Dublin and London: a relationship under strain
A Conservative assumption that the Republic would row in behind the UK in its talks with the EU showed arrogance and a lack of understanding about Ireland
UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney speak at an event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, in Belfast, on Tusday. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
The foolish remarks by British Brexit Secretary David Davis, suggesting that the Irish Government’s approach to Brexit was being strongly influenced by Sinn Féin, indicate a worrying deterioration in relations between the two governments.
It is sad that on this week’s 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement the institutions it established have been in abeyance for 15 months while relations between the two governments are strained. The rock on which the agreement was built was the solid basis of trust between the governments in Dublin and London and the only way it can be made to work effectively again is if they stick together in putting pressure on the Northern parties to agree a deal.
Devising the best possible solution to the border problem once the UK leaves the European Union will also require the kind of trust that currently appears lacking. It is not as if the Davis intervention was an off-the-cuff comment taken out of context. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said something similar not so long ago, and the same ill-informed view has been echoed by a range of Conservative politicians and pro-Brexit media outlets. It was inevitable that the good neighbourly relations between the Republic and the UK would come under some strain because of Brexit, but the growing level of misunderstanding has the potential to do serious long-term damage to relations between the two countries.
One cause of the problem was an assumption by some in the Conservative Party that the Republic would automatically row in behind them in their negotiations with the EU. Apart from the arrogance of such an attitude, it displays no understanding of the hugely positive role the EU has played in helping this country develop as a modern, wealthy state. That image of the EU in the eyes of most Irish people is just one of the things that marks us out from our nearest neighbours.
It is vital that the two governments put their differences over Brexit aside and focus on practical ways of ensuring that whatever the outcome there is no return to a hard border. To achieve that both need to tone down the rhetoric and look at practical solutions to common problems.
Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern suggested in an interview in The Irish Times this week that the resumption of the institutions at Stormont would be an opportunity to reconvene the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which provides a forum where the two governments and their officials can meet on a regular basis. When the UK leaves the EU in a year’s time, the routine meetings between Irish and British political leaders, as well as ministers and officials, which have taken place on a regular basis for more than 40 years, will cease. It is important that structures already in place to facilitate the two countries in dealing with their common problems operate effectively.