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16 October 2014
A State Apart

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The British-Irish Council

by Vernon Bogdanor

Government and Opposition 34 (1999) 287-98. (Published by London School of Economics and Political Science)

The British-Irish Council and Devolution

The British-Irish Council springs from and is provided for in the Belfast Agreement signed on Good Friday 1998. Its coming into force depends upon the implementation of the Agreement. The Council is established, however, not by the 1998 Northern Ireland Act, which gives legislative expression to the bulk of this agreement, but by an international treaty, the British-Irish Agreement, attached to the Belfast Agreement.

The Belfast Agreement together with the legislation providing for devolution to Scotland and Wales establishes a new constitutional settlement, both among the nations which form the United Kingdom, and also between those nations and the other nation in these islands, the Irish nation. The United Kingdom itself is, as a result of the Scotland Act and the Government of Wales Act, in the process of becoming a new union of nations, each with its own identity and institutions - a multi national state, rather than, as many of the English have traditionally seen it, a homogeneous British nation containing a variety of different people.

The unitary British state was the expression of a belief that the non English sections of the United Kingdom formed part of a single British nation. Devolution, by contrast, is the expression of a belief that the non English parts represent separate nations, which choose to remain within the larger multi national framework of the United Kingdom. The unionists of Northern Ireland, however, have rarely seen themselves in this light as a separate nation - a unionist cannot, by definition, seek independence from the United Kingdom - but as part of the British nation. This may pose a problem for unionists at a time when the very notion of Britishness seems to be dissolving into its component parts. Perhaps, however, the new Northern Ireland assembly and the development of regional government in the province will lead to the growth of a new regional identity, a genuine Ulster identity.

It was because the unionists in Northern Ireland saw themselves as part of the British nation rather than as a separate nation that they resisted devolution in 1920. Gradually, however, they came to perceive that a parliament of their own put them in a strong position against those who wished to exclude them from the United Kingdom. The 1998 Northern Ireland Act provides for a different form of devolution from that established in 1920, one based not on majority rule but on the principle of power sharing. But, within the context of devolution to Scotland and Wales, the bi-communal institutions proposed for Northern Ireland no longer appear as outlandish as they would in the context of an otherwise unitary state. Perhaps, then, the new devolution settlement in Northern Ireland can, like Stormont, but in a very different and fairer way, also be made to serve the purposes of unionism.

The purpose of the British-Irish council is to institutionalize the new settlement between the different nations forming the United Kingdom, and between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic. Its role is, in the words of the Belfast Agreement, to promote the harmonious and mutually beneficial development of the totality of relationships among the people of these islands.

The Belfast Agreement was signed by a Labour government (a New Labour government) in the United Kingdom and a Fianna Fail government (a nationalist government) in the Irish Republic. Yet it offers, in essence, a return to the past, a return to Gladstone's original conception of Home Rule in a form suited to modern conditions. Gladstone's particular conception of the British-Irish relationship - a united Ireland enjoying Home Rule within a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland - was breached in 1920 and 1921 by partition and by secession, and cannot of course be restored. But the proposals for devolution, together with the North-South Council, giving institutional form to the Irish dimension, and the British-Irish Council offer a chance of realizing the underlying theme of Gladstonian thinking, i.e. recognition both of the various and distinctive national identities within these islands, and also of the close and complex links between them, but in a form suited to modern times. It is perhaps the path which might have been taken if Westminster had accepted Home Rule in 1886, and the 'Union of Hearts' had been preserved. The British-Irish Council is an expression of the belief that the manifold links which exist between Britain and the Irish Republic can no longer be contained within a formal framework which, in theory, at least, makes the two countries as foreign to each other as Russia and Brazil.

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