There was considerable excitement in Ireland, North and South, about the setting up of the North-South Ministerial Council earlier this month, representing as it did the nationalist aspiration for closer ties between the sundered parts of the country. Less was said about the implementation of that other provision of the Good Friday agreement, the British-Irish Council, which brought together the peoples of the British Isles. It was generally viewed as a sop to Unionists, who, the thinking goes, will feel more secure with a vehicle that explicitly recognizes the British dimension.
Ironically, the British-Irish Council might well have the opposite affect to that intended. On the first meeting, Unionists had to share the limelight with representatives of the parliaments and assemblies not only from Scotland and Wales, but from the Isle of Man, and the islands of Guernsey and Jersey. They had to listen as speaker after speaker celebrated and spoke proudly of their autonomy from London and English rule. The strangeness of Unionism and its demands for closer ties with Britain must have been apparent to all. Thanks to the council, it may well become apparent to Unionists also as time passes.
The BIC has the power to make Unionists realize that in the modern British context they are swimming against the current, which is flowing strongly in the direction of devolved powers and looser ties with the sovereign parliament in London. That is, it could become a forum for the expression of the different cultural identities that make up the notion of being British — the Scots, the Welsh, the Manx, among others. In the coming century, these identities will probably take on a stronger role, superseding the "British" identity.
Traditional unionism, like republicanism, will be confronted by an identity crisis that could transform it as it comes to terms with the realities of the new Britain, and the new Ireland.