Politics in the British Isles describes the multilateral and bilateral relationships and the political, economic and cultural interchanges between the countries in the British Isles.


Today, the British Isles contain two sovereign states: the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. There are also three Crown dependencies: Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man, which are not part of the United Kingdom, although the United Kingdom maintains responsibility for certain affairs such as defense, on behalf of the British crown.

The United Kingdom may be further broken down into four constituent countries: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Each of these countries bears its own history, with all but Northern Ireland having been independent states at one point. The History of the formation of the United Kingdom is very complex.

The British monarch was head of state of all of the countries of the British Isles from the Union of the Crowns in 1603 until the enactment of the Republic of Ireland Act in 1949.

Government structure

Heads of State and Heads of Government

File:British Isles - UK & Ireland.png
Country Head of state Head of government or Head of devolved government Government status
Ireland President of Ireland Taoiseach Sovereign constitutional republic
United Kingdom Monarchy of the United Kingdom Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Sovereign constitutional monarchy
--Wales Monarchy of the United Kingdom First Minister of Wales Constituent country of the UK with devolved government
--England Monarchy of the United Kingdom n/a Constituent country of the UK (no devolved government)
--Northern Ireland Monarchy of the United Kingdom First Minister and deputy First Minister Constituent country of the UK with devolved government
--Scotland Monarchy of the United Kingdom First Minister of Scotland Constituent country of the UK with devolved government
Bailiwick Guernsey Monarchy of the United Kingdom Chief Minister of Guernsey Crown dependency with independent parliament (no rep in UK Parliament)[1]
Isle of Man Monarchy of the United Kingdom Chief Minister of the Isle of Man Crown dependency with independent parliament (no rep in UK Parliament)
Bailiwick of Jersey Monarchy of the United Kingdom Chief Minister of Jersey Crown dependency with independent parliament (no rep in UK Parliament)

Government structure

Devolution in the United Kingdom has been undertaken to provide certain powers to following devolved governments: Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.

The crown dependencies of Guernsey, the Isle of Man and Jersey form part of the British Islands. They are not part of the United Kingdom and although the dependencies are British possessions of the Crown, and are not sovereign nations in their own right, the power to pass legislation affecting the islands ultimately rests with their own respective legislative assemblies, with the assent of the Crown (Privy Council, or in the case of the Isle of Man in certain circumstances the Lieutenant-Governor).[2] In 2005, Jersey followed the Isle of Man and Guernsey in creating the role of Chief Minister to serve as the island's head of government.

Ireland is a sovereign constitutional republic, governed as a parliamentary democracy.

Intergovernmental bodies

The following is a summary of the intergovernmental bodies in the British Isles (note: this list does not include bodies that exist solely in the United Kingdom)

Organization Purpose Members
British-Irish Council multilateral cooperation on areas of joint interest Ireland, United Kingdom, Scotland, Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, Wales, Northern Ireland
British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly Foster understanding between parliamentarians Ireland, United Kingdom, Scotland, Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, Wales, Northern Ireland
British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference bilateral cooperation Ireland, United Kingdom
Irish Sea Region [1] Joint planning for use of the Irish sea Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man
North-South Ministerial Council whole-island cooperation for Ireland Ireland, Northern Ireland
Ireland Wales Programme [2] body that implements EU regional development projects Ireland, Wales

Multilateral relations

The main body for multilateral relations in the British Isles, as of 1998, is the British–Irish Council. The British-Irish Council (BIC) is an international organisation[3] established under the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Its membership comprises representatives from:

The Council formally came into being on 2 December 1999. Its stated aim is to "promote the harmonious and mutually beneficial development of the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands". The BIC has a standing secretariat, located in Edinburgh, Scotland, and meets in bi-annual summit session and regular ministerial meetings.[4]

Some researchers have compared the British-Irish council to similar multilateral bodies amongst the Nordic countries: the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers.[5]

British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly

In addition to the council, there is also the British–Irish Parliamentary Assembly (BIPA), a deliberative body consisting of members of legislative bodies in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the British crown dependencies. Its purpose is to foster common understanding between elected representatives from these jurisdictions.

The assembly consists of members of the Parliament of the United Kingdom and the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament) as well as five representatives from the Scottish Parliament, five from the National Assembly for Wales, five from the Northern Ireland Assembly, and one each from the States of Jersey, the States of Guernsey and the Tynwald of the Isle of Man.

Common travel area

Various multilateral arrangements over the years have led to the development of the Common Travel Area, a passport-free zone that comprises the islands of Ireland, Great Britain, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The area's internal borders are subject to minimal or non-existent border controls and can normally be crossed by Irish and British citizens with only minimal identity documents,[6]

Bilateral relations

The relationship between the two sovereign states in the Isles, Ireland and the United Kingdom, has a long and complex history, outlined in Ireland–United Kingdom relations.

Numerous other bilateral relations exist between the various countries in the archipelago, including between Ireland and the devolved governments of the United Kingdom. One important body is the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) [7] a body established under the Good Friday Agreement to co-ordinate activity and exercise certain governmental powers across the whole island of Ireland. The Council takes the form of meetings between ministers from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and is responsible for twelve policy areas. Six of these areas are the responsibility of corresponding North/South Implementation Bodies.

The Republic of Ireland has also established bilateral relations with three countries of the Crown dependencies: the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey.

Ireland has also established bilateral relationships with Wales and Scotland. The Irish and Welsh government are collaborating on various economic development projects through the auspices of the Ireland Wales Programme, funded by the European Union.[8]

International relations

Due to the complex political nature of the countries in the isles, their engagement with other multilateral bodies is complex as well.

Country United Nations European Union Commonwealth of Nations
United Kingdom Member Member Member
Isle of Man  ? Not a member/ can participate in free movement of goods Not a member; participates as member of the Commonwealth parliamentary association
Jersey  ? Not a member; Within common customs tariff; allowed to participate in EEC market; other EU measures do not apply Not a member; participates as member of the Commonwealth parliamentary association[9]
Guernsey Not a member; many UN treaties are extended to cover the island  ? Not a member; participates as member of the Commonwealth parliamentary association
Ireland Member Member Not a member (left in 1949)

Joint projects

A number of large-scale joint projects amongst the various countries in the Isles have been undertaken, often around infrastructure and energy. For example, the governments of Ireland, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are collaborating on the ISLES project, which will facilitate the development of offshore renewable energy sources, such as wind, wave and tidal energy, and renewable energy trade between Scotland, Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.[10] Through the auspices of the British-Irish council, Ministers from all countries have agreed to work on energy cooperation[11]

Isle of Man and Ireland are also planning the development of renewable energy sources, including sharing costs for the development of a wind farm off the coast of the Isle of Man.[12] A wider collaboration is also planned, with Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man, and Ireland, to leverage the strong tidal currents around the Channel Islands.[13]

An intergovernmental collaboration platform called the Irish Sea Region has also been set up, managed by the Dublin regional authority. The platform links the governments of Ireland, Isle of Man, the UK, and various local jurisdictions, in order to collaborate on planning for development of the Irish sea and bordering areas.[14]

In 2004, a natural gas interconnection agreement was signed, linking Ireland with Scotland via the Isle of Man.[15]

Political movements

An important political movement in several countries in the Isles is British unionism, an ideology favoring the continued union of the United Kingdom. It is most prevalent in Scotland, England, and Northern Ireland. British unionism has close ties to British nationalism. Another movement is Loyalism, which manifests itself as loyalism to the British Crown.

The converse of unionism, Nationalism, is also an important factor for politics in the Isles. Nationalism can take the form of Welsh nationalism, Cornish_nationalism, English nationalism, Scottish nationalism, Ulster nationalism, or independence movements in the Isle of Man or Channel Islands.[16]

Pan-Celticism is also a movement which is present in several of the countries which have a celtic heritage.

There are no major political parties that are present in all of the countries, but several Irish parties such as Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail have won elections in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and both of these parties have established offices in Britain in order to raise funds and win additional supporters.[17]


Identity is intertwined with politics, especially in the case of nationalism and independence movements. Details on identity formation in the British Isles can be found at Britishness, Scottish identity, Irish_people#Irish_Identity.

Devolution and independence


Ireland was partitioned in 1922, and the southern 26 counties seceded from the United Kingdom. Since the passage in 1949 of the Republic of Ireland Act, the Republic of Ireland is no longer part of the commonwealth and does not recognize the British Monarchy as head of state.


In 1997, following referendums in Scotland, Wales, and both parts of Ireland, a range of powers were transferred to devolved governments in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Discussions about greater degrees of independence are still ongoing, and one particular solution, called "devo-max" has been proposed by Scottish leader Alex Salmond. The SNP leadership are now studying the Isle of Man and the Channel islands as extant example of quasi-independent governance in the British isles: "This is a real and practical example of 'devo max' in action," Mr Gibson told the Times. "It should crystallise plans for 'devo max' and show it can work within the British Isles."</blockquote>[18]

Crown dependencies

There have been discussions within some of the Crown dependencies about greater independence from the Crown, but they have not yet gained strong popular or governmental support.[19]

Immigration and emigration

Irish migration to Great Britain is an important factor in the politics and labour markets of the Isles. Irish people have been the largest minority group in Britain for centuries, regularly migrating across the Irish Sea. From the earliest recorded history to the present, there has been a continuous movement of people between the islands of Ireland and Great Britain due to their proximity. This tide has ebbed and flowed in response to politics, economics and social conditions of both places. As of the 2011 census, there were 869,000 Irish-born residents in the United Kingdom.[20]

Citizenship and citizens rights

Due to the close historical connections between the isles, a number of special citizenship and voting rules apply. For example, Irish citizens resident in the UK can vote and stand in any UK elections; UK citizens resident in Ireland can vote or stand in European and Local Elections, vote in parliamentary elections, but not vote or stand in Presidential elections or referendums.

Scholarship of the Atlantic archipelago

The recent trend of using an archipelago perspective in scholarship of history, politics and identity was initiated by historian J. G. A. Pocock in the 1970s. He pressed his fellow historians to reconsider two issues linked to the future of British history. First, he urged historians of the British Isles to move away from histories of the Three Kingdoms (Scotland, Ireland, England) as separate entities,[21] and he called for studies implementing a bringing-together or conflation of these national narratives into truly integrated enterprises. Pocock proposed the term Atlantic archipelago to avoid the contested British isles. It has since become the commonplace preference of historians to treat British history in just this fashion (e.g. Hugh Kearney's The British Isles: A History of Four Nations or Norman Davies The Isles: A History).[22]

In recent times, Richard Kearney has been an important scholar in this space, through his works for example on a Postnationalist Archipelago.[23] While Kearney's work has been noted by many as important for understanding of modern Irish politics and identity, some have also argued that his approach can be applied to the archipelago as a whole: "Scholars and critics have noted the importance of Kearney's work on post-nationalism for Irish studies and politics. However, less attention has been paid to its implications for discussions and debates beyond the Irish Sea. In this context, Kearney's writings can be viewed as part of a broader intellectual landscape in which national identity, nationalism, and possibly postnationalism are at the center of political and intellectual discussions in the Isles. I say the Isles here, rather than simply Britain, because re-imagining the component parts of Britain, or more precisely the United Kingdom, entails reconfiguring the relationships in the entire archipelago."[24] Kearney's ideas and thinking were important in the lead-up to the Good Friday Agreement, and he was an early proponent of what eventually became the British-Irish Council.[25][26][27]

The University of Exeter in the UK and the Moore Institute at the National University of Ireland, Galway started in October 2010 the Atlantic Archipelago Research Project, which purports to "take an interdisciplinary view on how Britain’s post-devolution state inflects the formation of post-split Welsh, Scottish and English identities in the context of Ireland’s own experience of partition and self-rule; Consider the significance of this island grouping to the understanding of a Europe that exists in a range of configurations; from large scale political union, to provinces, dependencies, and micro-nationalist regions (such as Cornwall), each with their contribution and presence; Reconsider relations across our island grouping in light of issues regarding the management and use of the environment."[28]

Other important strands of scholarship include research on identity, especially Britishness and Irish identity, and studies of the major political movements, such as nationalism and unionism.

See also

Politics of the countries in the British Isles


  1. Richard Young. The Scope of Guernsey's Autonomy in Law and Practice. Jersey Legal Information Board.
  2. Profile of Jersey. States of Jersey. Retrieved on 2008-07-31. “The legislature passes primary legislation, which requires approval by The Queen in Council, and enacts subordinate legislation in many areas without any requirement for Royal Sanction and under powers conferred by primary legislation.”[dead link]
  3. Jesse, Neal G., Williams, Kristen P.: Identity and institutions: conflict reduction in divided societies.Publisher: SUNY Press, 2005, page 107. ISBN 0-7914-6451-2
  4. "Scottish government website"
  5. Qvortrup, M and Hazell, R (1998). The British-Irish Council: Nordic Lessons for the Council of the Isles. University College London. 
  6. Common Travel Area between Ireland and the United Kingdom. Citizens Information Board. Retrieved on 12 August 2011.
  7. North-South Ministerial Council: 2010 Yeirlie Din. North/South Ministerial Council (2010).
  8. Ireland Wales Programme 2007 - 2013. Retrieved on May 24, 2012.
  10. McWilliams, Patrick (2011-05-18). "Irish-Scottish Links on Energy Study (ISLES)" (PDF). All Energy 2011. Scottish Government. Retrieved 2011-11-11. </noinclude>
  11. Andrew Woodcock (20 June 2011). "'ALL-ISLANDS' ENERGY PLAN AGREED". Press Association National Newswire. 
  12. Isle of Man to share wind farm cost with Ireland?. (June 21, 2011).
  13. "British Isles deal on channel Islands Renewable Energy". Indiainfoline News Service. 3 August 2011. 
  14. Irish Sea Region. Retrieved on May 24, 2012.
  15. Agreement relating to the Transmission of Natural Gas through a Second Pipeline between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Ireland and through a Connection to the Isle of Man. September 24, 2004. 
  16. "Ministers 'must prepare for Jersey independence'". This is Jersey. 21st January 2010. 
  17. Political parties to build links with Irish in Britain (17 February 2012).
  18. Hamish MacDonnell (November 8, 2011). "Does the Isle of Man have answers to Scotland’s ‘devo max’ dilemma?". Caledonian Mercury. Retrieved May 25, 2012. 
  19. Simon Tostevin (9 July 2008). "Independence: Islanders don't want it, says Trott". Guernsey Evening Press. 
  20. Census home: Office for National Statistics
  21. Pocock, The Discovery of Islands, 77–93.
  22. Pocock, "British History: a Plea for a New Subject," 22–43 (1975); "The Field Enlarged: an Introduction," 47–57; and "The Politics of the New British History," 289–300, in The Discovery of Islands. See also "The Limits and Divisions of British History: in Search of the Unknown Subject," American Historical Review 87:2 (Apr. 1982), 311–36; "The New British History in Atlantic Perspective: an Antipodean Commentary," American Historical Review 104:2 (Apr. 1999), 490–500.
  23. Kearney, Richard (2006). "Chapter 1: Towards a Postnationalist Archipelago". Navigations: Collected Irish Essays, 1976-2006. Syracuse University Press. ISBN 9780815631262. 
  24. Peter Gratton, John Panteleimon Manoussakis, Richard Kearney (2007). Peter Gratton, John Panteleimon Manoussakis. ed. Traversing the Imaginary: Richard Kearney and the Postmodern Challenge. Northwestern University studies in phenomenology & existential philosophy. Northwestern University Press. p. 61. ISBN 9780810123786. 
  25. Peter Gratton, John Panteleimon Manoussakis, Richard Kearney (2007). Peter Gratton, John Panteleimon Manoussakis. ed. Traversing the Imaginary: Richard Kearney and the Postmodern Challenge. Northwestern University studies in phenomenology & existential philosophy. Northwestern University Press. pp. 61-75. ISBN 9780810123786. 
  26. Richard Kearney Curriculum Vitae.
  27. Barry Collins (Winter, 2002). "The Belfast Agreement and the Nation that "Always Arrives at Its Destination."". Int'l L. Rev. (385). 
  28. Atlantic Archipelagos Research Project (AARP).

Further reading

  • Nicholas Aylott, Iain Ogilvie, John Barry (2003). The Politics of the British Isles: A Comparative Introduction. Sage Pubs. ISBN 978-0761969600. 
  • Davies, Norman (1999). The Isles, A History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513442-7. 
  • Tompson, Richard S. E. (1986). The Atlantic archipelago: A political history of the British Isles. Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen Press. ISBN 0889464553. 
  • Norquay, Glenda; Smyth, Gerry, eds. (2002). Across the Margins: Cultural Identity and Change in the Atlantic Archipelago. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. ISBN 9780719057496. 

External links

British Isles
Political cooperation
Island groups
Lists of islands of
Island groups
Current states
Former states
Modern languages
Scottish Gaelic
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