Neighbours: Ireland and Britain are forced into a changing relationship
On this occasion the English have changed the question
History changes but geography stays the same. The relationship between Ireland and Britain has been defined for many centuries by these truths – and by the tension between them. History has made the relationship complex, fraught, sometimes distant. Geography makes it very simple – two islands so close together will always share an economic, cultural, demographic and political space. We might look back on the era roughly between the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 and the Brexit vote of June 2016 as one in which these contradictions between history and geography were less obvious than ever. But Brexit brings history back into the equation.
This week in The Irish Times our series Neighbours: Britain and Ireland has been contemplating the state of this relationship. In many ways, it reflects the depth of the changes over the last 25 years. It would not have been obvious while the Troubles were still raging that the Irish could ever be seen by the British as they are now: in the words of the Irish Ambassador to the UK, as part of “an extended family of people living on these islands”. Nor would it have been obvious that Anglophobia would all but die out in Ireland. The sterile alternatives of an Irish nationalism looking to break the connection with England versus a West British identity are largely outmoded. They have been replaced by a sense that Ireland (and increasingly Northern Ireland) are comfortable with their own distinctiveness but also happy to enjoy the benefits of being part of “these islands”.
Yet it would be a mistake to take this for granted. The English used to say that whenever the Irish question was about to be solved, the Irish changed the question. Now, when Ireland seemed to have solved its English question, it is the English who have changed the question. Those who campaigned for Brexit seemed oblivious to its consequences for the North and for Anglo-Irish relations. All we have heard from them now that they control the political agenda are emollient reassurances. Their desire to sustain a relationship that has improved beyond recognition is undoubtedly genuine. But this time both history and geography impose a duty to think much more seriously about what they are doing.