How Ireland and the UK became closer than ever

Economically, politically and socially, Ireland and Britain have never had a better relationship

 Taoiseach Enda Kenny  meets British  Prime Minister David Cameron under a portrait of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street in 2011

Taoiseach Enda Kenny meets British Prime Minister David Cameron under a portrait of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street in 2011

Fri, Apr 4, 2014, 01:00

For more than 200 years, British ministers have sat at a long, oak table in 10 Downing Street, in a room lit by three brass chandeliers. History hangs heavily inside its walls. Looking out onto a rose garden, the Cabinet Room, in the shape it is seen today by ministers and officials, was finished in the late 1700s, just in time for the 1798 Rising.

In the centuries of debate that have taken place around the Cabinet table since, Ireland has frequently dominated: famine, rebellions, independence, two world wars.

For nearly 40 years, the Troubles consumed attention. In 1993, the room was itself nearly destroyed when an IRA mortar-bomb exploded in the garden just metres away.

Leaving the room together during the Anglo-Irish Treaty talks in 1921, FE Smith, Lord Birkenhead, said to Michael Collins: “I may have signed my political death warrant tonight.”

Collins, who would die within the year at Béal na mBláth, turned to Birkenhead and, in words that have resonated through the decades, said: “I may have signed my actual death warrant.”

On March 12th, Enda Kenny passed the four Corinthian columns that mark the entrance to the room to meet with British prime minister David Cameron, surrounded by nearly 40 ministers and officials.

It was an encounter that lacked the grand historical moment and it was the better for it.

Even in recent decades, such encounters between taoisigh and prime ministers would have been rare. When they did happen they would have been inevitably been dominated by Northern Ireland.

Last month, problems with plans to harvest wind energy from the Irish Midlands and sell it into the UK’s national grid featured high – an issue potentially worth billions but not one of life or death.

The thawing of British/Irish relations has been a long time in gestation; beginning in the early 1970s, perhaps when both joined the club that was to become the European Union.

Frequently, Ireland and Britain shared common interests, over trade, for example and in their preference for a lighter-touch regulation than Continental colleagues would have liked.

Certainly, there have been disagreements. The Irish have for years tucked in behind the French to defend the Common Agricultural Policy – a pet-hate of most British politicians and civil servants.

Nevertheless, the experience of agreement, where it has occurred, has helped to deepen relations – a point that explains the Irish fervour in wanting the UK to remain in the EU.

Meanwhile, decades of engagement about Northern Ireland – despite all of the arguments and temper-filled nights– helped to cement ties, even during some of the darkest hours.

So, too, have unsung bodies such as the British-Irish Association, which brought together politicians but – just as importantly, if not more so – officials, helping to break barriers between them.

Equally, Ireland’s economic growth has made it important to some in Britain in a way it never was when, to put it bluntly, the only exports of note were cattle and people.

In recent years, Irish diplomats in London, such as David Cooney, Bobby McDonagh and now Dan Mulhall, have taken every opportunity to drive home Ireland’s significance.

Each time it happens, as it did at a St Patrick’s Day celebration in the embassy this year, British audiences react with surprise when told that Ireland is the UK’s fifth largest export market.

“Britain sells more to Ireland than to China, India and Brazil combined: that is 5.5 per cent of everything that Britain sells abroad,” Mulhall told his guests last month. It never fails to impress.

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