A tale of two islands, in which one has a worrying delusion

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The Irish hate it when the British refer to their own island as "the mainland". It is one of many British ways - most of them unintentional - of getting up Irish noses.

Some ways are political. For example, it is difficult to persuade people in London that the Irish don't really agree that Europe will only come to its senses if forced to eat mad cows. "Of course they agree. I mean, after all, at the end of the day when the chips are down, they are to all intents and purposes sort of part and parcel, let's face it..."

This feeling of being taken for granted, and with such lordly assurance, is the feeling of a fly being taken by a fish. Much the same feeling recurs around the "peace process", now about to be resumed without peace. The British keep telling Republicans, in the loud and patient tones reserved for idiots, that unilateral disarmament is the only way to effective peace negotiations. When Dublin officials murmur that this principle has no recorded success in history (what have British leaders from Aneurin Bevan to Michael Portillo always said about going naked into conference chambers?), they get the icy glare reserved for idiots who have forgotten their lines. Britain knows best.

It is hard to start gnawing away arrogance at its thick end. I would like to start at a modest part of the problem: political geography. An Irish friend told me last week that he had rebuked an American publisher for maps showing Ireland as part of the British Isles. "But we make clear that our captions have no political significance," came the reply. "Fine," said my friend. "Then you can call it a map of the Irish Isles."

This use of the word "mainland" to mean Britain seems perfectly normal to people on this side of the water. But on the other side, it is found imperial and infuriating.

Again, this will surprise many excellent people with the best of goodwill towards Ireland. What have the Irish got against the term? After all, this is a larger island with a lot more people, and... well, a bit nearer the centre of things.

The Scots, I have to say, are just as blind to Irish sensibility about this. I remember talking about the "mainland" in a debate in Belfast a few years ago, and being ticked off afterwards. Such a reaction is by no means confined to the South. Look at Maurice Craig, the great recorder of Dublin's architecture. He was raised in Protestant Belfast, but in his memoir The Elephant and the Polish Question (which is all about elephants and the Irish question) he explodes against "the exquisitely ludicrous calling of an offshore island 'the mainland".

He goes on to suggest that the expression is new, emerging in the media in about 1972. "It is easy to see how this absurdity came about. The British are nearly all too ignorant or too lazy to remember that 'the United Kingdom' as at present constituted consists of Britain and the six counties of 'Northern Ireland': So they use the term 'Britain' when they mean the UK. Even more absurdly, there are signs that the terms 'Britain' and 'the UK' have sometimes changed places. I have seen instances of mentions of relations or travel between 'Ulster' and 'the UK', which is doubly nonsensical; and for years we have had to endure the sloppy use of 'Britain' to mean 'Britain and Ireland'."

Mr Craig's central point is dead right. Britain is the island, while the United Kingdom is the state which includes part of another island. Getting that right - forcing it down the necks of schoolchildren and journalists - would be a step towards resolving the frightful confusion about political, cultural and ethnic identities which fogs England above all but which also clouds thought in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. For even the Irish are not as lucid here as they pretend. All those internal quotation marks amount to wisps of steam on Maurice Craig's own spectacles. He is steamed up not only about mainlands but also about terms like "United Kingdom" and "Northern Ireland", for reasons which unfortunately he does not go into. Anyway, what has the distinction between Britain and the UK got to do with the wrongness of calling Britain the mainland?

The answer is: nothing. But "mainland" is wrong and mad for two other reasons. First, it carries suffocatingly imperial assumptions about superiority, in which Britain is a continent entire in itself and Ireland just a coastal isle like Sark or South Uist. As for the second reason, Maurice Craig put his finger on it when he observed that Britain was itself an offshore island. Europe is our mainland. To think otherwise is to share that Continent of Britain delusion which can only lead to fever, convulsions and disaster.

Ever since Irish Independence and Partition, more than 70 years ago, ingenious souls have tried to "overcome the division". Some simply seek to reunite Ireland, by ballot box or bomb. Others have offered wider schemes for some association between these offshore islands.

The European Commission once floated the idea of a "North European Archipelago". Simon Partridge, who loves regions and loathes nation-states, has designed what he calls a "Bretanic" cluster of self-governing regions in which several post-Irish entities and a place called "Caledonia" would co-exist with a chopped-up England. Allan McCartney MEP, a leading figure in the Scottish National Party, would like to see an Association of States of the British Isles, on the Nordic Council model, to include Ireland, and independent Scotland and England, plus a devolved Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles.

There are some attractions in all this map-making. One, which Professor Richard Kearney of Dublin is keen on, is that Northern Ireland could be turned into a sort of Euro-region whose political allegiance would be to Brussels rather than to either Dublin or London. But the problem with many schemes is that they do not get rid of the "mainland" question. Why should Ireland, whose mainland is now Europe, join an association in which England - even shorn of Scotland - is bound to predominate because it has about five times as big a population as all the other members? The Partridge Plan would solve this by abolishing England, but I don't think the English would like that.

Here Germany has something to teach us. This united Germany, with 80 million people, is too big and powerful to be a controllable partner in a Europe of nation-states. If European integration now stops, Germany will become the dominant member (the "mainland") of a constellation of central and eastern European states. But this would be a revival of Germany's old imperial control of that region, and it would destabilise the whole continent.

Luckily, Chancellor Kohl sees this danger. He is working to dissolve German sovereignty into a full European union with up to two dozen members. In this way, the Czechs and the Hungarians, the Slovaks and the Slovenians, can all reconstruct the access they once enjoyed to the huge resources of their German neighbour without again becoming political colonies of Berlin. All nation states will have surrendered much of their power, and this means that small countries will be able to associate with a big country without fearing that they will be reduced to dependent Bantustans.

Small countries must beware of the imperial wolf hiding inside the regional sheep's clothing. The way to tell is to listen closely to the words which the alleged sheep uses to describe his plans, and then scan them for traces of wolfish syntax. These islands still have elements of a common culture, and the idea of a new, open league between them is a noble one. But as long as one island thinks it is a mainland the other one is well advised to go on keeping its distance.