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BBC NI political editor Stephen Grimason
British-Irish Council a very significant piece of the overall jigsaw
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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, 14:29 GMT
'New era of co-operation'

David Trimble: Time to work with others despite past differences David Trimble: Time to work together

The Northern Ireland First Minister has said the inaugural meeting of the British-Irish Council has heralded in a new era of co-operation and understanding.

Senior politicians from all areas of the British Isles and from Dublin attended the first meeting of the body, 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.

Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble said the formation of the council was "a truly exciting and challenging development".

He said: "I hope this meeting will represent the beginning a new era of co-operation, a demonstration of a new confidence of each of us in our own arrangements and in our ability to meet and work with others whatever our differences might have been."

'End of cold war'

The Ulster Unionist leader said he was glad to see the Irish government represented at the council because it signified "that what we have been doing over the last few years has brought an end to what I have described as the cold war that has existed within these islands".

The council had obvious historic resonance and symbolised divisions drawing to an end, but it should also "concentrate on concrete practical goals" like improving transport links, Mr Trimble said.

He said it would also have to "add value to what we do for people from people and for our neighbours".

But in an oblique reference to paramilitary arms decommissioning he advised caution on the use of the word "historic" until all elements of the Agreement were implemented.

'Legacy of peace'

Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive, Seamus Mallon, said that the regional and sovereign heads represented at the council should work to leave behind a legacy of "a truer, deeper, peace than ever we have experienced before".

Seamus Mallon: All the political institutions important Seamus Mallon: All the political institutions important
Mr Mallon described the inaugural meeting as a "further highly significant and important development in the political life of these islands".

And he said it gave the politicians the opportunity to share advice, help and inspiration and to steal ideas from each other.

He added: "The pace of change may have seemed pitifully slow since we signed the Agreement on Good Friday 1998, but there can be no question about our ability to accelerate over this past two weeks."

Hosting the first session of the council UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said it had "set a seal on a truly unique relationship between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the rest of these islands".

'Practical impact'

Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told the opening session that the new council symbolised the widening and multiplying of relationships taking place between the Irish and UK governments which would make a practical impact on people's lives.

Ahern Trimble Bertie Ahern and David Trimble: New co-operation
Mr 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 inaugural meeting of the council marks the establishment of another important piece of the jigsaw of political institutions and developments set out in the Good Friday Agreement.

Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive was set up at Stormont two weeks ago and at the beginning of this week the North-South Ministerial Council was established.

The North-South Ministerial Council was most favoured by nationalists at the time of the signing of the Agreement, while the British-Irish Council confirms Northern Ireland's position within the UK, for unionists.

But both David Trimble and Seamus Mallon have stressed that they view both institutions as important.

The Scottish First Minister, Donald Dewar, and Welsh First Secretary Alun Michael also welcomed the formation of the new body at Lancaster House in London.

The five administrations agreed to begin work on five issues and that the council will meet again in June in Dublin.

Northern Ireland is to look at transport, the UK government at the environment, Scotland and Wales on social exclusion and the Republic of Ireland on drug related problems and the Channel Isles on e-commerce and knowledge based economies.

Mr Blair later hosted Mr Trimble, Mr Mallon and Mr Ahern to the first meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference at Downing Street.

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See also:
17 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Blair opens historic council
17 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
'Council of substance and symbolism'
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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