Nordic co-operation explored as a possible model for British-Irish relations

nordic.jpg (19953 bytes)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.

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