Is the Council of the Isles a paper-thin dream or a path to a new vision?

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THE PLANE soared to its zenith height, on a summer evening. And suddenly, far below me, I saw an archipelago: not states or nations, but the islands of the Atlantic which at present we call Britain and Ireland.

There was the North Sea and the Firth of Forth beneath the port wing. To the west glittered the Clyde estuary, and beyond it the hills of Antrim. A few minutes later the Solway gleamed ahead. The mountains of the Lake District caught the setting sun, and the same red light was touching the Mountains of Mourne across the Irish Sea.

The land down in the depths was growing dim. Nothing of this millennium showed. A tiny plume of smoke could have risen from a hill-fort of the Votadini, the Iron Age people who inhabited the Lothians. Somewhere down there, men who knew nothing of an England or a Scotland could be leading the plough-ox home from the field. A High King at Tara was listening to songs about Finn MacCumhal before retiring to his royal bed of straw.

The history that would lead to flags and frontiers, empires and partitions, to a bloody moorland outside Inverness and the flames of the Post Office in Dublin, seemed not to have begun. There were only people, and islands huddled together like neighbours.

There survives a feeling that the islands must somehow, in spite of that history, belong together. It is a dream, but a powerful dream. It stirred again last week, when the British and Irish governments issued their "Heads of Agreement", a tentative design to be offered to the all-party talks in Northern Ireland. In that paper was the proposal for an intergovernmental council, a "Council of the Isles". It would bring together not only the governments in London and Dublin but representatives of the future Scottish and Welsh parliaments and of the planned Northern Irish Assembly.

The dream is an old one. It has been put forward in recent years in many forms, and with very different - even mutually contradictory - motives. Last week's version was, I think, the first time that any government has put forward the notion of a supranational institution to link the British and Irish islands. But it is a pretty feeble version, all the same.

The "Council of the Isles " would be little more than a counter-weight to other points in the Heads of Agreement. The document follows the outline of the scheme drawn up by David Trimble, leader of the Official Unionists, and published in the London press a few days before. Trimble also suggested a "council of the islands" to include Scottish and Welsh members. The Irish and British governments adopted it in the hope that it would reconcile Unionists to the proposal for a "North-South Ministerial Council". That would give Dublin a say in "promoting co-operation" between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The Council of the Isles would supposedly strengthen the "east-west" links that matter so desperately to Unionists. Its mere existence would reassure them that Northern Ireland was part of an all-British process of devolution to local parliaments or assemblies. But an institution has to do something more than merely exist. And here fog descends.

Mr Trimble says that it should have no executive power. The Heads of Agreement suggest that the council could meet twice a year "at summit level", and could deal with "the totality of relationships".

What does that mean? Nobody seems to have the faintest idea. "Totality of relationships" is a squidgy old phrase, invented by Northern Irish civil servants. It comes in handy when Unionists get agonised about the possibility that Dublin will have a say in Ulster affairs. "Cheer up, Mr Trimble (or Paisley or Maginnis), the totality of relationships will always be under British control."

A second version is the "Council of Islands of Britain and Ireland", pushed for some time now by Professor Richard Kearney of Dublin and the English political writer Simon Partridge. They are European regionalists, who long to dump nation- states in the dustbin of history. They would defuse the Northern Ireland problem by dissolving British and Irish sovereignty into a regional association of islands. A "Council of the Isles" would recognise the intimate connections between British and Irish societies, as opposed to the political separation of their states.

Kearney and Partridge think that a council would diminish nationalist ambitions. But the Scottish National Party are interested for exactly the opposite reason. Allan McCartney MEP has argued for an "Association of States of the British Isles", within the European Union, because it would give a regional base to the foreign policy of an independent Scotland. Like Kearney and Partridge, he admires the Nordic Council, which brings together the Scandinavian states and also their autonomous region - territories like the Aland islands, the Faroes and Greenland.

Everyone, in short, wants a body like this as a means to an end, a prop for their own agendas. But nobody loves the "Council of the Isles " for itself. Its fusty little destiny is all too easy to picture. Every six months, unwilling politicians will drag themselves to Stormont, spend 20 minutes over Nescafe and digestive biscuits, and announce that the condition of the peace process is satisfactory. After a bit the council will meet only once a year until one day, unnoticed by anyone, a civil servant will strangle it in its sleep.

But perhaps somebody with vision will rescue the Council of the Isles and use it as it really ought to be used. Suppose, for a mad moment, that "the totality of relationships" actually means just what it says! Suppose that the council took supreme command of the future partnership between the three nations of Britain and the two parts of Ireland! Far more powerful than the Nordic Council, it would lay down a new constitutional order for the whole archipelago.

First on its agenda would be the extraction of England from "Britain". No association of islands, let alone a United Kingdom, can work if the biggest member has no parliament of its own. Ireland, Scotland and Wales would then become equal partners with England, post-national states whose sovereignty would be gradually pooled in the European Union. Northern Ireland would be their joint responsibility, until it became an autonomous Euro region looking to Brussels rather than London or Dublin. England would still be more populous than all the other partners put together, but the council might soon be fostering the step-by-step devolution of England into self-governing regions around a southern heartland.

The catch in all these fantasies is not to do with London or Belfast or Cardiff. It is in Dublin that the politicians, studying "councils of the islands", sometimes shiver at the touch of an imperial ghost. Did the Irish people spend centuries fighting for independence, only to return to a British-dominated orbit? Did Ireland spend decades gaining its brilliant new "European" identity, only to be outnumbered and bossed around by England and its satellites?

There are two ways to lay that ghost. One, the abject way, is to persuade Dublin that the Council of the Isles is a mere decoration which does nothing. The other is to press even further ahead with the transformation of the British state. When the Irish understand that a Scottish or Welsh government can make external policy of its own, and is not bound to follow London's lead, the whole atmosphere will relax. In a council of equals where none can dominate, there can be peace between the islands and even peace within the islands.

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