21 December 1999                                   This article is only available on the Internet

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The Council of the Isles: precedents from the Nordic Council

After considerable delay, the trans-islands British-Irish Council (its treaty name, but Council of the Isles as it is more popularly called) was launched in London on 17 December 1999.

The Irish Times in its Editorial of 18 December quoted David Trimble approvingly as describing the inauguration as a "revolutionary political development", and said it was "an ideas whose time has come". The London-based Irish Post (the principal weekly serving the Irish community in Britain), in a major feature (also 18 December) noted that: "The Council of the Isles will take its role model from the Nordic Council."

It seems timely to record the role played by the Finnish Institute in this process. It is less than three years since the Institute organised, with the help of Simon Partridge -- a specialist in British-Irish relations -- a Round Table to examine, from a comparative perspective, whether the institutions of Nordic co-operation could  provide a model for improving British-Irish relations (see subsequent report Nordic Co-operation: A Possible Model for British-Irish Relations by Simon Partridge and Tapani Lausti).

The Round Table brought together some weighty participants: Mo Mowlam's then shadow deputy, Tony Worthington MP; the No 2 at the London Irish Embassy, Philip McDonagh; the Deputy Head of the Republic of Ireland department at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office; some prominent academics - Prof Richard Kearney (Department of Philosophy. University College Dublin), Prof Antony Alcock (Department of European Studies, University of Ulster), Prof Harald Baldersheim (Political Science, University of Oslo), Dr Pertti Joenniemi (Centre for Peace and Conflict Research, Copenhagen) and Prof Uffe Østergaard (Department of History, Aarhus University); and Paul Gillespie, the influential deputy editor of The Irish Times.

The report concluded that the "Nordic Council (...) has a capacity for emulation and inspiration in the realm of resolving inter-ethnic and inter-state conflict in these islands". Mo Mowlam on a visit to Dublin not long after she had become Northern Ireland Minister acknowledged the influence of the report on her thinking to Richard Kearney.

Indeed, the structure of the Council and its remit is to "promote the harmonious and mutually beneficial development of the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands" (Belfast Agreement - Cm 3883), does bear a striking resemblance to the Nordic Council. The major difference being that the "autonomous regions" outnumber the two sovereign governments, including as they do the executives of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as those of the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey - with a possible extension to other devolved Administrations in England as they develop.

Two summit level meetings will be held each year, at which participating Administrations will be represented at head of Government or senior ministerial level.

Specific sectoral meetings could also be held attended by appropriate Ministers. In addition to multi-lateral meetings the Agreement makes provision for meetings between two or more members of the BIC.

The Belfast Agreement expressly encourages the elected institutions of the members of the BIC to develop inter-parliamentary links. It suggests that these could be built on the existing British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, established in 1990.

However, that Body at the moment consists of 25 parliamentarians from each jurisdiction and there are tricky issues of representation to be negotiated if it is to expand to include other Administrations. Again, there are lessons which can be learnt from its Nordic counterpart which manages to bring together parliamentarians from countries as large as Sweden and as small as the Aland Islands.

A novel, connecting political and cultural space has opened over the British-Irish archipelago after the, at least, formal separation of the last 77 years (though its continuance will be dependent on decommissioning early in 2000). In many respects the Nordic Council has been an inspiration.

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