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Wales-Ireland Relations: More Than Just Geography

The International Relations Committee inquiry on Wales-Ireland relations wrapped up in October 2023 after hearing from representatives from governments, parliaments and organisations on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Wales and Ireland agreed an international bilateral agreement in 2021 called the Ireland-Wales Shared Statement and Joint Action Plan. The Welsh Government lists Ireland as one of its priority relationships in its 2020 International Strategy.

The Committee’s report assesses the effectiveness of the Welsh Government’s approach, and whether it should be replicated for its other priority international relationships. It found many positive examples of cooperation, as well as significant goodwill, passion and enthusiasm.

The Committee recommended improving the coordination, visibility and resource for this work, and hopes the report’s findings will be reflected in future bilateral agreements and in Wales-Ireland co-operation beyond 2025.

This article summarises the Committee’s main findings and the Welsh Government’s response to them.

Welsh Government’s approach

The Committee found there are “many positive aspects of the Welsh Government’s work” but it isn’t clear how multiple strategies and plans relating to Ireland are coordinated, nor are they found in one place.

It said this “presented a barrier to [its] identification and understanding” and “fails to provide a single point of access” for anyone seeking more information. The Committee said the Welsh Government is “doing itself a disservice by not capturing and communicating its work in a coherent way”.

The Committee also noted there is no specific requirement for the Welsh Government to report to the Senedd or the Committee. It said:

In the absence of regular monitoring, reporting and key metrics, there is nothing that can underpin and evidence the positive and beneficial work on Wales-Ireland relations that is undoubtedly taking place.

It said changes should be made to “better reflect the special status” of the relationship.

More information, visibility and transparency

The Committee made recommendations designed to improve information, visibility and transparency. It hopes its report:

marks the start of the process to shine more light on this important chapter in the history of Wales-Ireland relations, and of Wales’s own international story.

Addressing these issues, it says, would assist the Senedd, stakeholders, and the public to better understand the Welsh Government’s Wales-Ireland activity. This would increase the likelihood of preserving links and maximising opportunities arising from cross-border cooperation.

The First Minister accepted some of the Committee’s recommendations. He:

  • confirmed the Welsh Government is exploring a dedicated webpage, subject to the Irish Government’s agreement, and will review existing content to improve clarity;
  • explained how the Welsh Government involves expertise and raises awareness with stakeholders; and
  • outlined how the Welsh Government coordinates Wales-Ireland relations and trade policy.

Other recommendations weren’t accepted because:

  • the First Minister believes existing arrangements generate sufficient information, including on the Welsh Government’s Dublin office, and the Ireland-Wales Forum; and
  • the Welsh Government can’t commit to additional reporting due to its “current, acute state of resource constraint”.

Brexit reshapes relations

The Irish Government’s Consul General of Ireland, Denise McQuade, told the Committee that Brexit:

has already brought change and it will undoubtedly alter and reshape the Ireland-Wales relationship in the coming years.

The Committee’s report says it’s clear Brexit has and will continue to have an impact. It heard of changes that are “challenging and difficult to navigate” but also saw examples of “organisations collaborating well, driven by shared passion, innovation and a renewed focus”.

Ministers, parliamentarians and organisations want to preserve links developed during the UK’s EU membership. The First Minister said work is underway to “ensure the successes gained are not lost” and the Consul General said:

what we want to do is work together to make sure that all of those links we have, those people-to-people links, trade, business, culture, community, all of that, that that all keeps going as smoothly as possible, despite Brexit..

High ambition, limited resources

The importance of resources quickly became apparent as the majority of respondents, including the First Minister, voiced concerns about the loss of EU funding and sustainable ways forward. The First Minister gave an example:

We had €100 million in the last [EU inter-territorial cooperation budget]; all of that is gone. We are providing a very modest amount of money, £150,000, through Agile Cymru.

In response to the Committee’s report, he said this sum has already been committed to projects this financial year, and that commitments in financial year 2024-25 would require reprioritisation of other budgets.

The Committee, recognising the challenge of funding the ambitious future desired by many, recommended that the Welsh and Irish governments commit funding proportionate to their ambition beyond 2025. The First Minister accepted this in principle, saying:

  • the governments are discussing a mechanism for joint support; and
  • the Welsh Government continues to prioritise cooperation with Ireland via Agile Cymru and in UK intergovernmental discussions on replacement EU funding.

The Committee will play its part

The Committee reflected that it too has an important role to play in Wales-Ireland relations, including by championing interparliamentary work with Ireland’s Oireachtas and across the Senedd itself.

It said the report marks the first step in its contribution to enhanced Wales-Ireland relations and included next steps throughout the report. Committee Chair, Delyth Jewell MS, said it:

will be incumbent on the governments, parliaments and national organisations of our countries to strive for ever greater ties at this crucial juncture in our shared history.

Lessons learned for the future

The First Minister accepted two important recommendations on the Welsh Government’s future approach to international relations.

First, the Committee called on the Welsh Government to build in the findings of this report from the outset where it adopts a similar approach to other priority international relationships.

Second, the Committee called on the Welsh Government to review the inquiry’s evidence to inform decisions on Wales-Ireland cooperation post-2025. These lessons should be taken forward and reapplied to future priority international relationships.

The First Minister agreed to consider the findings of the Committee’s report and to take its evidence into “full consideration” in future decision-making. These could be significant commitments for Wales-Ireland cooperation beyond 2025 and in light of Welsh Government plans for agreements with Flanders, Baden-Württemberg, Ontario and more.

Source : Research