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Helen Callaghan reports for BBC News
"The political balancing act is far from over"
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Peter Mandelson MP, Northern Ireland Secretary
"Today a new political era is opening up"
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Friday, 17 December, 1999, 14:01 GMT
Blair opens historic council

The council was established under the Good Friday Agreement


Prime Minister Tony Blair has opened the inaugural meeting of the British Irish Council by heralding the new body as a partnership for the next century.

Senior politicians from all corners of the British Isles attended the first meeting of the body, otherwise known as the Council of the Isles, which was established under the Good Friday Agreement.

The Search for Peace
More related to this story
Link to Good Friday Agreement
The council will be a forum for discussing matters of mutual interest to the newly devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, along with the governments in Westminster, Dublin, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

Mr Blair said Friday's meeting saw the last pieces of the new institutional framework under the Good Friday Agreement put in place and was an important step to establishing peace in Northern Ireland.


Tony Blair Tony Blair: "Building a lasting peace"
That agreement would change forever the relations between "our two governments and throughout these islands", Mr Blair said.

"Here, we are setting a seal on a truly unique relationship between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the rest of these islands.

"The agreement creates a whole new architecture of institutional links throughout these islands. It gives us a framework for practical co-operation in areas where we can achieve more by working together.

"A framework with diverse functions but with one aim to build a new partnership for the new century. A partnership where we share what we have in common and respect what makes us different.

"A partnership which touches every corner of these islands, which deepens the ties between our diverse and vibrant regions and a partnership which brings together the devolved administrations and the islands themselves."

Among those who attended the symbolic first session were Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson, Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble and his deputy Seamus Mallon.


Ahern Trimble Bertie Ahern and David Trimble will meet at Downing Street
Also present at the gathering at Lancaster House in London were Scottish First Minister Donald Dewar and Welsh First Secretary Alun Michael.

Following the meeting, Mr Blair held talks with Mr Ahern, Mr Trimble and Mr Mallon at Downing Street for the first British-Irish intergovernmental conference.

The council's next summit, to be held in six months time in the Irish Republic, will look at drugs, the environment, transport, e-commerce and social exclusion.

The Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that Friday's meeting had both symbolic and practical implications.

Mr Ahern told the opening session that the new council symbolised the widening and multiplying of relationships taking place between the Irish and UK governments.



We are setting a seal on a truly unique relationship between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the rest of these islands.
Tony Blair
He said it would have to make a practical impact on people's lives.

Me Ahern said: "The British Irish Council will be judged in the long run by its success in bringing forward practical ideas for co-operation which will improve the lives of our citizens."

The body is seen by many observers as an important reassurance to unionists in Northern Ireland, who wish to retain links with the rest of the UK.

For unionists the council confirms Northern Ireland's status as part of the UK.

Mr Trimble told the council's first gathering that it heralded a new era of co-operation and understanding.

He said: "This is a successful form of cross-border co-operation that threatens no-one and benefits everyone."

In his speech, Mr Mallon said: "Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans have landed on our shores over the last 5,000 years. All have left their legacy.

"We too will leave a legacy. I am confident it will be a legacy of peace, a deeper, truer peace than ever before."

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See also:
17 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Historic UK-Irish meeting
17 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
'Council of substance and symbolism'
17 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
'New era of co-operation'
16 Dec 99 |  Northern Ireland
'British-Irish Council step forward'
02 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
A guide to devolved powers
17 Dec 99 |  Wales
Wales pledged to 'Council of the Isles'
17 Sep 99 |  UK Politics
Labour 'divided' on English devolution

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