Senior Conservatives have been angered by the choice of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, which was bombed by the IRA, as the location of a high-profile summit between British and Irish politicians.
By Robert Winnett, and James Orr
6:20AM BST 25 Oct 2011
The Northern Ireland Secretary and his deputy both decided not to attend yesterday’s British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly meeting at the hotel and a junior Liberal Democrat minister was drafted in to represent the Government.
The decision of the Assembly to choose the highly symbolic venue came more than 25 years after the IRA bombed the hotel during the Conservative Party conference. Terrorists attempted to kill Baroness Thatcher, the then Tory leader, and seriously injured or killed several senior Conservatives, including Lord Wakeham’s wife.
The organisers of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly said that Owen Paterson, the Northern Ireland Secretary, had turned down an invitation to attend.
He attended the Assembly, whose members include senior Sinn Fein figures, last year and would normally have been expected to address the gathering.
The organisers said that there were “understandable reservations” about the venue and held a minute’s silence in memory of the “victims of the troubles”
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A spokesman for the Assembly said: “Understandable reservations about the choice of the Grand Hotel as a location for the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly were expressed by a number of members.
“However, as the Grand Hotel was selected as the venue for practical rather than symbolic reasons, the decision was taken by the UK Board of the Assembly to proceed. In addition, it was decided to hold an appropriate commemoration for all the victims of the Troubles which took place by way of a minute’s silence when the plenary began on Monday.”
It is understood that both Mr Paterson and Hugo Swire, the Northern Ireland minister, told the Assembly that they were travelling on official business on Monday.
Mr Paterson is a well-known supporter of the Royal Irish Regiment which is based in his constituency. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, has confronted the Cabinet minister for wearing a wristband in support of the regiment.
Lord Shutt, a Liberal Democrat minister who speaks on Northern Irish matters in the Lords, spoke at the Assembly on behalf of the Government.
The British Irish Parliamentary Assembly was formed in 1990, during the troubles, to promote peace and understanding between the two countries.
Its British co-chairman is currently Lord Cope, a former Treasury minister under Baroness Thatcher. Ahead of the assembly, he wrote to members saying: “Those of us who were closely involved 27 years ago remember vividly the failed attempt to assassinate our Prime Minister.”
Monday’s discussion at the Assembly focussed on both country’s economic and banking problems.
The Treasury recently released the first tranche of a multi-billion pound loan from Britain to help Ireland deal with its banking crisis.
Joe McHugh, the Irish co-chairman of the Assembly, said: “One of the major legacies of the peace process has been to provide parliamentarians, policy-makers, and the regional and national governments in Britain and Ireland with a number of important fora for discussing and then implementing practical policies that will benefit the people we represent.
“Each of these institutions does vital and important work in terms of knowledge-sharing and co-operation. For our own part this plenary of the British Irish Assembly has concentrated on developing active work programmes for our Committees over the coming years in the areas of environmental protection, economic development, and European affairs.”