History was made today at a meeting of British-Irish body when it was attended by unionist politicians for the first time.
The British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body has been boycotted by the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party since it was first established in 1990.
However former UUP MP Ken Maginnis today took his seat at the assembly meeting in Newcastle upon Tyne, alongside UUP Stormont MLA David McClarty and DUP MLA Jim Wells.
Maginnis almost didn’t make it into the history books as he mistakenly journeyed to Newcastle in Co Down.
“I thought you had all got it wrong, and I was right,” he joked today.
The former MP said the UUP was now ready to play a full part in the BIIPB, which today officially changed its name to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly to accommodate unionist concerns.
Speaking before today’s plenary session, Maginnis said: “We don’t want mistakes made over the past 30 years to be repeated. A lot of things have been settled, a lot of the claims and counter claims have been set aside.”
He added: “We look at this body now as a normal gathering, that can deal with day to day things that affect us all on both sides of the border and on these islands as a whole. We want to be part of that.”
Veteran BIIPB member Jim O’Keeffe said parliamentarians on the BIIPB from Britain and Ireland had swept aside their differences to become good friends and colleagues over the years.
“The tension that existed between the politicians was palpable in the room in that first meeting in 1990,” the Fine Gael TD said.
“Since then the body has achieved dramatic results in improving formal and informal relations between politicians on these islands.
“However we’ve always had the empty seats for the unionists so that’s why it is marvellous they are attending today.”
He added: “This is an enormous development. This is a historic day for the body.”
DUP MLA Mr Wells told the body he was the first DUP politician to speak in the Republic when he addressed a summer school in Co Donegal in 1986.
Referring to the welcome he received from colleagues, he joked: “The last time I shook so many hands in a hotel was when I got married.”
He told members: “This is the final piece of the jigsaw,” adding: “We certainly intend to play our full part from now on.”
Mr McClarty also told the plenary session he looked forward to playing an active role in the assembly’s work in the future.
The BIIPB was formally established in 1990 as a link between Westminster and Dublin, with 25 British and 25 Irish members drawn from the upper and lower houses of both parliaments.
In recent years the body has been extended to include representatives from the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Isle of Man and Channel Islands.
The joint chairmen of the BIIPB are former Northern Ireland Secretary and Labour MP, Peter Hain and Donegal North-East Fianna Fail TD Niall Blaney.