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j.1477 7053.1999.tb00482.x.pdf


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288

GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION

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
I

Cm.3883, 1998.