By Simon Partridge
The Council of the Isles - the popular name for the official British-Irish
Council (BIC) which as Strand Three of the Belfast
Agreement (10 April 1998 - Cm 3883) links the jurisdictions of both islands
- was launched in London at Lancaster House on 17 December 1999.
The meeting was seen in historic terms by both the Irish and British Prime Ministers. Bertie Ahern said: "Never before have representatives of all the peoples of these islands, and all our political traditions, come together in one room...we come here in friendship and mutual respect, to consider how we can promote practical co-operation amongst us, for the benefit of all of our peoples. Even by its very name the Council symbolised the widening and multiplying of relationships." While Tony Blair described the first meeting of the Council as, "an extraordinary event, a coming together of people who have much in common, much shared history." ("The British-Irish Council: Ahern clasps the hand of history one more time at unique London gathering", The Irish Times, 18 December 1999)
The Irish Times in its Editorial of the same day quoted David Trimble approvingly as describing the inauguration as a "revolutionary political development", and said it was "an ideas whose time has come". Indeed, it went further and said, "if it had not been part of the Belfast Agreement it would have to be invented to provide a forum in which the sovereign governments and devolved administrations in Britain and Ireland can meet". The London-based Irish Post, the principal weekly serving the Irish community in Britain, in a major feature 18 December noted that: "The Council of the Isles will take its role model from the Nordic Council." Mr Trimble also acknowledged that the Council was not without precedent, "as the Nordic Council provides a similar mechanism through which co-operation for mutual benefit is agreed and co-ordinated throughout Scandinavia". (Irish Post,18 December 1999)
It seems timely to note the role played by the Finnish Institute in the creation of this new trans-islands political institution. It is less than three years since the Institute organised, with my help as a specialist in British-Irish relations, a day-long Round Table to examine, from a comparative perspective, whether the institutions of Nordic co-operation could provide a model for improving Bitish-Irish relations (see subsequent report Nordic Co-operation: A Possible Model for British- Irish Relations).
The Round Table brought together some weighty participants: Mo Mowlam's then shadow deputy, Tony Worthington MP (she might well have come herself had she not been ill); 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 Ostergaard (Department of History, Aarhus University); and Paul Gillespie, the influential deputy editor of The Irish Times.
From the point of view of the Irish and British present, one of the most startling revelations was genesis of the Nordic Council in the "Norden Association" established in 1918. They learnt this was a citizens' movement for the promotion of co-operation among the Nordic peoples. While there is no direct parallel movement in the British-Irish Isles, the density of the familial, social, cultural and economic links between the islands is increasingly acknowledged. Thanks to cheap air travel this is increasing quite dramatically with some 25,000 people crossing the Irish Sea each day by boat and plane. This intermingling of peoples was also recognised by Mr Trimble at the BIC inauguration: "We may be divided by borders, but in our work and in our leisure, we live, work and interact with each other as friends." (This new social geography of the islands is explored more fully in my pamphlet The British Union State: imperial hangover or flexible citizens' home?, chapter 3, "The new social geography of Britain and Ireland", Catalyst, 1999, pp. 12-16) Indeed, the Nordic participants at the Round Table pointed to even greater cultural, linguistic and institutional commonality between the British and the Irish than among Scandinavians.
Drawing on the evident parallels between Norden and the British-Irish archipelago,
the report presciently concluded: "Noting the dense links between Britain
and Ireland, and drawing on the Nordic precedent, it seems reasonable to suggest
that in time these multiple "civic links" will lead to rapprochement
at a more political level. The Nordic Council...has a capacity for emulation
and inspiration in the realm of resolving inter-ethnic and inter-state
conflict in these islands". Ms Mowlam on a visit to Dublin not long after
she had become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland acknowledged to Richard
Kearney the influence of the report on her own thinking.
Indeed, the structure of the Council and its remit to "promote the harmonious and mutually beneficial development of the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands" (Belfast Agreement, Strand Three, para. 1, p. 14), 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 (whose parliament the Tynwald, the oldest in these islands, is Norse-derived), Jersey and Guernsey with a possible extension to other nine devolved Administrations in England as they develop. This would give a potential of 17 political units, coincidentally the same number as the "autonomous communities" which now make up the post-Franco, quasi-federal Spanish state. Another difference is the, as yet, lack of an inter-parliamentary dimension.
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 Council. Mr Ahern and Donald Dewar, Scotland's First Minister, have already met.
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 despite the large disparity in populations - some 59 million for the UK compared to less than 4 million for the Irish Republic. 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 (pop. 8.6m) and as small as the Aland Islands (pop. 24,000). The Nordic Parliamentary Council has a membership of 87 with the five large nations having around 20 members each, but weighted towards the three small autonomous regions which each have two representatives. A similar solution for the BIC might see the devolved English regions of the future - most of which have a larger population than the Irish Republic - being given three or four representatives each, to be drawn from their regional assemblies or their present indirectly-elected regional chambers. Although, it may reassure the Irish Republic, that as Ruari Quinn leader of the southern Irish Labour Party has pointed out ("Opportunities for the left", Ruari Quinn, Times Change, Dublin, Autumn 1998, pp. 10-11), there may well be cross-parliament and cross-assembly alliances along left/right lines, rather than national or regional ones. Such cross-national/regional groupings exist within the European Parliament, the EU Committee of the Regions and, more relevantly, the Nordic Council.
Subject to the proviso that a solution is found to the conundrum of decommissioning paramilitary arms, a novel, connecting political and cultural space has opened over the British-Irish archipelago after the formal political separation of the last 78 years. In many respects the Nordic Council has been an inspiration to bridging the gap and could continue to be so in the inter-parliamentary, civic and cultural fields. The Finnish Institute must be congratulated for its work in drawing this analogy to the attention of key opinion-formers just in time for the election of the constitutionally reforming Labour government.
Simon Partridge is a political analyst and writer specialising in British-Irish relations and the implications of devolution.
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