Trust between Ireland and UK is in short supply
World View: But where trust is diminished institutions can compensate
How much can Boris Johnson’s government be trusted to act with rigorous impartiality and to refrain from external impediment? Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
Trust is a key ingredient of relations between the Irish and British governments, but according to the Irish side it is now in short supply. Given the precarious state of the UK’s political union highlighted by this week’s elections in Scotland and Wales, that is not surprising.
In coming years there will be a convergence of Scottish and Irish constitutional issues and futures. This will affect British and Irish politics in an existential fashion. We can expect UK governments to link Scotland and Northern Ireland when it comes to issues such as consent, referendums, borders, economics and EU membership – especially if they are Conservative governments led by Boris Johnson.
They will be reluctant to move on these issues in one country for fear of influencing the other. This is notwithstanding the legal obligation on the Northern Ireland secretary of state in the 1998 Belfast Agreement to call a referendum there “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.
Ciaran Martin, who prepared the Scottish 2014 referendum as constitution director in 10 Downing Street, writes in a paper for the Blavatnik school of government in Oxford university that if the Boris Johnson-led government rules out another Scottish referendum on independence for a generation, it would leave no lawful or democratic route to that objective. “In effect,” he argues, that “would change the union from one based on consent, to one based on the force of law. That would be the most profound transformation in the internal governance of the United Kingdom since most of Ireland left, almost exactly a century ago.”
Consent to stay in the union or leave it is directly linked to referendums. If one is called in Northern Ireland, the 1998 agreement imposes a legal obligation on the British and Irish governments recognising “that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment to exercise their right of self-determination”. It further affirms that “whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people”.
The border in the Irish Sea stands as a warning to Scots from London about potential difficulties they face if they vote for independence
In light of the potential existential challenges to the union, how much can this British government be trusted to act with rigorous impartiality and to refrain from external impediment? These obligations fall on the machinery of government rather than the political parties in power and appear not to impose campaigning neutrality in referendum campaigns; but the British state will be profoundly at risk in them, which is why these terms were put in.
Where trust is diminished institutions can compensate. Strand 3 of the 1998 agreement on east-west relations provides for a British-Irish Council (BIC) of the two sovereign governments, devolved ones and crown dependencies. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) brings the two sovereigns together “to promote bilateral co-operation at all levels on all matters of mutual interest within the competence of both governments”.
This week the two governments agreed to restore regular meetings of the conference, with two this year and three in 2022, and a BIC in June. This brings an institutional stability and regularity which Johnson has resisted up to now; but that may give more diplomatic than political comfort to the Irish side given his volatility.
The BIIGC seems the obvious forum to handle the great number of intergovernmental issues arising if a Northern Ireland referendum is contemplated – although Johnson says that will not be for “a long, long time”. The Northern Ireland protocol is still being negotiated.
Its UK-EU border in the Irish Sea stands as a warning to Scots from London about the potential border regulatory difficulties they face with England if they vote for independence.
The economic costs and benefits of independence are a fourth closely-related convergent issue between Scotland and Ireland. Northern Ireland’s annual transfers from the UK exchequer are used to argue for the union, as in Scotland; but both could gain more from a self-rule which unleashes their productive potential.
The Scottish government admires Ireland’s achievement in securing EU agreement that a united Ireland would join the EU without renegotiation. It too would like to find favourable terms for EU membership if it secures independence. It recognises that the UK-EU deals have strengthened Ireland’s international position with the EU – and the United States.