March 1998

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Nordic co-operation explained to British and Irish MPs

Conflict resolution Nordic style was discussed in the House of Commons as the peace process in Northern Ireland was approaching a crucial stage. The discussion took place in the Committee B of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body which scrutinises European and international affairs. Prompted partly by the Finnish Institute report Nordic Co-operation: A Possible Model for British-Irish Relations, the committee recently turned its attention to the Nordic Council and possible analogies between the Council and the proposed "Council of the Isles" (between Britain and Ireland).

The Committee had been briefed by the Northern Ireland Office, the International Fund for Ireland, and the Commonwealth Secretariat (the Commonwealth would react positively to an application for membership from the Republic of Ireland). After these briefings, Dr Henrik Stenius, Director of the Institute, and Simon Partridge, political analyst (and co-author of the report), addressed the Committee over lunch at the House of Commons.

Dr Stenius emphasised the by now "second nature" of Nordic co-operation, that it had had its roots in civil society movements, and that this was not a large bureaucracy, with a central secretariat of only some 80 people costing 60m per year. The Council was a "consensual" body which did not seriously impair the national sovereignties of those involved, but it was embedded in a shared Lutheran and social democratic value system.

Simon Partridge recognised the analogy was not exact, but argued there were sufficient similarities to make it worth pursuing. In particular, the civil society base of the Nordic Council was mirrored by the density of civic links between Britain and Ireland and a long shared, if problematic, history. As we moved towards a Europe of more "variable geometry" he suggested that the Nordic settlement had lessons for how to resolve conflict across the British-Irish archipelago.

The practical and down to earth nature of the Nordic Council seemed to strike a cord with the parliamentarians. A senator from the Republic revealed that some Irish medical qualifications were no longer recognised in the UK. Dr Stenius replied that such a situation would be "unthinkable" in Scandinavia. The Committee agreed the Nordic precedent merited further research. Mr Partridge was asked to investigate further on behalf of the Committee the extent of existing non-governmental links between Ireland and Britain -- links which seemed to flourish among the Nordics, fostering understanding and mutual advancement.

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