What the future holds for British-Irish relations

Sat, Dec 22, 2007, 00:00

WorldView:Published in 2060, Peter Bew's two volume study of British-Irish relations from 2000 to 2030 captures two essential features of that critical historical period very well: the crucial effects of successive British political and constitutional crises on Ireland; and the paramount role that political contingency, choices between alternative paths and unintended consequences had in determining the long-term outcomes in both islands during those years.

The first volume, reviewed last week and entitled Stabilising Ireland and Unstable Britain 2000-2015, concentrates analytically and sequentially mostly on Ireland after the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Tracing how the unfolding settlement in the North created a dynamic for greater interaction with the Republic, it shows how at crucial points this was influenced by events in the larger island.

Northern unionism proved to be unprepared politically and intellectually for the disintegration of the UK's political regime following Tony Blair's departure in 2007. In concentrating so much on the threat from Irish nationalism, they underestimated the hollowing out of the British polity to which they had been so conspicuously loyal.

Scotland was pivotal for British and Irish developments. Alex Salmond crafted a remarkable deepening of support for independence from his hair's breadth victory in the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections. In the following 10 years he translated it into, first, an enduring majority in the 2010 and 2015 elections that displaced Labour's previous dominance there, and then into the famous referendum victory in 2017 that set the scene for negotiating Scotland's independence in 2018-20.

The logic of Scottish events played directly into the successful efforts of the Sinn Féin-DUP executive to deepen their devolution settlement - notably when they and Salmond secured fiscal autonomy to reduce corporation tax in 2009, notwithstanding the 2007 Varney report that rejected it. A weakening, irresolute Gordon Brown felt he had to concede that ahead of the 2010 elections after his campaign for a renewed Britishness proved such a damp squib in heading off the appeal of independence.

Scotland's experience gradually convinced Paisley and McGuinness, too, that their partnership would be more enduring if it was based on voluntary co-operation rather than the coercive powersharing imposed in 1998.

Bew's second volume, The Break-up of Britain and the Reunification of Ireland 2016-2030, shows us that Irish nationalism was just as unprepared for the tempestuous pace of change in British-Irish relations unleashed by these developments in Britain - a delicious historical irony.

The conventional wisdom in response to 1998 and 2007 was that British-Irish relations had normalised, symbolised by the extraordinary personal chemistry between Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair and by Queen Elizabeth's visit to Dublin in 2008. Political interaction on the East-West axis could be safely left to the inter-governmental and inter-parliamentary bodies set up by the Belfast Agreement.

For example, both Dublin and London said informal bodies like Encounter, set up in 1983 to further closer civil society relations between Britain and Ireland through regular conferences, should be discontinued as no longer necessary.

Besides, from Dublin's point of view, the sheer cost of Irish reunification was a major deterrent to any serious discussion of the subject. The Varney report put the annual subvention from the British exchequer at £7 billion (€9.6 billion), way beyond what Dublin could afford, especially during the 2008-9 recession. But in another irony, the decision to grant fiscal autonomy to the North sparked off the economic boom that reduced this sum to a much more manageable £4 billion by 2016 - recalling the transformation in the Republic's finances in the late 1980s and 1990s.

By the time it came to agreeing Irish reunification in the 2021 treaty, there was the extensive experience of Scotland's negotiations to draw upon, involving a trade-off of mobile financial resources against immobile geographical ones.

The Northern negotiators skilfully bargained between London, Dublin and Brussels for long-term transitional funding in the new Irish federation.

Northern attitudes to London and England had rapidly shifted after 2007. One impetus came from Brown's insistence on reducing the transfers to Scotland, Wales and the North when fiscal autonomy was conceded, as Varney warned would be necessary. The mean-spirited way in which those negotiations were conducted antagonised Paisley in particular. He found himself in growing solidarity with Salmond.

Their relationship prompted commentators to underline Paisley's own Northern Ireland "nationalism", in contrast to official unionism. Its emergence recalled the deeper historical antagonism between Presbyterian Ulster and the Anglican and Tory establishment whose own ethnic nationalism with its twin pillars of church and monarchy focused on England not Britain and repeatedly denied Irish nationalism and Catholicism a place in any British civic identity.

Anglo-Britain became ambiguously fused during the late 19th century, mediated by the construction of a state nationalism concealing itself as British patriotism in the heyday of empire. The passing of empire and then the hollowing out of post-war British institutions in the simultaneous privatisation and centralisation of the Thatcher/Blair years left the unionist formula stranded. More far-seeing Northern unionists like the former head of the civil service Kenneth Bloomfield began to put out feelers about Irish unity and whether the South was ready for it in 2007.

Bew sees that year as the beginning of a "critical juncture" in British-Irish relations. By this he means a period in which the normal ideological and cultural constraints on political action are significantly relaxed for a short time. This opens up the range of plausible choices for political leaders and makes their decisions more momentous. Unionism's reconciliation with Irish nationalism over those 30 years and the consequences for British-Irish relations is a remarkable case study of this phenomenon.

In his conclusion Bew quotes an illuminating essay on Ulster unionists' tense attitudes to England by the critic Edna Longley published in the Dublin Review (winter 2007-8). Surveying a host of books on changing identities in the UK she asked: "But is something over, or is it mutating?"

That remained an open question in 2007. There were alternatives to the outcomes analysed in these volumes. A comprehensive federalisation of the UK was a possible mutation, but centralist political leaders of both main parties resisted it so much that the opportunity passed. In a further irony, Ireland emerged as the federal laboratory, linked up to the deepening European Union.

Into the vacuum fell a resurgent Conservative Party to win the 2015 election on a platform of narrow-minded, Europhobe ethnic English nationalism that temporarily overwhelmed the civic traditions Brown sought to include in a new Britishness. The Tory victory proved a turning point for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It was only in the late 2020s that Labour recovered from that disaster, this time on the basis of a reconciliation with the EU. England's decision to rejoin it in 2030 boosted its international role and provides Bew with a neat concluding date to his study.