co-operation explored as a possible model for British-Irish relations
As the animosity
between the loyalist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland still runs deep in
spite of fresh initiatives by the new Labour government, some close observers of the
conflict think that reconciliation attempts might benefit from an outside impetus. Could
citizens on the British-Irish islands, for instance, rethink their perceptions of mutual
relations in the light of Nordic history? Are there any institutional lessons for these
islands in the way Norden ('the North') has developed into a peaceful family of
states where violent confrontations are unthinkable? These were among the questions put to
a group of British, Irish and Nordic scholars, politicians, journalists and diplomats at
the Finnish Institute in February.
This off-the-record Round Table meeting analysed the history of the Nordic Council in an
intellectually stimulating atmosphere which left the participants in agreement that the
question should be pursued further in a future conference.
The Round Table had its genesis in the launch of Professor Richard Kearney's path breaking
book Postnationalist Ireland: Politics, Philosophy, Culture at the Finnish
Institute in November 1996. A central motif of the book is the Siamese-twin-like nature of
British and Irish nationalisms, a recognition that the British and Irish share many common
characteristics as "mongrel islanders". This points to the overdue and
concomitant need to transform the "national" rivalries, to go beyond the need
for a stark Otherness. Kearney pointed to the Nordic Council as a model of peaceable
transnational co-operation from which the Irish and the British might both draw some
lessons and inspiration.
Based on the off-the-record discussion, tentative conclusions were drawn by Kearney, Simon
Partridge, an Englishman who has collaborated with Kearney over a number of years, Henrik
Stenius, the Director of the Finnish Institute, and Tapani Lausti, the Information Officer
of the Institute. They pointed out that the history and the geopolitics of Norden
and Britain and Ireland have a close resemblance, namely both have been "zones of
conflict" over long periods. The British-Irish conflict is by no means as
"exceptional" as is commonly perceived.
It was underlined that Norden is more religiously and politically similar than
Britain and Ireland, sharing a common Lutheran background (the Protestant/Catholic
cleavage is absent) and a predominant social democratic politics. However, there is more
cultural, linguistic and institutional commonality between the British and the Irish than
among the Scandinavians.
Norden is now expressed at an inter-governmental level through the mechanism of the
Nordic Parliamentary Council and the Council of Ministers, but it has its roots in the
"Norden Association" - a civil society movement which sought to promote
co-operation among the Nordic peoples. It should be stressed that the Nordic connection is
an important dimension in the civil society as well as within the state bureaucracies. All
professional, trade union and voluntary associations have their Nordic connections (annual
meetings) which are important fora of co-operation and self-reflection. Also the Nordic
linkage between different sections of the state administration takes for granted the
Nordic reference groups. There is a constant exchange of detailed information while
national policies are being harmonised. In this sense, the Nordic framework is a
cost-effective and pragmatic form of co-operation.
The Nordic states have in the 20th century managed peacefully to resolve serious disputes
between themselves: the secession of Norway from the Swedish-Norwegian Union in 1905, and
the resolution of conflict over the Aland Islands between Sweden and Finland in 1921. This
contrasts to the unresolved territorial claims over Northern Ireland between the British
and Irish states.
Fears that creating some sort of council to re-define British-Irish relations would lead
to more supranational bureaucracy were countered with the fact that the Nordic Council,
focusing as it does on the functional-practical, is singularly unbureaucratic in its modus
operandi. It is not a large organisation.
The Nordic Council has managed to bring together political units as large as Sweden (pop.
8.6m) and as small as the Faroe Islands (pop. 47,000). It therefore offers an encouraging
precedent for coping with the asymmetry between the Republic of Ireland (pop. 3.6m) and
the UK (pop. 58m).
Noting the dense links between Britain and Ireland (now documented in a growing
British-Irish literature) and drawing on the Nordic precedent, it seems reasonable to
suggest that in time these multiple "civic links" will lead to rapprochement at
a more political level.