March 1998

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The idea of the 'Council of the Isles' debated in the Irish Times

The article written by Richard Kearney and Simon Partridge, "How the Nordic countries resolved conflict", Irish Times, January 15, 1998 (republished as Nordic-style institutions recommended for Irish-British islands in the Eagle Street) triggered a debate in the letters column of the Dublin newspaper.

The first letter was from Prof. James Anderson and Douglas Hamilton from the University of Newcastle, published on February 15th.


Sir, - For Richard Kearney and Simon Partridge (The Irish Times, January 15th) an east-west "Council of the Isles" modelled on the Nordic Council "can provide the key to settling the British-Irish conflict." However, while the Nordic Council has some solid achievements, its relevance for Ireland and Britain is very limited.

It is implied that it solved similar national conflicts in Scandinavia, but they were much milder and were solved long before the Nordic Council even existed. When Norway achieved independence from Sweden at the beginning of this century, there was no significant pro-Swedish minority in Norway, and the relatively amicable separation pre-dated the Nordic Council by some 50 years!

The proposed body would link both parts of Ireland with assemblies in England, Scotland and Wales, but it is far from clear why the English, Scottish or Welsh assemblies would want a "Council of the Isles". When asked recently on TV about the council, the Scottish nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, simply smiled, ignored the question and talked about something else he considered important. His interviewer didn't bother to pursue the matter.

Whereas the Nordic Council links five independent states, a "Council of the Isles" would link the four constituent parts of the UK which already have a common parliament - Westminster. The Irish Republic is already linked to it by the British-Irish inter-parliamentary body and the Anglo-Irish Agreement; and it will be linked to the North via the North-South bodies. In this crowded landscape, a "Council of the Isles" seems more like duplication than a new key to unlock the conflict.

It might make sense in the tit-for-tat, copy-cat logic of unionism: nationalists get a north-south link, so unionists must get an east-west one to maintain the "balance". However, this "logic" ignores the fact that they already have an east-west link as part of the UK. It refuses to admit that the status quo is already "unbalanced" in terms of national sovereignty - which is what the conflict is about. Hence the importance of north-south bodies to redress the imbalance. In this context the Nordic model is largely a distraction. - Yours, etc.,

University of Newcastle, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.


The following letter came from Dennis R.D. Rogan, Party Chairman of the Ulster Unionist Council, published on Febryary 25th. 


Sir, - Prof Anderson and Mr Hamilton (February 13th) struggle to press home their scatter-gun attack on the concept of the Council of the Isles (which had been praised in the article by Richard Kearney and Simon Partridge, The Irish Times, January 15th). I wonder whether their objection to the council is that it lacks economic rationale or is really that it happens to have been proposed by the Unionist Party?

I would have thought the example of the Nordic Council is very relevant. Scandinavian affairs prove that neighbouring countries can have close and mutually beneficial co-operation provided there is an absence of territorial claims. The use of Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalists, hardly bolsters their case.

Our case for a council is not simply "tit-for-tat, copycat logic". The UK is still the Republic's largest trading partner and also the main destination for its emigrants. There are matters of common environmental concern. Many economists in Dublin and elsewhere doubt the wisdom of the Republic joining the single currency at the same time as the UK exercises its opt-out. All these areas could be addressed by the council which, unlike the interparliamentary body, would not be a mere talking shop.

To say that the "status quo is already `unbalanced' in terms of national sovereignty - which is what the conflict is about" is to drift into the realms of the meaningless abstraction so beloved of many apologists of nationalism. What is certain is that the Council of the Isles is no distraction. - Yours, etc.,

DENNIS R. D. ROGAN, Party Chairman, Ulster Unionist
Council, Glengall Street, Belfast 12.


On March 2nd, Richard Kearney and Simon Partridge replied to Anderson and Hamilton's letter. 


Sir, - James Anderson and Douglas Hamilton (February 13th) have misunderstood the main thrust of our article (The Irish Times, January 15th). This was not to argue that there was an exact analogy between the Nordic countries and these islands, but to show that the inter-parliamentary and inter-governmental Nordic Council actually had its roots in the civil society-based "Norden [North] Association", which was established as long ago as 1918. We drew parallels between this association and the extraordinary density of civic links between these islands. Since the association had been the forerunner of the council, the time now also seems ripe to consider a similar institution for our archipelago.

Anderson and Hamilton suggest this role be played by the present British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. They seem unaware that unionists boycott the body precisely because they see it as having been established by the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. This points to the need for a new body to be created by a new British/Irish treaty.

Our case for an enhanced east/west body has nothing to do with tit-for-tat or copycat logic. It has everything to do with giving due recognition to the ethnic and cultural mixing in these islands, of which the unionist presence in Ireland is one example, as is the larger Irish diaspora in Britain. The "balance" that needs to be struck is between a series of relationships - east-west, northsouth - and not with the vain hope of any one party incorporating another.

In this context, the present amicable position of the Swedish-speaking Aland islands (a serious flashpoint between Finland and Sweden in the 1920s) as an autonomous region within the Finnish state, recognised in the Nordic Council, provides a striking example from which we can indeed learn. - Yours, etc.,

Prof RICHARD KEARNEY, University College Dublin, Dublin 4.
SIMON PARTRIDGE, East Finchley, London N2.


On the same day, March 2nd, the Irish Times published another letter on the subject of the Council of the Isles. This one was from D.J. O'Flynn.


Sir, - Council of the Isles? What isles? Channel, Scilly, Lake? No, Sir, British, of course. A province once again! In Scotland we have Comhairle nan Oileán and in France Les Îsles Anglo-Normands. Comhaire an nOileán Angla-Cheilteach, Council of the Anglo-Celtic Islands, or the Anglo-Celtic Council, if you must. But no "isles", please. "Isles" is twee and "isles" is British! - Yours, etc.,

D.J. O'FLYNN, Cherry Park, Galway.


One more letter was published on the 12th of March. It was sent by Seán Ó Coinn.


Sir, - Nationalism and unionism are not, as many suggest,
mutually exclusive positions. With slight adjustment of
perspective, they can even be complementary. Nationalists, if
they were to take the broader Gaelic view of their nationhood,
and unionists, if they were to take the stricter Scots-Irish view of
their identity, could then aspire to a nationalism and a unionism
which were perfectly compatible.

Both positions could be recognised by a two-tier "Council of the
Isles", including firstly a Council of Ireland, Scotland and The
Isle of Man - the Gaelic national homelands - with a further tier
to include the rest of the United Kingdom, satisfying the unionist,
and simultaneously satisfying the Gaelic nationalist in so far as it
includes further national territories. But the kernel would be the
Scots-Irish Council of Ireland, Scotland, and The Isle of Man,
Comhairle na nGael, the seed perhaps of a solution to the
seemingly impossible problem of reconciling the two positions.

Has anyone else got a better suggestion as to how unionism can
be squared with nationalism? I'd like to hear it. - Yours, etc.,
SEÁN Ó COINN, Gort Leitreach, Co Liatroma.

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