Britain’s next PM should not ignore British-Irish Council meetings, say leaders

Irish, Scottish and Northern Irish leaders urge Downing Street to engage at twice-annual forum

Taoiseach Simon Harris, Isle of Man chief minister Alfred Cannan and Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly during the British-Irish Council summit at the Comis Hotel on the Isle of Man on Friday. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

The next British prime minister should attend the six-monthly meetings of the British-Irish Council (BIC) which have been regularly ignored by previous occupants of No 10 Downing Street since its inception 25 years ago, political leaders urged on Friday.

In response to a question, the call was made by leaders from Dublin, Cardiff, Edinburgh and the Crown dependencies of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, following a meeting of the council on the Isle of Man.

Asked if the next British prime minister should turn up, Taoiseach Simon Harris diplomatically said it he thought that it “merits consideration” and that he would argue that when he speaks with the victor of the July 4th election.

In the past, leaders from the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland had frequent opportunities to meet formally and – just as importantly – informally, on the margins of European Council meetings, but that has stopped since Brexit, he said.


Last week, he said, he spent “a very considerable amount of time” in the company of other EU leaders at a summit meeting in Brussels, but Ireland no longer has that frequency of contact with London. “Britain isn’t in that room any more,” he told The Irish Times.

“So, I think it merits consideration as to how do we ensure that there are plenty of structures in place for regular dialogue between the British prime minister of the day and the Irish Taoiseach of the day,” he told The Irish Times.

Former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown attended the BIC meeting in Belfast in 2007, while Conservative prime minister Rishi Sunak attended the dinner held on the first night of the council’s meeting in Blackpool in November 2022.

British-Irish Council to meet on the Isle of Man without key figuresOpens in new window ]

However, the failure of the majority of No 10 occupants to turn up has consistently riled the UK devolved administrations and, especially, the Crown dependencies, though Dublin has pointedly not addressed the subject.

The need for the next prime minister to attend the council meetings was supported by the outgoing Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris, who has been a regular attender during his time in office, but who is not running again for the House of Commons.

Saying that he had found the BIC meetings “valuable”, Mr Heaton-Harris said he “would be recommending, and I do recommend on a regular basis” that the prime minister should come to the gathering “if at all possible”.

The British delegation on this occasion was smaller than usual, he acknowledged, because he has usually attended along with his Conservative colleague Michael Gove, though he cautioned that the UK “is in an election period”.


Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Democratic Unionist Party MLA Emma Little-Pengelly, said the next prime minister should “absolutely” attend, telling The Irish Times: “I think it’s important that we do participate at senior levels.

“Building those relationships, including with the prime minister, is very important. Very many people around the table have very busy jobs. There are very few opportunities to have those conversations. This provides an opportunity to do so,” she said.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, was not in attendance due to illness, but joined by a Zoom call.

Scotland’s First Minister, John Swinney, “wholeheartedly” agreed with the calls for the British prime minister to be present, especially because of “the distance” that has built up now that the UK is no longer in the European Union.

The BIC meeting discussed the prospects and difficulties surrounding developing renewable energy, and the need to bring local communities behind such projects. Set up as part of the Belfast Agreement, it brings together leaders from Dublin, London, Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is Ireland and Britain Editor with The Irish Times