and Deputy First Ministers and potential sponsors of high-profile events in the programme being developed for Derry/Londonderry’s year as UK city of culture in 2013—just one of the areas of co-operation. Also in Londonderry, the “Peace One Day” concert today marks the beginning of 12 weeks of celebrations around the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. I am pleased to say that Londonderry is, quite rightly, playing its part tonight in the launch of the Cultural Olympiad. Next week, the Irish Open returns to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1947, and Northern Irish major winners Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke will be as big an attraction as any of the international stars taking part.

In conclusion, I know that colleagues here at Westminster and in Dublin, and Members from both places who attend the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, will share in the excitement and will welcome the opportunity that the coming months provide for Northern Ireland to showcase its many unique and varied attractions to the world.

I pay tribute to the work of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for obtaining this important debate and for his work as co-chairman of the assembly. With his colleague from the Irish side, Joe McHugh TD, he has led BIPA with commitment and determination. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), whose association with BIPA, service to the people of Northern Ireland and involvement with the island of Ireland is well documented. Indeed, I acknowledge all of those involved in BIPA, many of whom are here this morning.

The relationship between the UK and Ireland is very special. Although it was once difficult and strained, it has been totally transformed by the peace process in Northern Ireland into a real friendship between close neighbours. Her Majesty the Queen’s visit last year showed just how much our bond has deepened and developed. This truly is a golden age for British-Irish relations, and while Her Majesty’s visit is the most prominent example, there are so many facets to our relationship that a range of sometimes small but often significant things are happening on all levels.

That is because the ties between the UK and Ireland are bonds of people, places and history. Our shared past is complicated, intense and has often been marred by conflict and division, but in this year, the 100th anniversary of the third Home Rule Bill and the Ulster covenant, the relationship is transformed. We stand shoulder to shoulder now as friends and neighbours, and the special link between our countries has deepened, widened and developed as we both strive for a fairer, more equal and more just society.

What the UK and Ireland also share are values. The values of Irish people and of the Irish in Britain are my values and those of the people of Britain, too—the importance of fairness, family, looking out for each other, working together, and taking pride in identity, pride in community, and pride at playing a part in doing our bit to make society better. The contribution of the Irish in Britain to society here is immense in every area of British life—whether it be business, civic society, the media, culture and arts, and, of course, politics. I see that in my own constituency in Gedling and in the city of Nottingham.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), the chair of the all-party group on the Irish in Britain, whose work here in this place on behalf of that community has made such a significant contribution to enhancing the understanding of all of us. I know that he and others, as the Minister mentioned, are working hard at the minute to try to influence RTÉ, the Irish state broadcaster, to retain its London bureau, which is so valued by Irish people in Britain and by those in Ireland with family members living here or with an interest in British affairs.

I had the privilege of speaking to the Irish Labour party’s centenary conference in Galway earlier this year, and on a trip to Dublin recently I met TDs and senators from all parties in the Oireachtas. At each, I was struck by the interest in UK politics and the knowledge of the work of MPs and British parliamentarians, and was delighted to hear of their friendships with many in this House. While discussing a wide range of topics with them, it was clear to me that we have much in common on issues such as security, immigration, tourism, transport and health. It underlined to me the importance of working across boundaries as parliamentarians to face challenges together.

The fact that representatives from the administrations and institutions in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man attend BIPA adds much to the work of the assembly. Alongside colleagues from the national Parliaments in Dublin and London, the willingness of BIPA members to encourage engagement and co-operation on matters of mutual interest and concern is of great benefit to us all. There are indeed many difficulties and challenges that face people across these islands. The harsh economic realities impact on families in London, Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff, and sharing experiences and learning can help not just us as parliamentarians but, more importantly, the people we represent.

During that visit to Dublin, I went to the national war memorial in Islandbridge, which commemorates those Irishmen who died in the world wars. It was an incredibly moving experience, and I was very grateful to the Royal British Legion in Ireland for presenting me with a list of Irish soldiers who had served in a regiment closely connected with my own area of Nottinghamshire, the Sherwood Foresters. I also met the Gaelic Athletic Association in Croke park, and was very touched when its president presented me with a history of the organisation. I was also impressed with the work of the GAA in communities across Ireland, and its acknowledgement and efforts to reach out beyond its traditional base in Northern Ireland.

Both places are hugely symbolic for many people in Ireland, but they are also symbols of hope and of the outworking of the peace process, which has opened them up to those who might not previously have been comfortable with aspects of their history. I know that there are many differing perspectives on that history, but ultimately it is shared. In that sense, we can choose either to use the different perspectives of it to entrench division, or we can use them to learn about history, ourselves and each other, and bring communities together in a new understanding of what happened during that troubled past. I know that is the wish of the vast majority of people in all the islands and part of the mission of BIPA.

It is perhaps the peace process in Northern Ireland that has both transformed and is the greatest testament to the new era in British-Irish relations. Labour Members will speak up for peace and progress, as the Minister and we all do, but we do so particularly as the party in government that helped, with others, to bring about the Good Friday agreement and all that flowed from it. East-west relations and the forging of new alliances across all the devolved Administrations and between the UK and Irish Governments were an important part of that.

As the Opposition, we will hold the Government to the promises made to help to deliver a real peace dividend for Northern Ireland. We will also, of course, give our support to the Government in enhancing and developing relations between the UK and Ireland, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland. Although much progress has been made, we must make sure that the political focus does not prematurely move on. We need to continue to work together on Northern Ireland and, as I have said before, in recognising continuing progress, we still need to understand the threats that remain and recognise the special circumstances that exist.

As the Irish President, Michael D. Higgins, said at the reception he hosted for BIPA in Dublin last month,

“while it is only right that we celebrate how far we have come, and how close and strong the relationships across these islands remain, we must not allow any complacency to dislodge our work or deflect from our efforts.”

I know the President would be pleased to hear his words echo through the work of the embassy of Ireland here in London; the efforts and friendship of Ambassador Bobby McDonagh are valued by me and many others in this House. I know, too, that all Members will join me in thanking his deputy, Barbara Jones, for her work over the last number of years and wishing her all the very best as she takes up her new role in the joint secretariat of the British-Irish intergovernmental conference in Belfast—another example of the closeness of roles and relationships in these islands. Similarly, the UK’s ambassador to Ireland, Dominick Chilcott, his predecessor, Julian King, and the deputy head of mission, Andrew Staunton, have all made hugely significant contributions to British-Irish relations. I know that I speak for the Minister, and indeed for all Members, when I say that those individuals are worthy of mention on the Floor of the House in recognition of the vital work that they have done and are still doing.

We all know that the people of Northern Ireland and their representatives are still wrestling with the consequences of the past as they move forward, and this is no time for us to fail to give them the priority that they both demand and deserve. For our part, we will try our very best to meet the challenges of supporting the peace process, standing up for the people of Northern Ireland, and helping to build the prosperity that its people deserve.

The House recently debated some of the fantastic things that are happening in Northern Ireland in this year of 2012. As I said on that occasion, one of the privileges of my position is that it enables me to visit Northern Ireland regularly, and to see for myself the wonderful things that are taking place there. Only a fortnight ago, I was honoured to join the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), Diane Dodds MEP and the Lord Mayor of Belfast at city hall to witness the culmination of the Olympic torch relay, which saw the famous flame travel throughout Northern Ireland and visit Dublin. Is there a better metaphor than the great symbol of the Olympic flame for the interconnectedness of all of us in these islands, the progress that we have made, and our hope for the future?

Next year Derry will become the first UK city of culture. I was delighted to visit it with my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), and to meet some of those who were involved in preparing for what promises to be a fantastic 12 months. Indeed, only this week I joined the Minister of State at a celebration of the UK city of culture here in Parliament.

As shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in the short time available to me I have concentrated my remarks on the contribution that BIPA has made to the peace process and to British-Irish relations in that context. However, I know that its role goes far beyond that. It has the potential to develop and add to its work, and, by doing so, to enhance the work of those in the House of Commons and in all the other legislatures that make up its membership. I look forward to helping it to continue that great work, and I know that all Members on both sides of the House remain steadfast in their support of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and committed to its mission.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for securing this valuable debate. I made my first visit to BIPA in Dublin a couple of months ago as a new member, and the address from the Taoiseach was a tremendously important, satisfying and gratifying experience for me. I was interested and impressed by his and the Irish coalition Government’s approach to the very difficult economic climate, and the way in which the Government were dealing with the problems. The assembly’s discussion of a range of issues affecting both Ireland and the United Kingdom was also important and interesting.

I am half-Irish myself. I come from Northern Ireland and have spent most of my time in the north rather than the south, but have studied the history of both north and south over its many tumultuous years. When I was invited to join BIPA, my Irish side—my mother’s side of the family—felt proud to be involved in an assembly which, as others have said today, has achieved so much during the last 20 years.

As I listened to the Taoiseach’s speech, one thing in particular occurred to me. Let me echo a call that has come from a number of Members today. I value enormously the support that BIPA has received from the Minister and the Secretary State, and also from the last Government. However, I think that it would be a wonderful opportunity for our own Prime Minister to address a future assembly meeting and to afford us the same the courtesy that we were afforded by the Taoiseach in Dublin, and I shall be lobbying for that.

One of my colleagues referred to some of the security issues that still affect Northern Ireland, and in that context I believe that BIPA will have both an economic and a political role long into the future. The next BIPA conference will take place in Glasgow in a few months’ time. I look forward to attending it, and to hearing what the First Minister of Scotland will say when he addresses the assembly.

Given the long-standing links between both islands—the United Kingdom and Ireland—I believe that BIPA will have a strong and lengthy future. I know that some Irish people who have been in Britain for many years are concerned about some of the challenges posed to the British Government by the austerity programme, and I too am concerned about the possibility of cuts in the financial support that the Government provide for the Irish diaspora in Britain. I am sure the Minister would agree that we should protect that support irrespective of the financial challenges we face, because it demonstrates the strength of the bond between Britain and the Irish. I shall keep a close eye on the position.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury that we must encourage the Irish Government to retain RTÉ in London and in the United Kingdom, where it plays an important role. I, too, think that RTÉ needs to come up with slightly more flexible working arrangements, which would cut costs while allowing a very important broadcasting service to continue.

It is a privilege to be a new member of BIPA, and I look forward to being a member for many years to come.

I am pleased to be able to take part in a debate that I am sure represents the highlight of today’s parliamentary business for you, Mr Speaker. I can think of no other occasion today that will outshine it. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) on securing the debate.

It has already been pointed out that for many years the Democratic Unionist party did not participate in BIPA. I do not want to go over the history in too much detail, but I think it important to put the debate in context. The predecessor of the current assembly was seen by Unionists as being responsible for the Anglo-Irish agreement, whose legacy poisoned political relations in Northern Ireland for many years and led to many difficulties in the Province. Thankfully, however, we have come through those difficulties, and in 2001 BIPA was established.

During the DUP visit to BIPA in 2006, I met members of it along with our current leader, Peter Robinson, and a number of colleagues. We were not full participants, but expressed our belief that there was a role for a body that would improve east-west inter-parliamentary relations and would involve devolved parliamentarians as well as Members of the Irish Republic and United Kingdom Parliaments, and we made it clear that when devolution was restored on an appropriate basis, we would play a full role in BIPA as currently constituted.

When devolution was restored on terms that were acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland, we participated fully from that moment on, just as we have participated in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive. When our party says that we will enter arrangements and commit ourselves to them fully, we stick to our word. We believe that Northern Ireland is the better for the current stability in Northern Ireland, in the Assembly and the Executive, and in this inter-parliamentary body.

I welcome the DUP’s participation, of course. The British-Irish Council and its relationship with the assembly was mentioned earlier. Is the right hon. Gentleman in favour of the assembly having a closer working relationship with the BIC and exercising some kind of parliamentary oversight of it?

The BIC is meeting today in Stirling, and our First Minister and other Ministers are taking part, dealing with important issues such as what is happening in the devolved regions in respect of youth unemployment, marine energy technology and other areas where regions and Governments can learn best practice from each other. I have no difficulty in that relationship between the assembly and the BIC developing further. I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the discussions that are taking place and I welcome that.

It is good that there is co-operation and communication at ministerial and parliamentary level, and I pay tribute to DUP Northern Ireland Assembly Member Jim Wells, who plays a very active role in that respect. I note in passing—I will make no further comment on this—that there are no representatives from the Northern Ireland parties in this House on BIPA. That is not necessarily a bad thing because we are trying to create a body that encompasses all the relationships. It is not focused primarily on north-south; it addresses east-west issues, too, as the former chairman of that assembly, Lord Cope, said in October 2011:

“The British-Irish parliamentary meeting has taken on a much wider dimension in recent years. It used to be all North-South but now it’s east west—that’s the main focus.”

I welcome that. It represents the appropriate way forward for addressing issues such as trade, as the co-chairman of BIPA, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), mentioned. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) talked about his work on small and medium-sized businesses. These are important matters that need to be discussed and taken forward at inter-parliamentary level. The primary focus of all our constituents now is economic concerns, such as trade, rather than political issues.

In this context, we should recognise that the Irish Republic recently received a massive bail-out, courtesy of British taxpayers. We supported that because we believe it is in our interests to ensure that the Irish economy recovers. Nevertheless, that serves as a reminder of the new context for relations between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic.

We still face many challenges. The Minister and others referred to the dissident threat. The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), pointed out we must not be complacent and take for granted the progress we have made. We must remain focused on the important work that goes on in Northern Ireland in building peace and in moving the political process forward. Members of this House must not think everything in Northern Ireland is now settled; there are still many challenges. However, there is no doubt that forums such as BIPA, the BIC and others that bring together parliamentarians and Ministers make a major contribution to building peace and maintaining political stability.

The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly’s mission is to promote co-operation between political representatives in Britain and Ireland. It is a much-needed group, promoting not only co-operation but an understanding of our cultural links and our broader interdependence. As has been mentioned, 42% of Irish exports are to the UK and Ireland is Britain’s fifth largest trading partner. That underlines our financial interdependence.

I come from Liverpool, where almost all of us have Irish roots—hence the city’s name, “the capital of Ireland.” We have deep family ties. In common with many other families, my ancestors will have landed at Liverpool port in the 1800s. Two brothers married two sisters and so the family journey began.

There are now new ties as a result of Liverpool, Dublin and Cork all having become the capital of culture—Liverpool became the capital of culture in 2008. This led to an explosion in construction in those cities. The consequent property boom was fuelled by massive lending by the banks. When the property market collapsed, the Irish banking system was plunged into crisis. There is much to learn from that.

The Irish Government carried out a sizeable fiscal consolidation, which they are continuing. Ireland’s success in cutting its deficit, shrinking its banks and returning to modest economic growth has distinguished it from other parts of the eurozone that were also built on a construction boom. Given our links with Ireland, it is important that we have constant dialogue so we can learn from each other.

What have the Irish done to get out of their economic crisis? They have developed their small and medium-sized enterprises, and they have been increasing exports. Ireland’s exports rose by 4% in 2011, and went on to grow strongly in the first months of 2012. Most of that has come from SMEs, but it also comes from the pharmaceutical and chemical sectors.

As I have an interest in the SME sector, I elected to serve on the economic affairs group, along with the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson). We looked at how well the Irish are adapting. There are 198,500 SMEs in Ireland, employing 1.2 million people. Ireland’s central bank says SMEs face significantly tougher lending conditions than similar firms elsewhere in the eurozone. It also says that demand for credit is no different in Ireland from elsewhere in Europe, but the Irish SME sector faces challenges in paying back its borrowing, with problems in respect of 30% of loans. The latest research by central bank economists shows that while demand for credit among Irish firms is at, or above, the eurozone average, the lending conditions imposed by the banks are significantly tougher in terms of collateral requirements, interest rate charges, size of loans available and rejection rates. BIPA has been addressing those issues of late.

We are looking at the impending funding gaps, too. Between now and the end of 2016, banks will be unable to supply between £84 billion and £191 billion of the finance needed to support the growth in the UK economy.

The report that was produced was very good, but does the hon. Lady agree that the Irish side seemed to take it much more seriously than the British side, and that we would like the Minister and the British Government to be a wee bit more enthusiastic about what BIPA is trying to do?

I am not sure that I agree that the Irish are looking at it more seriously, but they are ahead of the curve. They have been through the turmoil in advance of us, and there is much that we can learn from what has happened there. They also realise how tough it is for small companies to get money from the banks. I hear similar stories from small businesses in the UK, including locally in Wirral West.

Across the water, Labour is in coalition with Fine Gael, because Labour recognises that difficult decisions need to be made in respect of the economy. Does my hon. Friend agree that politicians in southern Ireland are being more inclusive and constructive in dealing with the serious problems they face?

We will all deal with our economic difficulties in different ways, and we all have to agree about the difficulties, admit to them and see what is on the horizon. We are looking here at how we move forward and what we are going to do. There is no point putting our heads in the sand and thinking that conditions are easy for small and medium-sized enterprises, because they are very tough indeed. What is reported can sometimes be very different from the actual practicalities and realities of the situation, which some of us are probably hearing about from our small businesses. That was very much reflected in the conversations in BIPA’s economic committee, as well as in what we are hearing over here. People were looking forward, and that is what we have to do. We have heard the issues and we know the economic turmoil we are going through, but we need to work out the steps to take to move forward.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not just about trade, because a series of issues associated with our relationship with Europe, fishing and other such matters, are very important?

I do agree with that, and I shall now discuss my recommendations. What we were looking for was: the aggregation platform to give SMEs access to the capital markets; an increase in the number of private placement investors in the UK market through an industry-led initiative; encouragement for more retail investment in corporate bonds issued by UK companies; and more private equity and support for all businesses, which we are in fact doing here in the UK with all the latest seed investment funds. So I think it is important for Ireland and the UK that we continue with our co-operation and continue learning from each other, because we are so interdependent and both countries need that for our continued growth and prosperity.

Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that I have a different view of history from the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), so I will quickly record that without long rehearsing it.

Many hon. Members, including the current chairman, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), have rightly paid tribute to those who first established BIPA—in fact, it was a tier first, then it was a body and now it is an assembly. It should be remembered that all of them have made a huge contribution to changing the nature of relationships and attitudes between and within these islands, and they reinforced a dynamic that did spur the peace process in many positive ways. It should also be remembered that when John Hume first argued that there were three sets of relationships at the heart of our problem—those within Northern Ireland, within Ireland and between Ireland and Britain—which he said all needed to be accommodated and reflected in the solution, that was contested. It is now accepted by everybody, and those three sets of relationships are the three strands at the heart of the Good Friday agreement.

I apologise for the fact that I was not here earlier. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that when we met for the first time in February 1990, when the troubles were continuing, and crimes and atrocities were being committed by the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries, we were not certain whether it would be the only meeting we would hold, as both sides were so apprehensive? I am so pleased—obviously, given that I later become a co-chairman—that we were highly successful in continuing the dialogue for the first time between parliamentarians from both countries.

I fully take the point that the hon. Gentleman has made. The point that I was about to make was that by creating a framework of British-Irish relationships, through the Anglo-Irish agreement, the inter-parliamentary tier and the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, space was opened up for dealing with the problems that were then vexing the narrow ground of Northern Ireland politics. By changing the relationship between Britain and Northern Ireland, we, in many ways, opened up possibilities for politics in Northern Ireland and indeed between north and south. That is why I want to pay tribute to all those who made a huge contribution to British-Irish relations in this context.

The right hon. Member for Belfast North mentioned the fact that, peculiarly, no Northern Ireland Members of this House are members of the assembly; we seem to be banned persons. Four Members of the House of Lords who live in Northern Ireland are members of the assembly, and a further one is an associate member. Apparently, if someone from Northern Ireland has a mandate, they are somehow subversive and are not accepted for the purposes of that assembly—I regret that. As the one party that was always on the body and that first advocated such a thing, we perhaps feel a wee bit peculiarly disadvantaged in this regard.

As has been pointed out, great work has been done in many of the reports. I also wish to endorse what the hon. Member for Tewkesbury and the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) have said: we need to get the assembly better connected with the work of the British-Irish Council. I am talking about not just taking reports from BIC and tracking its work, but acting as more of a policy outrider at times for BIC, exploring some of the issues, and perhaps scoping some of the problems and making suggestions about how things might be looked at or advanced.

The marine environment is one of the areas we should look at, as that is one thing that all eight Administrations in these islands and their territories actually share. The different jurisdictions have made moves towards various marine legislation and have made different moves on marine management organisations. Surely we need to ensure that we have a coherent framework for marine management, where the regimes are at least compatible and comparable.

The issue of communications is another that should have been addressed more heavily at a British-Irish level. We are left with the situation in Ireland where we have two, rival digital platforms. I have a border constituency, where people have to buy one device if they want to get their Saorview digital TV and another if they want to get Freeview. That is nonsense and it has been a failure. The issue could have been addressed only at the British-Irish level, not at the north-south level.

The digital economy presents challenges and opportunities, some of which also extend to things such as minority languages. We need to think about how our digital platform is catering for the different minority languages and the Celtic regions within these islands. So there is more that we should be thinking about in these areas, and the assembly again provides an area where we can do that. In that context, I wish to share the concerns expressed by others about the RTÉ presence in London.

Human trafficking is a huge issue in the eyes of many people in this Parliament, and it has been discussed in different devolved Assemblies and in the Oireachtas. That issue needs to be examined at the British-Irish level, because we need to deal not only with the international trafficking into our common travel area, but with the internal trafficking both within the different jurisdictions in these islands and between them. We need to address those issues.

Organ donation may also be an issue that we need to examine, as the various legislatures in these islands are perhaps examining it differently. We need to examine not only whether we should have opt-out legislation, but whether we have the right infrastructure to ensure that where we do have donors, we are maximising the number of organs that become available. Is there the right sharing and transfer of the organs that are available throughout these islands? Many people suggest to me that there is not. That could be looked at, too.

There is also the issue of adoption apology to address. In the previous Parliament, the then Prime Minister told us that he wanted to make an apology in relation to what had happened to people who were forced into orphanages and then transported. There are serious issues between Ireland and Britain in that regard. The whole issue of adoption apology should not be an issue for just one Government; it is a common issue throughout these islands. It is a crying shame in our historical social relationship and it is one that should be addressed.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this debate. May I confess at the beginning that I am not only a member of BIPA, but a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, serving under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson)? I congratulate him on obtaining this debate from the Backbench Business Committee.

I am not going to pretend for a moment that I am a great expert on Ireland or Northern Ireland. Indeed, it is only in the past two years that I have got to know the place at all, during the course of a trip. When I was first in southern Ireland, I was struck by seeing the horses run down the pavements too; I had not seen that in central London in my lifetime.

We have to remember that our relationship with Ireland is not just a close trading one; we have a common approach to how we look at law. Both the English and the Irish take a common law approach to law, whereas in continental Europe it is much more to do with civil law. So we have a series of interests that we need to make sure we work on together.

As others have said, there is the question of trade and how closely Britain and Ireland work together. As I understand it, we have more trade with the Republic of Ireland than with all the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China. We should ensure that we work closely with southern Ireland because we have common trade interests, such as employment regulation. Last year, our exports to southern Ireland were worth about £15.9 billion, whereas our imports from southern Ireland were worth about £12.5 billion, so we made a profit—a rare commodity—from the relationship. That is incredibly good news.

On Monday, I was delighted to attend the reception for Derry city of culture, because we in Plymouth are considering trying to become the city of culture in, I believe, 2014. We hope to learn lessons from Derry.

We should be looking firmly and hard at how we can work with the southern Irish Government on our common interest in marine science. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) stated the case for that commonality of interest in marine matters. I hope we will continue to campaign to bring UK and Irish fishing waters back under national control, because that will be an important part of how we look after fish stocks.

Immigration has also been an issue. Yesterday, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee had a long conversation with representatives of the UK Border Agency. Because there is no recognisable border between our country and Ireland, immigration has to be handled with care, and we have to make sure that happens.

I am delighted to have attended one or two BIPA meetings at which we have worked closely together on various matters. Close working by the two countries is a brilliant idea, because it puts us in the position where we can ensure that the British and the Irish points of view are expressed in no uncertain terms, so that the European Union understands that we will act in our national interests and will not simply do what the French or the Germans tell us to do. I am also keen for us to work closely with the Irish to sort out their economic problems, because I am convinced we will thereby be able to get out of the mess of our public finances.

I speak as a long-time member of BIPA. I have been a member for 10 years and I am proud to wear my BIPA tie here today, as many others are doing. I also speak as chair of the all-party Irish in Britain group. According to the last census, there are 600,000 first-generation Irish in Britain, and on her visit to Ireland the Queen said that 6 million people of Irish ancestry lived in the UK. We reformed the all-party group two years ago, and I pay tribute to its secretary, Martin Collins, who provided an excellent debate briefing for all hon. Members, on both sides of the House. I pay tribute, too, to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who is an assiduous co-chair of BIPA, with Joe McHugh.

Over the past 25 years, under Governments of both main parties, great progress has been made on Irish issues. I pay tribute to former Prime Ministers John Major, Tony Blair and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) and to the present Prime Minister, who showed excellent leadership in relation to the Saville inquiry and welcomed the Irish Taoiseach earlier this year. We are not talking only about relations at the Executive level, however. Back-Bench relationships are also important, and BIPA acts in two ways by helping to cement those Back-Bench relationships across the Irish sea. I pay tribute again to the former Conservative Ministers, Michael Mates and Lord Peter Brooke, who were excellent members of BIPA, and to past chairs, including my right hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) and for Neath (Mr Hain) and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), who co-chaired BIPA. They helped to build those common bonds between Irish TDs, British MPs and representatives of the Assemblies across the UK.

Developing relationships and trust is an important function of BIPA, but it is also about developing policy. We have four committees; the one of which I am a member is chaired by Lord Alf Dubs and has done a fantastic job, over many years, looking at key issues such as migration, the Irish in Britain, on which we have had two inquiries, and renewable energy in the islands.

As I mentioned in an intervention on the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, a lot of time, effort and resources goes into the committees. They are staffed by representatives from the House of Commons and the Oireachtas, and we collect evidence and data and draw up policies, but quite often they are just filed. Last year, I sponsored a debate on the Irish in Britain, which had excellent coverage in the British and Irish press. I think it is incumbent on us, as members of BIPA, to ensure that every time we issue a report, there is at least an Adjournment debate in the House, so that we can discuss how the report’s recommendations can be implemented, or at least looked at.

Looking to the future of BIPA and the all-party Irish in Britain group, we want to make sure that RTÉ is not downgraded in the UK, as has been proposed. The decision is for the Irish Government and RTÉ itself, but we need to ensure that we have proper coverage of British events in Ireland and Irish events in Britain, and an RTÉ base in London is key to that. I look forward to cross-party co-operation on that and other issues that affect the Irish in Britain and in Ireland. I end by saying that I am very proud to be a member of BIPA.

With the leave of the House, Mr Speaker, I will make a few closing comments.

I thank all those who have taken part in the debate and made interesting and useful contributions. I pay tribute to the members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee who have attended. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has been present for most of it, and of course we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), who raised a number of issues, but I thank everyone who participated.

A comment was made that no Northern Ireland Members of Parliament are members of BIPA. The hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) is a member of BIPA, but as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I shall certainly take up that point when we next meet.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) pointed out that neither he nor I, nor many other Members, necessarily have a direct connection with either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. That is true, so why do we get involved? Well, we get involved because we care. We care about Northern Ireland, we care about the Republic of Ireland and we care about the relationships we have. The only reason we are involved is our commitment to the process in Northern Ireland and to forming closer links with the Republic.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson), welcoming us to Glasgow, said that we will enjoy some “proper whisky”—I think that was his description. I look forward to that, but I think we will celebrate other Scottish products as well. We look forward to extending the discussions about trade and the economy to the next plenary session in Glasgow.

I join in the shadow Secretary of State’s tribute to Barbara Jones, the deputy ambassador to London. I thank her for the friendship she has shown to the cause and to me personally. I wish her well in her new role.

T he point was raised about whether the Prime Minister should attend in Glasgow. He has certainly been invited, as has the Deputy Prime Minister, so we hope that their busy schedules will allow them to afford to BIPA the same respect as has been afforded by the Taoiseach and many other Ministers in Ireland. I would like to thank all Members for taking part in the debate and the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us time to hold it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of the work of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

Proceedings interrupted (Order, 13 June)