EU improved Anglo-Irish relations, ex-ambassador claimed

Ivor Roberts’s 2003 dispatch credited Brussels with bringing the two nations together

Ivor Roberts wrote that ‘the ancient quarrel [between Britain and Ireland] is in the process of being solved’.

Ivor Roberts wrote that ‘the ancient quarrel [between Britain and Ireland] is in the process of being solved’.

 

As Britain stands on the threshold of exiting the European Union, a paean to Brussels has been made public, in which the author, former British ambassador to Ireland Sir Ivor Roberts, attributes the warming of Anglo-Irish relations during his tenure in Dublin to the influence of the EU.

In a valedictory dispatch to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, which has been released under the UK’s freedom of information legislation, Roberts extols the influence of Brussels.

The EU is praised both in terms of the helpful effect it had on specific and often thorny details of Anglo-Irish relations, as well as in the way in which membership of the body brought the two countries together, working as allies within the bloc.

About 1,600 words long, some 400 of which have been redacted, Roberts’s dispatch, written in April 2003 as he prepared to leave Dublin after four years as ambassador, begins with the staccato observation: “Ireland a much-changed country.”

He continues: “What fundamentally changed the way [Britain and Ireland] looked at each other was our common membership of the European Community, whose fresh winds dispersed the dank claustrophobia which had so soured the relationship.

“EU membership has served to highlight the many areas where the UK and Irish interests are similar; and we have developed the habit of working together. As a result, the inelegant word normalisation has become a strategic objective of the relationship.

“But what does normalisation mean for the practitioner? I have seen at first hand the development of the extremely warm and cordial personal chemistry between the prime minister [Tony Blair] and the taoiseach [Bertie Ahern]. It is this which sets the tone for the bilateral relationship more broadly.”

Examples

He sets out examples, most of them relating to high-profile events with a British royal or military flavour.

These include: the joint unveiling in 1998 by Irish president Mary McAleese and Queen Elizabeth of a memorial to all from Ireland who died in the first World War; the exchange of national-day greetings between both heads of state (“now possible,” Roberts notes, “following the removal from the Irish Constitution of the territorial claim to Northern Ireland”); the first visit to the Republic of the Irish Guards; the address to the Oireachtas by Tony Blair; the 2002 visit by Prince Charles to the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation; and the frequency with which Royal Navy warships docked on the river Liffey while their captains dispensed entertainment, an event “now so routine as to be barely worthy of comment”.

“I found it remarkable,” he writes, “that the Irish Tricolour flew at half-mast over government buildings, including the GPO in O’Connell Street, as President McAleese attended the funeral of the Queen Mother.

“And, bathetically, when I snatched a rare round of golf at the K Club recently, for the first time, the union flag was flown beside the Tricolour.”

Towards the end of the valedictory statement, he returns to the benevolent effects of British and Irish membership of the EU; “subterranean trends”, as he calls them.

“One is closer co-operation on European issues,” he writes.

“Not just in policy areas, such as social security, tax, justice and home affairs and the Lisbon agenda of economic reform, but also in the Convention on the Future of Europe, which is preparing the ground for the 2004 Intergovernmental Conference.

“British and Irish co-operation will be imprinted on what could, I believe, turn out to be a treaty of Dublin. This is a far cry from the days when Irish officials were instructed to speak French at EU meetings.”

The conference eventually produced the EU constitution, but it was signed in Rome, not Dublin, in October 2004 and rejected the following year by voters in France and the Netherlands, leading instead to the Lisbon Treaty in 2007.

Different

Roberts notes how different a place Ireland was for a British diplomat in the decades preceding his tenure.

“The Ireland I visited in the 1970s was not a comfortable place for a British diplomat. Venturing into rural pubs, we were as likely to encounter outright hostility as the fabled Irish welcome,” he writes.

He detects also a sense of shame among many Irish people at the 1976 IRA murder of one of his predecessors, Sir Christopher Ewart-Biggs, together with an assistant, 26-year-old Judith Cooke.

“It is one of the endearing traits of the Irish that there are many people who still tell me how shocked and ashamed they were by the events of that day over a quarter of a century ago,” he writes.

On the threat of the IRA, he notes that in the early 1990s “our guesstimate of the scale of the Provisionals’ threat was around 900”, but the organisation was coming to realise then that it could not achieve its aims militarily.

“This was an enormous change in position by the republicans and it is proper and right to acknowledge the extent of it.”

That said, the former ambassador reminds his readers that while Sinn Féin signed up to the Belfast Agreement, the party did not see it as an end in itself but rather as a “transitional phase”.

The redacted parts of the valedictory appear in the main to relate to observations on the changed stance of Sinn Féin and the IRA (leading in the South, he suggests, to it being “respectable again to be a republican nationalist”), and to some observations about the Irish economy.

“Now the Celtic Tiger has run out of puff, and while the Irish economy defied the laws of gravity for nearly a decade, the downturn in the world economy and increasingly high labour costs have finally taken their toll,” he notes.

Memorable phrases

There is evidence of his penchant for memorable phrases, a tendency that, deployed in his final valedictory on leaving Rome in 2006, prompted the foreign office to end the practice of ambassadors signing off with parting missives to headquarters in London.

On that occasion, he bemoaned what he saw as a growing managerialism and state of permanent upheaval within the foreign office, prompting him to liken the place to Stalinist Russia and the era of the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China.

“Can it be,” he asks, “that in wading through the plethora of business plans, capability reviews, skills audits, zero-based reviews . . . we have forgotten what diplomacy is all about?”

In 2003, leaving Dublin, he notes that, despite all the progress in Anglo-Irish relations, “the essential ambivalence of the relationship will remain”.

He continues: “The Irish see nothing contradictory in calling for the Brits out of Ireland while embracing the fortunes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Leeds. ‘Brits out; Manchester United rule’.

“And indeed we’ve had more complaints about [English rugby captain] Martin Johnson’s oafishness in almost literally forcing the Irish president off the red carpet while meeting the Irish team at last weekend’s [Lansdowne Road rugby] international than about the war in Iraq. ”

But, he notes, perhaps optimistically, that “the ancient quarrel is in the process of being solved”.

“What binds the two people together is greater than what separates them,” he writes, “if the Irish will learn to stop scratching at the scabs of history and bury the competition of nationalism. Like that great Irish man of letters, Hubert Butler, I look to the day when the Border on this island becomes a mark of distinction rather than one of division.”