January 1998

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Nordic-style institutions recommended for Irish-British islands

The idea of considering whether the history of Nordic co-operation has lessons to offer for British-Irish Relations has emerged as a subject of public discussion both in the UK and Ireland. In this article, published originally in the Irish Times (January 15, 1998) under the title "How the Nordic countries resolved conflict", Richard Kearney and Simon Partridge argue that Strand 3 (relations between the UK and the Irish Republic) holds the key to a lasting, Nordic-style institutional architecture for the Irish-British islands.

At last, the ‘little room’ which has stunted the relationships between the varied peoples of these islands, acutely so in Northern Ireland, seems to be opening up. Witness the recent references reported in your pages to new ‘institutional architecture’; or to a ‘Council of the British Isles’, ‘Council of the Isles’ or ‘British-Irish Council’. Your editorial of 28 November aptly calls for "much more public discussion of options arising from Strands 2 and 3", and cites the Nordic Council as a possible model.

We, in conjunction with Robin Wilson, have been advancing the possibilities of such a Nordic-type inter-island institution since the end of 1994 (see submission to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, Dec 94, Fortnight, Feb 95, and Postnationalist Ireland, Nov 96). These initiatives led in February 1997 to a round table on the topic at the Finnish Institute in London. This was attended by representatives from the Irish Embassy, the Foreign Office, leading Nordic political scientists, academics from Britain, the Republic and Northern Ireland, and a number of journalists.

The conclusions of the round table were drawn together in a report Nordic Co-operation: A Possible Model for British-Irish Relations (1). Its primary finding was that the Nordic countries and the British-Irish archipelago had many attributes in common - including being ‘zones of conflict’ over long periods -- and that inspiration could indeed be drawn from the way in which the Nordic countries had managed to settle their differences for good.

A major factor which now renders conflict between the Nordic countries ‘unthinkable’, has been the establishment of an inter-parliamentary Council and its attendant inter-governmental Council of Ministers - set up in 1952 and 1971 respectively. The Council fosters close co-operation between Denmark (and its autonomous territories of the Faeroes and Greenland), Finland (and its autonomous, demilitarised but Swedish-speaking Aland Islands), Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Its common symbol is the eight-winged swan representing the five nation-states and the three autonomous regions. The Council focuses firmly on functional-practical issues and is small and non-bureaucratic. It brings together political units as large as Sweden (population 8.6 million) and as small as the Faeroe Islands (population 47,000), and shows that difference in size is not an insuperable problem to close co-operation.

Applying this analogy to our islands (Irish Times editorial, 28 November), it is clear anyway that the disparities in size between the Republic and the UK will be ameliorated by current moves to devolve power to Scotland and Wales. Mo Mowlam in her address to the recent plenary of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body (1 December 1997) hinted that these devolved administrations, along with Northern Ireland, would be represented on any remodelled inter-parliamentary tier.

Today’s sophisticated political form of Nordic co-operation had its genesis in the ‘Norden (North) Association’ -- a movement of civil society stemming from the turn of the century which sought peaceful co-operation among the Nordic peoples. We would point to a parallel in the extraordinary density of civic links between our islands: the British unionist presence in Ireland is complemented by the now eight million or so strong Irish diaspora in Britain; we read each other’s major writers; consume each other’s popular media (the National Union of Journalists unsurprisingly covers both islands); while the interaction in the realm of football and sport can only be explained in terms of common passion. And yet: these myriad movements to and fro have not found real expression at the political level.

This must surely change. We strongly believe that Strand 3, appropriately developed, can provide the key to settling the long, but by now anachronistic, British-Irish conflict.

Strand 3 can provide the quid pro quo for significant North-South relations which it seems are needed to persuade Northern nationalists that a worthy settlement is on offer. Only a parallel structure in the East-West dimension will reassure unionists that North-South relations are not a covert slippery slope to a united Ireland. Nor given the existing, if low-key, British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body (which brings together 25 parliamentarians from each jurisdiction twice a year) would we be starting entirely from scratch. In this way John Hume’s recent call for "equality of allegiance" between nationalists and unionists could be assured.

This means facing up to the reality that the peoples of these islands are now -- through internal migration -- inextricably intertwined. Furthermore, in the UK new Commonwealth settlers and their descendants now number over three million -- the significant Chinese community in Northern Ireland being one example. After initial problems, they are now largely accepted as Black and Asian British, softening the ‘stiff upper lip’ (as Princess Diana’s death showed) and bringing entrepreneurial flair. A richer, more self-confident Republic is also increasingly opening its doors to outsiders, to those fleeing extreme poverty and oppression, with several thousand predicted to arrive in 1998. Not only are we mixed amongst ourselves -- pre-Celt, Celt, Pict, Roman, Angle, Saxon, Dane, Viking, Norman, Huguenot, Jew etc -- we are now home to a diaspora from many corners of the world.

As island peoples with a long history of association, with close links of commerce, shared English and Celtic cultures, and many similar legal and political institutions (the ‘county’ is our common, Norman-inspired basic unit), we should welcome this increasing plurality and interchange. Encouraged by this new openness, and taking a cue from the Scandinavians, the debate about new political arrangements between both parts of Ireland and between these islands must begin in earnest. We may at this historic juncture be closer than we think to realising Michael Collins’s desire for a "free association on all matters which would be naturally the common concern of two nations living so closely together" (Manchester Guardian, December, 1921).


1. Nordic Co-operation: A Possible Model for British-Irish Relations is available on request from the Finnish Institute.

Simon Partridge, based in London, is a political writer focusing on subsidiarian issues and British-Irish relations. He has worked closely with Richard Kearney, Professor of Philosophy at the University College Dublin, over recent years in exploring ‘postnationalism’ and ‘postunionism’, in a these-islands and Europe of regions context.

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