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Monday 2 October 2023 Dublin: 11°C
One possible way of viewing the islands. Black line in center leading right denotes the Isle of Man.
# geopolitics
Complex politics or simple geography: Is Ireland part of the British Isles?
A topic where geography and politics are completely intertwined, we looked at it from the two viewpoints to see how the term is used.

FOR SOME IT is a question of politics, for others a question of geography.

Whether or not those little islands off the western coast of Europe should be referred to collectively as the British Isles is something sure to spark debate wherever it is brought up.

On one side of the argument, it’s said that it is a politically benign term and simply the handiest way to refer to the Atlantic Archipelago. We’ve come a long way since 1916, right?

Others say that no, that when the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 came into effect, we left the Commonwealth and so ceased to be in any way British. Why would we want to be called British after years of trying to get away from them?

After some heated discussion in the comments section last weekend, decided to see if this argument can be put to bed once and for all.

The Brytish Iles

The first use of the term “British Isles”, recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary, was in 1577.

John Dee, a mathematician and something of a polymath, used the term in a possessive sense, in whatever he was trying to get at here:

“The syncere Intent, and faythfull Aduise, of Georgius Gemistus Pletho, was, I could..frame and shape very much of Gemistus those his two Greek Orations..for our Brytish Iles, and in better and more allowable manner. ”

It’s important to remember that he probably didn’t create this term, and that he was also quite close to the Queen.

imageA map of the islands from 1579, portrayed in a different orientation than what we’re used to. (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

View of the Department of Foreign Affairs

Let’s forget about John’s 400-year-old ramblings, and see what our current government have to say on this matter.

Responding to questions from, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) stated that the two islands are commonly called “Britain and Ireland”.

The government’s position is the same as outlined in a Parliamentary Question from 2005, which was pointed out by commenter Alan Lawlor in the discussion last week. The answer was given by then-Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern to TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.

The TD had asked for the government or DFA position on “the use of the term British Isles when referring to Ireland and Britain”:

The British Isles is not an officially recognised term in any legal or inter-governmental sense. It is without any official status. The Government, including the Department of Foreign Affairs, does not use this term.

Of course, that presents a difficulty. Sometimes you have to refer to the islands together.

Addressing the British Irish Association in Cambridge this year, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore had to do just that:

Two years ago I had the honour of welcoming Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to Ireland. I did so at an airfield named for Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist executed in 1916 for treason against the British state. Knighted previously by the crown, Roger Casement embodies the complexity and closeness of relations between these islands.

“These islands” is a common diplomatic way to describe the islands. The DFA cited The Good Friday Agreement as a notable example of this, in which the term “British Isles” is avoided completely and “these islands” used when needed.

The DFA also added that they were not aware of any recent usage of the term “British Isles” by a British Government Minister. Just last week the Northern Irish Secretary of State Theresa Villers spoke to the British-Irish inter-Parliamentary Assembly where such terminology would been rife.

Instead of referring to the islands themselves, she avoided the risky topic by referring to the governments instead:

In recent years your focus has rightly extended beyond the consideration of Northern Ireland affairs to look at the benefits of broader and deeper co-operation between the UK and Irish governments. Both governments take that goal very seriously and it was embodied in the joint statement on the next decade of UK-Irish relations which was made by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in March last year.

On the map

Some will argue that we should forget the politics and simply look at it from a geographic sense.

Having been in use for more than 400 years, the term has stuck around, with even a quick Google search revealing that most maps fitting the description of “British Isles” contain Ireland, showing that it still serves as a way to describe the two islands.


(Image Credit: Google Image Search)

We contacted the main authority for map-making in Ireland, the Ordnance Survey (OS) of Ireland, but they declined to comment fully on the issue, saying that they “have no need to, nor would we use term British Isles”.

While our OS are not in the business of making maps which include the United Kingdom, a publication on their website, to which they contributed to along with their Northern Irish and UK counterparts and two universities, uses the phrase “the British Isles and Ireland“.

On the other side of the Irish Sea, the British OS addresses the issue on their website, stating that:

["British Isles"] is purely a geographical term – it refers to the islands of Great Britain and Ireland – including the Republic of Ireland – and the 5000 or so smaller islands scattered around our coasts.


Since the term is quite common, is there a point in referring to the British Isles in any other way? Is it akin to saying hoover instead of vacuum cleaner?

Professor of Geopolitics at NUI Maynooth Gerry Kearns explained that it is very difficult to take the politics out of it completely.

“Whenever someone refers to all those islands off the coast of Europe as the British Isles,” he told, “they are engaged in some unconscious anglo-centrism.”

“However, as far back as the Act of Union in 1800, which brought Ireland into the United Kingdom, even then it was referred to as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”.

More than two hundred years after Mr Dee called them the British Isles, the government of the day still decided to include “and Ireland”.

What’s your say on it?

This is not an argument that can be put to bed easily. Some will agree with the government’s view that the name “British Isles” has no legal status. Others will agree with the British Ordnance Survey and say that it is a purely geographic term. What do you think?

Have your say in the comments below (but please, keep it constructive and civilised).

The comedian’s angle: A guide to Britain and Ireland >

More: 14 ways Irish people have made English their own >

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