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Co-operation between the Irish and British parliaments is crucial to resolve uncertainties in Northern Ireland

(Alamy)

4 min read

Ireland is one of our closest friends and most important allies. Reaching out and cementing our ties has arguably never been more important, as the United Kingdom continues to map a framework for its relationship with the country after Brexit.

Earlier this month I was the first Lord Speaker to make an official visit to colleagues in the Irish parliament and address their senate, Seanad Éireann. My goal was to deepen the friendship and engagement between our two parliaments, building on the great work of the British-Irish Parliamentary Association which is meeting this week.  

Each chamber has a lot to learn from each other about how we can fulfil our responsibilities effectively

The Seanad, which celebrates its centenary on the 11 of December, plays an important part in Irish political life. Like the Lords, it plays a vital revising and advisory role. And both chambers have long helped ensure that a wide range of views, including minority views, are heard in our parliamentary systems. Each chamber has a lot to learn from each other about how we can fulfil our responsibilities effectively. 

Members of Parliament, including members of the House of Lords, have always taken a close interest in Ireland and Northern Ireland, including me, as a former Northern Ireland minister. My friend the late Lord Trimble, alongside the late John Hume, helped to forge the Good Friday Agreement and provide a path to peace. In fact, many Lords have first-hand experience of the graft, hard work and dedication it took to forge and keep this peace by promoting dialogue on all sides.   

During my time as a minister I saw the patient diplomacy of so many, including the former prime minister Tony Blair, the former taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and United States Senator George Mitchell. Delivering the Good Friday Agreement was a bipartisan effort and the contribution of John Major and other Conservatives was crucial. The message here is that in order to build meaningful and lasting peace, it must be done on a cross-community and cross-party basis.  

Leaving the European Union has opened up new questions about the relationship between the UK, Northern Ireland and Ireland. Those questions are being closely examined by the Sub-Committee on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, of which there is no direct equivalent in the Commons. The committee is chaired superbly by Lord Jay of Ewelme, former head of the UK Foreign Office and an experienced diplomat. He himself has been a regular visitor to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Committee's wider membership boasts a former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, a former police ombudsman for Northern Ireland and former leaders and deputy leaders of three of the political parties in Northern Ireland, representing both the unionist and nationalist communities.  

In its reports the committee has consistently stressed the need for dialogue, constructive engagement and the building – and in some cases rebuilding – of trust and relationships between the people involved. One key aspect of this has been its invaluable bilateral dialogue with committees of the Oireachtas.  

Looking ahead, I am confident we will be able to continue and enhance this co-operation and engagement between members of our two chambers. Quite frankly it is crucial in helping to resolve the uncertainties and difficulties in the relationships across these islands and involving the European Union. 

Contact between our two parliaments is important but it is vital that we involve and hear from communities and researchers whose work on these issues never stops. In that vein, I spoke at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Research at University College Dublin where the students were keen to engage and find out more about the role of the Lords in the British constitution.  

Only by bringing people affected by the conflict together will we help bring lasting peace to the country. With this in mind, I was delighted to visit the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, where the hard work of promoting understanding tolerance and engagement takes place. Staff impressed upon me the need to collectively resolve outstanding issues around the Protocol. As Lord Speaker, I have passed on that message to my colleagues doing work on this in the House in coming weeks and months.  

As Lord Speaker I have visited every devolved legislature in the UK: Holyrood, the Senedd, the Northern Ireland Assembly. Now, having visited Seanad Éireann I have taken away one strong lesson: parliamentarians must keep engaging, talking and learning from one another.  

 

Lord McFall of Alcluith, the Lord Speaker.

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