Policy must adapt as shape of UK shifts
WORLD VIEW: British-Irish relations face challenges over Scotland and two very different EU identities
IT IS just as well that official British-Irish relations are so good now, given the likely strains they will undergo in coming years as the euro survives or fails and as Scotland votes on whether to become independent from the United Kingdom.
Both of these processes present a real challenge in managing change for Irish (and British) policymakers. They demand the creation of a real Irish foreign policy towards Britain where previously the Northern Ireland conflict mainly drove it.
Bobby McDonagh, the Irish Ambassador in London, speaking in Dublin this week (see iiea.com), emphasised the joint statement signed in Downing Street on March 12th by Enda Kenny and David Cameron. The first such document not focused exclusively or primarily on Northern Ireland, its opening line indicates well the new spirit at work: “The relationship between our countries has never been stronger or more settled, as complex or as important, as it is today.”
The statement sets out a detailed schedule of economic, cultural and political co-operation over the next 10 years, including on Northern Ireland, the European Union and global issues. It notes shared (and divergent) interests, values and policies, promises a joint evaluation of economic relations, commits to closer official exchanges and annual summits, and pledges consultations on key EU policy issues. The strength of the modern British-Irish relationship, as McDonagh nicely put it, “is necessarily based on equality; not equality in size but in sovereignty, not equality in power but in dignity”.
Such consultation will be all the more needed after last week’s EU summit agreed to see a time-bound road map prepared for a “genuine economic and monetary union” and welcomed the euro zone leaders’ agreement to separate sovereign and bank debt. The Government justifiably regards this as endorsing its strategy of multilateral engagement based on full membership of the euro zone to reduce Ireland’s debt burden. The British want a federal euro to survive but cannot be part of it.
Ireland and Britain are going on different journeys, the one towards more integrated financial, budgetary and economic policy frameworks in the EU, the other increasingly towards a marginal role in that endeavour, perhaps even separation from it were a referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU to be put to its voters and passed.
Cameron’s readiness to consider a referendum on renegotiating terms of British EU membership opens him up to intense pressure from Tory Eurosceptics for an in/out one in the next parliament. Prolonged political uncertainty is assured either way.