Britain has always struggled to take Ireland seriously, say Irish ex-diplomats

‘Why didn’t the British focus on the fact that they had an extensive land border with the EU? Because it was in Ireland.’

Through years spent operating at the top of Anglo-Irish relations, Irish ex-diplomat Séan Ó hUigínn detected what he sees as a curious gap in British thinking when dealing with Irish matters.”

Ó hUigínn has good reason to know. One of the most distinguished diplomats of his era, he served as joint secretary of the British-Irish Secretariat in Belfast, established after the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985; led the Anglo-Irish division in the Department of Foreign Affairs; and served as Ireland's ambassador to five different countries, including the United States.

Speaking to The Irish Times in his Dublin home this week as fears grow of a no-deal Brexit, Ó hUigínn said issues Britain would take seriously in any other context "can be disregarded if it comes with an Irish label".

If you listen to Boris Johnson, they want out come what may. And, really, we are very much at the receiving end

Mirroring the attitudes of other senior officials who dealt with British-Irish relations at key moments over the past 40 years, Ó hUigínn, now retired, views Brexit as a policy that “seems unhinged”.


Officials who helped repair British-Irish relations after testing periods, such as when Margaret Thatcher’s government refused to engage with Dublin in the early 1980s following tensions over the Falklands war, and built towards great achievements such as the Anglo-Irish and the Belfast Agreements now watch on as exchanges become fraught once more.

"The British do not engage very willingly with or about Ireland, " Ó hUigínn says. "Burke said that the English have only one ambition in relation to Ireland, which is to hear no more about it. And that is still not a bad working maxim if you want to analyse British relations.

“When they have to focus on it, there is another mechanism which comes into play which I would call the Irish anomaly. Something that would be taken very seriously in another context can be disregarded if it comes with an Irish label. The Border is a classic example of this.

“Why didn’t the British focus on the fact that they had an extensive land border with the European Union? The answer is that it was in Ireland. It wasn’t serious.”

Statement of intent

An exhibit of this, he argues, were comments made by former UK Brexit secretary David Davis just days after the initial Brexit joint report first containing the backstop, the insurance policy to avoid a hard Border, was signed in December 2017.

Davis told the BBC the backstop was “much more a statement of intent than it was a legally enforceable thing”.

“He gave a very broad wink to the British public,” says Ó hUigínn. “This is Irish stuff. Don’t take it too seriously. And I think there’s a kind of psychological shock among the Tories that the Europeans don’t seem to grasp this fundamental convention.”

Michael Lillis, who was a diplomatic adviser to Garret Fitzgerald and was a negotiator of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, also says there have been "numerous very difficult moments" and "a lot of obdurate, of almost blind attitudes by the British".

What you hear in the public space is the bit of the iceberg that's above the water and there's a lot more to it underneath

While acknowledging the difficulties caused by Brexit, he says “it’s been much more difficult several times in the past”.

"People would find that surprising, but I've been through dealing with Northern Ireland in one way or another since the early 1970s. [Conservative UK prime minister Edward] Heath made it very clear that Northern Ireland was none of the business of Dublin.

“This was in the middle of the worst period of violence that we’ve had in the 30 years, mainly Provisional IRA violence of course, but also disastrous policies by the British like internment, other disasters like Bloody Sunday. And you know eventually, in both instances, we got over it.”

Lillis believe Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, will lead the UK to a no-deal Brexit at the end of October, while Ó Uigínn says "they will crash out or they will leave, certainly".

"I think Boris Johnson is determined that there will be no issue between himself and Brexit as he goes toward an election," he adds. "And that's why he has to avoid the practical stuff which is messy and go for the Agincourt."


Paddy Teahon, who was secretary general at the department of the taoiseach between 1993 and 2000 – working with Albert Reynolds, John Burton and Bertie Ahern – shares a similar view.

“If you listen to Boris Johnson, they want out come what may. And, really, we are very much at the receiving end. So I would have thought that’s that, in the sense.”

While there have been strains in the Anglo-Irish relationship in recent decades, Brexit makes the current changes more fundamental in nature, Teahon adds.

"When I was involved in the peace process, Britain and Ireland were on the same side: we wanted to get peace in Northern Ireland. You were very much in the same direction. Now, we're in almost fundamentally opposite directions. They want out of the European Union. "

He also believes that not enough attention is being paid to North-South relations, and questions what Johnson’s real attitude is to the Belfast Agreement.

Will we have to work through a hard Brexit before we get down to serious business again

“He was on with this rhetoric ‘I’m 100 per cent for the Good Friday Agreement and there’ll be no hard Border on the island of Ireland’ and all the rest of it. But it’s a little bit like his ‘I want to deal with Europe’. There’s no reality to it. He doesn’t spell out.”

Even though Ireland insists it will not be drawn into bilateral negotiations with the UK and will remain under the umbrella of the EU, one source with past experience of Anglo-Irish relations said engagement continues in private.

“What you hear in the public space is the bit of the iceberg that’s above the water and there’s a lot more to it underneath. I can go back to the 1970s, and at the same time there was always a strong current of official and senior official and other levels of quite constructive engagement.

“And that engagement over a period of 30 years did get us through some pretty rough times when pretty bad things we happening.”


This source argues that whereas engagement between British and Irish leaders at a European level in the past created space for discussions on Northern Ireland, the reverse may be true in future: that UK-Irish encounters in the North may help with how the UK interacts with the EU.

On a practical level, Teahon says “there are always contacts going on, and I suspect there are contacts going on”.

Ó hUigínn says Ireland, out of self-interest, will be very sensitive to British concerns.

“We would be inside the European Union, they would be outside, and they will need friends in the European Union. There would be elements to build on again. I’m not saying that we would be a proxy for them within the union, but in a legitimate way setting store by the best possible relationship with the European Union.”

All of those who spoke to The Irish Times believe that Ireland and the UK will have no choice but to pick up the pieces after a crash-out Brexit, if there is to be one, and reset relations.

“You still have to work through it,” says Teahon. “We’re obviously going to relate to Britain possibly in a different way going forward. There’s relations with the EU which arguably will become even more important to us, but different.

“It was a piece of reality that in many cases we agreed with Britain in terms of issues like taxation or whatever. Whereas now we’re in a new regime and therefore in our relations with the EU we will have to rethink a bit, and I know that they’re doing this already in the [government] system.”

For Lillis there is “no other possible way forward” than for both countries to work together.

“Will we have to work through a hard Brexit before we get down to serious business again. We will have to work with the British and they with us to get out of the present unfortunate situation.”


However, he cautions against any Irish government waiting years, until the British relationship with the EU has settled, to make a move, and says it is up to Dublin to take the initiative. “It’s always a bit more up to Dublin than to London to take initiatives to get sort of an agenda going.”

One of his own ideas is a process whereby both Dublin and London could move to clarify, for both communities in Northern Ireland, the potential shape of the province in a united Ireland.

In the event of unity, Lillis argues, the British government would have a responsibility to “work with the Irish government” in representing the concerns of the unionist population.

“That’s a reverse of how the Anglo-Irish agreement worked in ‘85, where the Irish government in practice represented the concerns about the nationalists.”

Ó hUigínn and Teahon also say the debate around unity must be managed over the next decade or so. Teahon is concerned in particular about the economic impact of a no-deal Brexit on Northern Ireland.

“What doesn’t get recognised is the people who would really suffer from a no-deal Brexit is Northern Ireland. I may be too much of an optimist, my friends tell me, but I feel Ireland is very adaptable. I think we will adapt relatively quickly”.

For Ó hUigínn managing unionist concerns will be the greatest challenges of Irish politics over the next decade.

The tragedy of the “Black Swan event of Brexit”, he says, is that it has turned the question of Irish unity into a “game of margins”.

“You have a core hereditary nationalist, a core hereditary unionist and then an in-between item, a swing factor that is very crucial.”

This dynamic has scotched the “secret hope” of those who worked on the Belfast Agreement that “it would create a breathing space, a decompression chamber where people could dismantle the poisons of the past” and calmly consider what kind of future constitutional model they wanted.

“And that a united Ireland if or when it comes on the agenda will do so against a background of a Northern Ireland, you know, not being a failed entity, so to speak. I think that hope is gone.”

Provoking the beast

In the immediate future of Anglo-Irish relations, he says there is “nothing for it except as patiently as we can, and as constructively as we can, try not to break any relationship that we don’t have to”.

“Avoid any sort of provoking the beast or tweaking the tail or anything like that. And then just wait for the exaltation to subside.

“I think the great Mr Johnson – not Boris, but Samuel – said nothing odd lasts long. And what’s happening British politics now is so odd, it will not last long.

“And it’s trying to be poised as best we can for what comes afterwards and I think, by instinct, both the population here and the Government would want to be as constructive as possible.”