Islands in the stream


Connect: Over the course of a few short years, the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia has grown into a vast database of knowledge, all contributed free by hundreds of thousands of people, many of them experts in their fields.

Given the way in which Wikipedia is put together, users should be careful about taking everything they find there at face value - there have been instances of deliberate misinformation and character assassination finding their way on to the site - but in general it's wonderful, and free.

However, there's no such thing as value-neutral information, and it can be fascinating to observe how entries are amended, annotated, argued over and extended by different factions. Controversy is currently raging over the entry for "The British Isles" (

Some argue that the phrase "British Isles" is objectionable to many Irish people, and that this should be reflected prominently in the Wikipedia entry. Furthermore, it is suggested that the word "British" confuses the many people not acquainted with the niceties of sovereignty in this part of the world. Some have even argued that, with independence, Ireland withdrew from the British Isles and therefore should no longer be considered part of them. This surely is taking things a bit far. It's one thing for the wind to shake the barley, quite another for it to detach a substantial landmass from its moorings. As with Éire/Ireland, there is at the core of the argument a fundamental confusion between the geographical, the constitutional and the cultural.

"These Islands", the preferred locution of politicians in this country, is embedded in the Belfast Agreement, but would hardly suffice as a dictionary entry. In fact, one imagines it must cause all sorts of difficulties when employed anywhere outside the archipelago, where presumably one must refer to "Those Islands". Imagine the conversation that follows: "Which Islands?" "Those Islands over there." "I can't see them. Where?" "On the other side of That Sea. Those Bloody Islands."

Regrettably, the Irish Times editorial stylebook is silent on this matter. It does, however, pronounce that the word Britain should be used to refer only to England, Scotland and Wales: "if Northern Ireland is included, the term is United Kingdom or UK." Even if this were constitutionally accurate, where does it leave the many people in Northern Ireland who proclaim themselves to be British (and simultaneously Irish)? Far be it from me to disagree with the stylebook mandarins, but surely the biggest island in the archipelago is actually called Great Britain? As Wikipedia helpfully points out, the full name of the UK is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. "This is the longest name for any world state," it drily observes. Typical.

Not surprisingly, Sinn Féin's Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, last year about the Government position on the term, and whether "its use by government agencies and the media in Britain was discouraged in any way by his department". Ahern replied: "The British Isles is not an officially recognised term in any legal or inter-governmental sense. It is without any official status. The government . . . does not use this term. Our officials in the Embassy of Ireland, London, continue to monitor the media in Britain for any abuse of the official terms as set out in the Constitution of Ireland and in legislation."

Note that the Minister did not suggest Government officials were wandering around the British media, hunting down miscreants who dared to use the dreaded phrase, as Ó Caoláin seems to desire. After all, apart from the Belfast Agreement, there's no particular reason to mention the British Isles in the Constitution, any more than there is to mention other geographical features such as the Gulf Stream (come to think of it, couldn't we just call them Islands in the Stream? That is what we are.)

The fact is that there is no other widely accepted term for the islands on which we live, and that we've always been happy to use it when it suits us or makes us feel good. Many of us remember learning that the Shannon was the longest river in the British Isles, and Lough Neagh the largest lake. We certainly need a phrase covering the region, and not just for geographical reasons.

We may be too close to appreciate the fact, but visitors to These Islands clearly see a shared identity. Some years ago, this newspaper's Rome correspondent, Paddy Agnew, clearly softened by years of La Dolce Vita, expressed horror at the junk-food-scoffing, beer-swilling uncouthness he encountered in Britain and Ireland thus: "The returned exile cannot help but notice a 'British Isles' cultural uniformity that would suggest that what 800 years of British oppression failed to achieve has been brought about in jig-time, courtesy of persistent showers of fivers of largely North American origin."

Though tempted, I have yet to plunge into the debate, being more of a wikivoyeur than a wikiparticipant. But, if we must find a new name, I may have a solution. After all, the islands in question are huddled around a body of water whose name is not questioned by anyone. Since that geographical feature is known as the Irish Sea, it seems only common sense to take the logical leap. Nobody, surely, could have any difficulty with the Irish Isles?

Eddie Holt is on leave