Public Affairs

East-West Council holds its first meeting

A new institution established under the Safeguarding the Union Command Paper, the East West Council, held its first meeting in March 2024.

The stated purpose of the Council is to strengthen cooperation between Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK by advising on “shared challenges and opportunities with an east-west dimension”.

The first meeting, chaired by British Secretary of State for Levelling Up and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations Michael Gove MP, was held on 26 March 2024 in Dover House, London.

In attendance for the inaugural meeting were First Minister Michelle O’Neill MLA, deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly MLA, Gove, and secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris MP.

Describing the meeting as a “useful engagement”, First Minister Michelle O’Neill MLA stated that a “range of matters” were discussed between Executive ministers and the British Government, including funding streams, legacy legislation, and Euro 2028 and Casement Park.

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly MLA welcomed what she described as “progress” made at the meeting.

The council will play a vital role, enhancing the links between the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government and providing a forum for us to work together on a wide range of issues across trade, transport, education, and culture to deliver real benefits for everyone in Northern Ireland.

The East West Council was proposed by then-DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson MP in October 2023 as part of a framework to “bring together representatives from across the United Kingdom”, on a “regular basis” to “discuss and collaborate on opportunities for enhanced cooperation”.

The Safeguarding the Union Command Paper states that the objectives of the council are:

  • to provide regular, sustained engagement between UK Government and Northern Ireland Executive representatives, businesses, and university representatives in areas such as trade, transport, education, and culture;
  • to establish Intertrade UK to promote trade within the UK;
  • to take forward the Council’s missions below, addressing risks and opportunities, to find solutions to shared challenges;
  • to raise the profile of the opportunities Northern Ireland offers by supporting connectivity between business, skills, trade, and innovation within the UK, and connections across other parts of the UK to Northern Ireland;
  • to drive UK-wide engagement on the development and sharing of existing clusters of excellence; and
  • to ensure the profile of Northern Ireland is appropriately considered in business and government decision-making.

Speaking after the meeting, Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris MP was optimistic: “I am a glass half full man, and from the meeting we have just had, my glass nearly overfloweth because the prospects look really, really good.”

Although Heaton-Harris insisted that the council is “not a talking shop”, the vagaries of its stated purpose of “enhancing connections” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK call into question whether it is an institution being taken seriously by decision-makers.

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