February 1998


Council of the Isles enters the British-Irish political agenda

The peoples on the British and Irish islands with their long history of association – as Richard Kearney and Simon Partridge constantly remind us – have finally been presented formally with the possibility of creating a forum of co-operation between all parts of these islands. The proposal is included in the ‘Propositions on Heads of Agreement’, the text of which was published on January 12, 1998.

The idea of the ‘Council of the Isles’ has not been analysed with any notable enthusiasm in either Irish or British press. Neal Ascherson’s column in the Independent on Sunday (January 18, 1998) did, however, deal with the question in some depth. Ascherson took a slightly cynical view of previous attempts to deal with "the totality of relationships" on the islands but had also this to say: "But perhaps somebody with vision will rescue the Council of the Isles and use it as it really ought to be used. Suppose, for a mad moment, that ‘the totality of relationships’ actually means just what it says! Suppose that the council took supreme command of the future partnership between the three nations of Britain and the two parts of Ireland! Far more powerful than the Nordic Council, it would lay down a new constitutional order for the whole archipelago."

Ascherson continued by noting that first on the agenda of the Council would be the extraction of England from "Britain": "No association of islands, let alone a United Kingdom, can work if the biggest member has no parliament of its own."

Northern Ireland would then, Ascherson dreamed on, be the joint responsibility of the equal partners – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales "until it became an autonomous Euro region looking to Brussels rather than London or Dublin". The council might then foster "the step-by-step devolution of England into self-governing regions around a southern heartland".

In his column, Ascherson described Kearney and Partridge as admirers of the Nordic Council. His description of them as "European regionalists, who long to dump nation-states in the dustbin of history", prompted a reply (Independent on Sunday, January 25, January 1998). Kearney and Partridge denied the charge but confessed to being suppporters of a Europe of the regions in the longer-term. They agreed with Ascherson "that there is now a need for states to pool their sovereignty in larger, and smaller, relations".

The letter continued: "We do not advocate the imminent dissolution of British and Irish sovereignty into a ‘regional association of these islands’. We agree with the joint Propositions on Heads of Agreement statement which proposed an intergovernmental council ‘to include representatives of the British and Irish governments, the Northern Ireland administration and the devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales’. We hope in due course that the devolved regions of England will also be represented."

Kearney and Partridge concluded their letter: "This seems a more realistic path to Ascherson’s ‘council of equals’, which we wholeheartedly endorse."

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