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A decade after queen’s visit, where are Anglo-Irish relations heading?

Brexit drove wedge between Dublin and London and left both sides feeling betrayed

When Micheál Martin and Boris Johnson sat down to lunch at Chequers on Friday, they faced a busy agenda of current crises, from the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol to dealing with the legacy of the Troubles. But perhaps the biggest problem the two leaders faced is the crisis of confidence between the two governments and the deterioration of the British-Irish relationship in recent years.

Almost 10 years to the day after Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland appeared to open an new chapter in the history of the two islands, there is little left of the optimism of those four days in May 2011.

"It was a much more touch-and-go thing in advance than it appeared afterwards," recalls Julian King, Britain's ambassador to Ireland during the queen's visit.

“It started with a drive from the airport all the way into Dublin with the police lining the roads. And the very first outing, going to the Garden of Remembrance, took place in empty streets, cleared streets with the sound of a security helicopter overhead. It was very different four days later when we were in the streets of Cork doing the walkabout with the sound of a cheering crowd of 20,000. So it was amazing, the change.”


Sir Julian, who went on to head the Northern Ireland Office before becoming Britain's last EU commissioner, said that, in the wake of the visit, the two governments set up new bilateral structures between officials as well as politicians which could now be resuscitated.

Labour MP Conor McGinn, who comes from Co Armagh, agrees that bilateral structures are important and laments the loss of what he calls institutional memory about the British-Irish relationship among parliamentarians on both sides of the Irish Sea. He thinks some complacency set in after the queen's visit as David Cameron's government took a "semi-detached" attitude to Northern Ireland but relations took a sharp plunge after Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016.

Misunderstood dynamic

“I think the difficulty is that for a large section of the Conservative Party and the wider British political establishment, there is a misunderstanding of Ireland,” he says.

“They can’t understand or they don’t accept that Ireland is an independent, sovereign country that isn’t under the orbit exclusively of the UK. And so that’s problematic for them and that’s been borne out by how surprised they were that Ireland very firmly nailed its colours to the EU mast during Brexit. So I think they felt surprised and betrayed by that because they didn’t understand the dynamic between Ireland, Britain and the EU.”

The Conservative chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee says Brexit is no more anti-Irish than Irish independence was anti-Scottish

The feeling of betrayal was mutual, as Dublin watched Britain pursue a hard Brexit outside the single market and the customs union which would inevitable create complications over the Border. Despite regular protestations about their commitment to the Belfast Agreement, both Theresa May and Boris Johnson were willing to brush aside Ireland's concerns as they sought to deliver the kind of Brexit their party wanted.

“Call this cynical, but I think that what we managed to do over the last five years is remind the Irish establishment, particularly the Irish foreign service, which already has this thought in its bloodstream and its DNA that ultimately the Brits are not to be trusted,” says a former senior British diplomat who did not serve in Ireland but dealt with the Irish issue on both sides of the Atlantic.

“And I think this has just been confirmation that we had the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement and all that success but ultimately the Brits will always put their own interests ahead of the relationship with Ireland.”

Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, says Brexit, which he opposed, is no more anti-Irish than Irish independence was anti-Scottish. He describes Britain's relationship with Ireland as "the single most important nondiscretionary foreign relationship we have" and he sees hope in the good relationship between Simon Coveney and foreign secretary Dominic Raab as well as that between the Taoiseach and the prime minister.

Key relationship

“There is no more important foreign relationship for the UK. So finding ways to work together and creating cultures that help are absolutely essential. I think it’s important as friends as close as we are that we should not surprise each other. Even if we don’t agree, we should be able to have conversations that enable us to, you know, disagree politely, but not surprise each other,” he says.

Tugendhat, who has Irish family connections, has been observing the debates in Ireland about possible constitutional futures for the island as a whole. He believes that, while it is a matter for the Republic to determine its own future, London should have a voice in any formal consultation about future arrangements that would include Northern Ireland.

“I think we need to respect the fact the unionist tradition in Northern Ireland is very much alive and a large proportion of the community in Northern Ireland wish to be represented by a government that sits in in Westminster,” he said.

“On the principle of consent, which is embedded into any number of treaties we’ve both signed over the past 40 years, the reality is that if that is so, then a simple courtesy would be to include the people who the people of part of the island of Ireland have chosen as their representatives. That means, of course, MLAs and it means, of course, members of parliament from Northern Ireland, but it also means ministers and civil society from the rest of the country that those people choose to be part of.”