Energy policy shift tests Anglo-Irish relationship

World View: Three-month window on wind energy deal

‘If one side can arbitrarily change the terms of agreed co-operation on energy, is it worth the effort involved?’. Above, British Prime Minister David Cameron and  Taoiseach Enda Kenny  outside No  10 Downing Street, London, this week.  Photograph: Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images

‘If one side can arbitrarily change the terms of agreed co-operation on energy, is it worth the effort involved?’. Above, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny outside No 10 Downing Street, London, this week. Photograph: Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images

Sat, Mar 15, 2014, 00:01

“I think we meet at a time when Anglo-Irish relations are at an all-time high”. So said David Cameron this week when he welcomed Enda Kenny to No 10 Downing Street for their third annual summit meeting. Their co-operation faces an important test case on wind energy and renewables following a shift of energy policy by the Conservative government which undermined capital intensive plans to export it from Ireland. They are to be reviewed over the next three months to see if they can be retrieved.

The joint statement on March 12th 2012 committed both sides to “an intensive programme of work aimed at reinforcing the British Irish relationship over the next decade”. It opened by saying “the relationship between our two countries has never been stronger or more settled, as complex or as important, as it is today.” A notable feature was the plan for secretary generals and permanent secretaries of each government’s departments to meet annually so that co-operation would be authoritatively pushed at the highest level.

So far energy, trade and visas have been the main topics of this joint work, but it can in principle be much more wide-ranging. The 2012 document mentions economic development and growth as centrally shared objectives, allowing for differing strengths and acknowledging competitive pressures between the two states and economies.

Agri-food, professional and financial services, creative industries like media and fashion, construction and immigration all figure. The Irish side has been wary that too close a liaison on agri-food might undermine its own brand image; but after a successful (and expensive) joint presence at the Singapore air show three more trade initiatives are to be taken. An important and difficult plan to allow Chinese and Indian visitors to the UK have visa free access to the Republic is under way.

Northern Ireland is dealt with in the joint statement, but not primarily, symbolising that the two states have their own bilateral interests which are now more prominent than they were from the 1970s to 1990s during the Troubles. Joint EEC/EU membership and relations with the US in that period allowed their relations to be gradually normalised into a complex interdependence, now allowing for mutual influence on each other’s policy according to this new regime of co-operation. The initiative is led from the Taoiseach’s office, not the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; it reflects Enda Kenny’s own priorities and the determination of senior civil servants on both sides to reinforce British-Irish relations arising from their own backgrounds.

But if one side can arbitrarily change the terms of agreed co-operation on energy, is it worth the effort involved? Does the asymmetry of scale and power not outweigh the commitment to co-operate? Allowance must be made for the volatility of British government policy on energy. It is confronted by nuclear and fracking alternatives to onshore or offshore wind, is unwilling to sustain agreed higher subsidies for Irish wind production, as Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte explained in an interview with this paper yesterday – and is under political pressure from the opposition’s commitment to freeze energy prices for 18 months if Labour wins next year’s general election. The Ukraine crisis reinforces this volatility.

Nonetheless a large commitment was made on the Irish side – in the face of vocal hostility from a growing Midlands protest movement against the impact of so many wind turbines (echoing the equally but earlier vocal shire one in England). It will be interesting to see whether what was scathingly referred to an Irish solution to a British problem will be retrieved in this three-month review. As Rabbitte said, “Maybe if the Cabinet office and Taoiseach’s department politically really wanted this to happen, maybe this will break the ice”.

On the face of it Cameron’s readiness to hold the review registers his understanding of the policy sensitivities involved. Both sides need a flexible structure of co-operation like this if they are to manage the interdependence that will be highlighted in President Michael D Higgins’s state visit to the UK next month and as they confront uncertainties such as that state’s future relations with the EU or the related debate on Scottish independence and devolution.

These latter issues highlight Ireland’s emerging role as a privileged interpreter of British policy to other European states unclear about what direction it will take as Ireland stays with the deepening eurozone. Alongside this role there is the need to ensure that closer British-Irish policy convergence and engagement does not make this state an agent rather than an interpreter of Britain.

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