Brexit breaks delicate interdependence between Ireland and UK
Ireland’s future relationship with Britain will depend on what deal UK can negotiate with EU
During and after the exit talks Ireland will still have a vital interest to maintain interdependence with Britain in a new European setting. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg
Ireland’s relations with Britain have gone through an historical cycle of dependence, independence and interdependence which is now being replicated by Britain’s changing relations with the European Union.
Despite the key differences of scale and power between the two islands, their relations have always been mediated and balanced by wider European alliances. That pattern has come into play once again in the Brexit negotiations.
The late Ronan Fanning concluded his elegant biography of Éamon de Valera in 2015 by observing the symmetry about the timing of the joint admission of Ireland and Britain to Europe in 1973 – “the same year that British-Irish interdependence in regard to Northern Ireland found first expression in the Sunningdale Agreement: for the last year of his presidency was the moment when the doctrine of interdependence he had first dimly delineated in 1920 became the core of national policy”.
The reference is to de Valera’s interview with the Westminster Gazette in which he argued, using an analogy drawn from Cuba’s relations with the United States, that “an independent Ireland would see its own independence in jeopardy the moment it saw the independence of Britain seriously threatened”. Fanning sees this as the basis for De Valera’s subsequent doctrine of “external association” with the British empire, made explicit in 1921 and publicised in the Treaty debates as Document No 2. “Mutual self-interest would make the people in these two islands, if both were independent, the closest possible allies in a moment of real danger to both,” de Valera said in the interview.
He illustrated his case by drawing five separate and independent circles inside a larger one, representing members of the British Commonwealth within the empire. Ireland was drawn as another circle outside the large one but contacting it. Fanning argues that de Valera culpably failed to explain this complex idea properly during and after the Treaty negotiations but effectively realised it in the 1936 External Relations Act during the British abdication crisis and then applied it in Ireland’s benevolent neutrality towards Britain and its allies during the second World War.
The policy represented a careful balance between sovereignty and realpolitik in the power relationship between small and large neighbours. De Valera’s formula was reproduced in the new interdependent setting of joint membership of the European communities from 1973. It facilitated Ireland’s reduction of economic and cultural dependence on Britain from the 1970s while allowing both states pursue convergent interests. In the 1990s EU membership was a crucial enabling element of the Belfast Agreement.
Brexit unilaterally and arbitrarily breaks these conditions of Irish-British interdependence. By this decision, as de Valera put it in 1920, “Britain, in her selfishness, has robbed Ireland of every motive for such an alliance.” The Irish Government has responded by optimising its membership rights to demand a frictionless Border on this island and succeeded in getting full EU backing for that. It is a remarkable diplomatic achievement in the first stage of the exit negotiations – even if it does not resolve the question of what Britain’s future external association with the EU is to be.
The agreement’s demand for “maintaining full alignment” of regulation across the Irish Border after Brexit cuts right across the UK government’s commitment this week to a bespoke deal taking it out of the EU single market and customs union. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar put it like this going into the European Council: “That’s very strong language. Maintain means keep as it is, of course; full means full, not partial; and alignment means keep in line.” His dictionary definitions recall de Valera’s pedantics, just as his Indian background attracts attention, like de Valera’s Cuban one, in some British media and unionist comment.
One senior negotiator told the Financial Times: “The Irish Border is where reality meets Brexit fantasy.” The present European scale and power relationships are dramatically different from a century ago. Ireland’s success in getting support from the EU 27 underlines how centrally membership matters. Bargaining power relationships change fundamentally when exit is chosen over voice. The UK cannot expect the same sweetheart deals over opt-outs and other differentiated treatment to recognise its distinctiveness as a member now it is an outsider.
During and after the exit talks Ireland will still have a vital interest to maintain interdependence with Britain and the closest relationship with Northern Ireland in a new European setting. That could yet involve supporting some of the UK’s demands for external association with the EU.