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From destructive rupture to practical friendship

(, Irish News)

The British-Irish Council (BIC) was developed in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement to enable east-west relations.

It was also known as the Council of the Isles but loyalists preferred Isles of the North Atlantic (Iona).

The latter seemed to embody the symbolic significance of the new departure. It was, after all, the Isle of Iona that Columcille, an Ulster Donegal chieftain with relatives in Scotland, chose as the centre for his mission.

It was from Iona that Irish monks founded Lindisfarne and took the message throughout the islands, cementing linkages along the way. They also left us the beautiful Book of Kells, now preserved at Trinity College Dublin.

The intervening centuries brought growth as well as times of change and disruption. 1916 and its aftermath seemed to mark the beginning of the end of empire with 26 counties seceding from the UK.

This in turn led to decades of fruitless strife with Northern Ireland becoming a byword for stubborn intransigence and irresolvable conflict. Thousands of lives were lost and hundreds of thousands broken in our tragic and sometimes petty squabbles.

It seems appropriate that Northern Ireland should now become the catalyst bringing our sundered islands together.

The creation of the BIC reflects the truth that our problems were never exclusively local but always centred on relationships throughout the islands. The BIC was thus in line with John Hume's thinking and aimed "to promote the harmonious and mutually beneficial development of the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands".

The BIC was also presented as a "comfort blanket" for unionists, though this was not the whole truth.

I first encountered the idea among republicans, whose emphasis was on the "Celtic fringe" as a counterbalance to the dominance of London and the Home Counties.

Northern Ireland is too insignificant and distant from the centre of British politics to have much input into the power-house at Westminster or indeed Brussels, just as Donegal and adjacent counties also seemed remote.

But the BIC allows for relationships to develop between our different regions and nations, with the most salient development being the potential for meaningful relationships between an independent Irish Republic and any one of the regions and nations of the UK.

The BIC brought together Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man and also made provision for new regional assemblies "if appropriate, elsewhere in the United Kingdom".

Simon Partridge in his The British Union State: Imperial Hangover or Flexible Citizens' Home? (Catalyst, 1999) – available from the internet – wrote about possible new regional assemblies throughout England.

He was emphatically not advocating the break-up of the UK but rather that a new constitutional structure would enhance more equal cooperative relationships throughout these islands in a new and potentially dynamic structure.

As our Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness recently noted, we in Northern Ireland and throughout the islands are characterised by a certain "throughotherness" in that, despite our heightened sense of difference, we are thoroughly mixed together.

More people in Britain than in the Republic are entitled to be Irish citizens and, as Taoiseach Bertie Ahern recently stated in the British parliament, over 100,000 British citizens in Ireland represent "a most welcome part of an ever more diverse population", with northern unionists constituting "a living bridge between us".

It is no longer necessary to squeeze people into narrow boxes. The imaginative thinking underlying the BIC has the potential to liberate us from narrow constrictions of antagonistic local identities.

A range of practical issues were also outlined in the Good Friday Agreement for a BIC that operates by consensus. Each nation or region can take the lead as well as develop bilateral or multilateral arrangements in standing working groups on such matters as environment, including the effects of climate change, e-health (the use of remote telecommunications technology in medicine), transport between regions, misuse of drugs, social inclusion and indigenous, minority and lesser used languages.

In the Belfast BIC communique of last week it was made clear that a permanent BIC secretariat is on the cards. This move is strongly backed by the at-first-sight unlikely alliance of First Minister Ian Paisley and the new nationalist first minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond.

Thanks to the new dispensation based here in the north, it looks as though the destructive rupture across our islands is finally settling into a practical friendship.

July 24, 2007

This article appeared first in the July 23, 2007 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News