Diarmaid Ferriter: Recalibrating Anglo-Irish relations is going to be tricky

Can Britain and Ireland escape a common destiny?

Anglo-Irish relations are going to require careful recalibration regardless of what happens in the coming days, Back in the mid-1980s Eamonn Gallagher, a senior member of the European Commission who had previously headed the Anglo-Irish division of the Department of Foreign Affairs, suggested joint EU membership was a moderating influence on Anglo-Irish relations to the extent that the relationship between the two “can hardly now be usefully discussed except in that context. This, in my view, is healthy for both partners as it substitutes an agreeably wider embrace for what has been an excessive intimacy.”

At the same time, historian Ronan Fanning noted “Geography, rather than history, first tied the destinies of Ireland and Britain. Islands lying so close together to the northwest of the European landmass could not – and cannot – escape a common destiny”.

There has understandably been much focus on the potential for trade delays, hikes on imports and all sorts of other commercial inconveniences

Can they now? Will there be a return to a new form of “intimacy”? Or to what John Peck, British ambassador to Ireland in the early 1970s, called “brawling in public”?

One of Peck’s successors, Alan Goodison, observed of Anglo-Irish relations that there was “a raw nerve which never sleeps”. The various ties, distances, absorptions, rejections and misunderstandings have never been just matters of politics; they are economic, social, cultural, personal, and emotional.


British media coverage

These sensitivities have found new, sometimes vehement expression since 2016, underpinned by negative British media coverage of Ireland’s stance and the considerable flexing of our resentment muscles.

Given the current difficulties, there has understandably been much focus on the potential for trade delays, hikes on imports and all sorts of other commercial inconveniences.

An ESRI report last year stated baldly “Brexit will ultimately negatively impact firms, households, the labour market and the public finances”. For all the focus on the historic political controversies between Dublin and London, the loss of the “excessive intimacy” due to European integration also deprived both countries of the practice of maintaining regular creative and pragmatic negotiation of trade agreements.

Commercial co-operation between the two countries was often the oil that fuelled constructive dialogue and dual-interest. Britain guaranteed land purchase bonds raised in the Free State in the 1920s, for example, though this was not a matter Cumann na nGaedheal shouted from the rooftops.

Trade agreement

De Valera’s ascent to power in 1932 may have alarmed London, but by 1938 he had negotiated a deal with Britain that included the easing of restrictions on Irish agricultural exports and there was also a 1948 trade agreement in an attempt to integrate the two livestock economies.

In 1965, at a time when the Republic exported 70 per cent of its goods to the UK and 50 per cent of its imports originated there, a new Anglo-Irish free trade agreement was reached.

Both politics and economics mattered; as revealed by British cabinet papers, British negotiators believed “It could place our political relationship on a better footing than ever” and secretary of state for Commonwealth Relations Arthur Bottomley duly concluded the deal brought relations to the “best level known”. As Ireland’s minister for industry and commerce Jack Lynch saw it, “we needed the discipline of the challenge to our competitiveness . . . if we could compete successfully against British industrial imports we could become competitive in Europe”.

The dilemma for Ireland is not just a no-deal but the prospect of being further sidelined in the future

Notwithstanding the wider European free trade process, Eoin Drea of Trinity College and the Martens Centre makes the point that even up to the present “Economic ties run deep, far deeper than the changing political currents that crash around above them”. In 2010, for example, the British government offered Ireland a £7 billion bilateral loan to facilitate stability during the economic crash and “For all the subsequent Brexit rhetoric of Global Britain, the loan represented Ireland’s importance to Britain as a trading partner and the degree of British exposure to Ireland’s financial sector.”

In response to Brexit, the Irish government identified four main challenges: the Northern Ireland peace process, the impact on trade, the Common Travel Area, and the need to build influence with the EU to guarantee solidarity with the Irish plight.

There has been some success in meeting those challenges given agreement on a Northern Ireland protocol, on the common travel area and in relation to EU solidarity. But the trade dilemma, one that was bilaterally tackled constructively in the past, is now, it seems, out of reach, and long-term EU solidarity in relation to Irish concerns is not guaranteed given the potential for recession, EU tax reform and a fractious Northern Ireland.

The dilemma for Ireland is not just a no-deal but the prospect of being further sidelined in the future; ironically, that same fear of being on the periphery was the main reason there was such enthusiasm for our involvement with European integration in the first place.

While the Irish commitment to an EU-wide strategy seems unwavering, the loss of our historic, if complicated, intimacy with our larger neighbour leaves us hostages to a whole series of uncertainties.