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A big day in the North… Nationalism in the UK, The British-Irish Council and unintended consequence… July 12, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Britain, Ireland, Irish Politics, Northern Ireland.
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Or so Black Grape had it… back in 1995. So, what’s up next week? Why, the British-Irish Council meet, and as Gerry Moriarty writes in yesterdays Irish Times:

First Minister the Rev Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are scheduled to greet Gordon Brown at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, on Monday when he makes his first visit to Northern Ireland as British prime minister.

Mr Brown is due to join the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and leaders of UK devolved assemblies for the first meeting of the British-Irish Council since devolution was restored. The North-South Ministerial Council, another key institution of the Belfast Agreement, will meet the following day in Armagh.

Choreography is everything. According to Moriarty the BIC meeting was to be held last week, but Brown was unable to make it due to ‘diary difficulties’, well, that and the small issue of settling into his new job. Problem was Paisley is said to have stated that if Brown wasn’t there, well then, neither would he be. Needless to say he has his own fish to fry on this issue:

Dr Paisley has made a point of emphasising that the East-West relationship should have equal billing with the North-South link, which is why the two institutions are meeting on the same week.

“For too long the East-West axis was the poor relation of North-South business. We are committed to redressing the balance and that is why there will be a British-Irish Council meeting in addition to a meeting between Northern Ireland Ministers and the Republic’s Government on Tuesday,” said Dr Paisley yesterday.

Martin McGuinness has adopted a somewhat more muted tone and noted that ‘both summits were important’. Yes, indeed. But which is more important?

Meanwhile… is it Ireland? Is it Britain? Is it slices of citrus fruit? One has to admire the BIC logo which contains no element of the national identities on the two islands. Quite an achievement.

Anyhow, whatever the optics, it is good to see Brown engaging at this level only a couple of weeks into his premiership. And Paisley might like to ponder on the fact that ‘Britain’ is not quite as it used to be.

Michael White, writing in the Guardian yesterday, suggested that although:

Not many people in England seem to care very much…nationalist politics within the British (or is it Atlantic?) Isles take a significant step forward today when a politician called Ieuan Wyn Jones is appointed deputy first minister of Wales.

The first minister, Labour party stalwart Rhodri Morgan, was taken to hospital suffering from heart problems early this week. As he is out of action it seems likely that he will be the representative of the Welsh Assembly. And this is significant? It is indeed, as Ieuan Wyn Jones is the leader of Plaid Cymru.

A remarkable deal has been hammered out between PC and Labour. This entails:

a [Labour promise] to review Welsh funding and to give the Welsh language official status that will require basic service information to be written bilingually in the private as well as public sector.

Now, let’s consider the line up at the meeting of the British-Irish Council. Scotland will be represented by the able and charismatic Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party and now head of the Scottish Executive. Ieuan Wyn Jones represents Wales as part of a PC/Labour coalition. And Northern Ireland is represented by the Democratic Unionist Party (arguably taking on more and more an sort of Ulster nationalist identity) in tandem with Sinn Féin.

So, in a strange inversion of the Sinn Féin aim to have people serving in governments both north and south of the Border, here we see Nationalist representatives of the constituent elements of the United Kingdom, bar of course that constitutional anomaly – England itself.

How different all this must seem from the heady days of constitutional reform in the late 1990s when – presumably – the idea was to lock Labour administrations in power in Scotland and Wales. In truth, Labour remains pre-eminent, but the Nationalists are doing remarkably well. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Offer people a forum to exercise even limited power and they will generally take it. Add to that the incentive of democratic elections and chances are they will break against you every once in a while.

As White notes:

It is all a bit sudden, but the tectonic plates of nationalist sentiment are slowly shifting. In Edinburgh a minority SNP executive is managing to keep the buses running on time, and in Belfast Sinn Féin now shares power with Ian Paisley’s DUP. Labour’s hegemony is eroding.

So this, somewhat disunited Kingdom, is the all but inevitable outworking of processes that were relatively predictable. But the tenor of the times is another thing entirely. Because the nature of the Nationalist parties is bound to alter the nature of the BICO. I think this is all for the good. It provides an example to the DUP of how Britain itself is changing, and relatively quickly. And a further example is provided in the way in which there is a coalition in Wales and how that is engaging with overlapping identities. The SF/DUP rapprochement is remarkable. But it is only the most remarkable of any number of events.

These pave the way for future developments where we can expect to see the ties that have bound the UK loosening, but not being discarded entirely. The Republic also has a part to play in the future, by demonstrating that there is a shared history between these islands but that this can be encompassed within multiple political and cultural identities. That I suspect will see the North and South on this island develop ever deepening linkages whereas the process will probably be quite the opposite between Scotland, England and Wales. But not to the point where political centrifugal forces lead to no linkages at all.

Anti-GFA Republicanism has one half-way persuasive argument in reference to the GFA. That is that the cross-border/all-island aspects will run into the ground because it is not in the interest of the British or RoI to engage with them on any significant level. I’ve always felt that argument to be willfully pessimistic, if only because I suspect that SF in government in Northern Ireland will provide part of the dynamic. But in the context of a changing Britain, one where Scotland is eager to work closely with the RoI and Wales perhaps to the exclusion of England, then there will be pressure external to this island to see broader movement because Scotland and Wales will be eager to emulate intra-national linkages between each other, the Republic and the North.

Finally, an initial point Michael White makes is important. Not many people in England seem to care very much. That is troubling, and a subject for another day.

Comments»

1. Ciarán - July 12, 2007

“So this, somewhat disunited Kingdom, is the all but inevitable outworking of processes that were relatively predictable. But the tenor of the times is another thing entirely. Because the nature of the Nationalist parties is bound to alter the nature of the BICO.”

BICO? A Freudian slip there or just a slip of the keyboard?

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2. Tom Griffin - July 12, 2007

Not many people in England seem to care very much.

I suspect that’s very much a Westminster village view. The process of the English waking up to the implications of devolution has been underway for some time.

Witness the stream of Tory MPs tackling Brown on the West Lothian Question on Wednesday, and the Labour MPs complaining about higher spending in Scotland.

Those are the emerging English concerns, and they are likely to accelerate the pace of change rather than reverse it.

I think that, not unnaturally, a lot of people have under-estimated the impact the changing dynamics of the UK could have on the prospects for the all-Ireland dimension.

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3. WorldbyStorm - July 12, 2007

Tom, I’d completely agree re the Westminster village aspect. Prospect magazine has been highlighting this for some time, and it would be of a piece with Michael Whites previous reporting on the SNP which managed to misinterpret some fairly significant aspects of their policy platform.

I also agree that if England acquires devolved institutions of one form or another that will have further ramifications. Perhaps a looser UK in tandem with ever deepening links North South in Ireland, but presumably maintaining a NI/Britain link for the foreseeable future.

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4. WorldbyStorm - July 12, 2007

As it happens Ciarán I was reading the Athol books (formerly BICO) website yesterday, and assorted material on indymedia about them… I can’t quite believe the latest (since the 1990s) ideological flip they have taken to a position not a million miles away from De Valera era Nationalism. That’s a hell of a shift from the ‘two nations’ ‘theory’…

So…both I think!

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5. Brian Hill - July 13, 2007

The SNP are doing spectacularly well simply because they care about the people of Scotland and it already shows after only 6 weeks in Government.

The Scottish ‘revolution’ on its own would be remarkable, but in tandem with the events in NI and Wales it’s re-shaping the whole dynamics of British and Irish politics.

The biggest losers will be Labour in the early years at least as they try manfully to preserve a system which has served them exceedingly well in Scotland and Wales and reasonably well in the UK as a whole.

But surely the old system is breaking down because of the EU. Why should Scotland, Wales and NI be in two unions, having their affairs negotiated for them by England when countries as small if not smaller are sitting at the European table doing their own negotiating?

The isolation of the Protestants of NI continues which is why they are now in a power sharing situation much against their better judgement. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ireland isn’t united before Scotland and Wales are independent, I certainly don’t see NI being offered a place in Europe and Britain no longer wants them. The next 13 years are going to fascinating to watch.

Well that’s one man’s view anyway.

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6. Tom Griffin - July 13, 2007

Perhaps a looser UK in tandem with ever deepening links North South in Ireland, but presumably maintaining a NI/Britain link for the foreseeable future.

That’s where things are headed at the moment, but the dynamics of the Anglo-Scottish relationship could take things beyond that.

Once the Barnett formula goes, the Scottish case for the union starts to look very thin. Take away that alleged subsidy and the Scots will basically want to control their own economic policy.

That leaves the union with foreign and defence policy, but even there the Scottish interests are arguably diverging from Westminster on issues like Europe and Trident.

Scottish independence is a realistic possible outcome. I’m not sure what the impact of that on Ireland would be, but it’s something that needs to be considered.

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7. WorldbyStorm - July 13, 2007

I’d agree with both of your comments… I do think the EU is a big part of this. Which leads to a follow on, doesn’t the SNP support the Euro? BTW, one curiousity of Belfast is how telephone booths take both Euro and Pound. Small things, but straws in the wind.

Certainly Scottish independence would be a significant change. But then does it lead to say a loose ‘arrangement’ between Scotland, Ireland, the remains of Britain? Something like the SNP proposes where there is not quite a border say between Britain and Scotland but both are independent polities?

The RoI/NI seems to be leading the way there, although the dynamic is different in that some greater unity looks likely.

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8. Tom Griffin - July 14, 2007

You could argue that the loose arrangement already exists in the shape of the the British-Irish Council. Indeed, I’m not sure that by the SNP’s definition of a ‘social union,’ there isn’t a social union between Ireland and Britain.

Now that might seem a strange idea from an Irish point of view, but I think part of what the SNP are enaged in is talking up the extent of British-Irish links to counter the unionist rhetoric of ‘divorce’.

The institutional framework for a post-UK situation already exists, ironically thanks largely to David Trimble. It’s already beginning to operate, and as you say, its showing the extent of the common interests between the Republic and the North.

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9. WorldbyStorm - July 15, 2007

That’s very true Tom regarding the talking up of the SNP of the B/I links. Such an institutional framework is in place as you say.

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