The relationship between Ireland and Britain will never be the same again
Brexit, Bloody Sunday prosecutions and the backstop have cut deep
Diverging interests policies have resurrected older asymmetries. Photograph: iStock
Brexit, Bloody Sunday prosecutions, no-deal tariffs, the backstop. That current events cut right through, unsettle and threaten improved relations between Ireland and Britain has become a major theme of running commentary.
What benchmarks should be used to assess the claim?
Such deep policy disagreements certainly affect the personal relations, trust and shared values between political leaders and high officials conducting inter-state relations.
They reached a high point between Irish and British representatives before and after the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998.
Joint membership of the EU facilitated political and official contacts, encouraged policy convergence and reinforced cross-border normalisation after 1998
When the agreement eventually bedded down other preoccupations, like the 2008 financial crisis and changing governments in both states, disturbed that balance.
But Enda Kenny and David Cameron agreed to strengthen East-West economic, political and bureaucratic links followed by the symbolic visit of Queen Elizabeth here in 2011. The visit moved popular opinion in a similar direction as did President Higgins’ state visit to the UK three years later.
Brexit rudely and crudely interrupted that new equilibrium. It exposed large differences of interests between the two states and peoples, as well as placing the Irish Border issue at the centre of UK-EU relations. It put further strain on the Belfast Agreement and the institutions it created.
Strand 3 of the agreement dealing with British-Irish relations had coasted along on its parliamentary and intra-UK tiers as devolution deepened in Scotland, Wales and with the crown dependencies. The British-Irish inter-governmental Council was neglected and is only now being revived. After Brexit it will become much more necessary.
Brexit also revealed how important are the European dimensions to the relationship – so that it might be described as “Strand 4” of the Belfast Agreement.
Joint membership of the EU facilitated political and official contacts, encouraged policy convergence and reinforced cross-border normalisation after 1998.
The nearly 150 ways in which Brexit will affect North-South relations, according to a joint study carried out by the EU Commission and UK officials, underline these points.
Power and scale asymmetries will endure even if income levels converge. It is a multi-layered and complex interdependence
The current crisis recalls how asymmetry characterises relations between the two states and islands. Political power, geographical scale and economic wealth have historically moulded their relations.
Ireland has been the smaller, less populated and poorer island and much the weaker and more peripheral. That was expressed in its conquest and colonisation by Britain in medieval and early modern times, subsequently in its subordinate politics within the developing UK and then in its state-seeking nationalism to depart it.
The two islands nevertheless exist within a larger European and transatlantic setting, a geopolitical fact that can mitigate or counteract Britain’s ability to act exclusively in its own interests.
Irish nationalism has long sought continental and later transatlantic allies to do just that in furthering its own search for independence and then to protect its interests. Its success in mobilising European an US support in the Brexit crisis draws on that history, taking Brexiteers by surprise.
That revolves around another asymmetry – of mutual knowledge and awareness. Like other small states besides dominant neighbours Ireland knows more about Britain than the other way round.
Power, wealth and media ensure that, as do the close personal relations arising from migration and free travel between the two islands. Much the same pattern applies in Northern Ireland, notwithstanding differences between nationalists and unionists.
Both are regarded as Irish in England. With such knowledge comes smarter policy-making and a prickly sensitivity to ignorance and slight. All these sentiments are now very much in play.
That means it matters how we describe the relationship. Anglo-Irish caught the English dimension and its dominance of Britain and the UK. The more recent British-Irish or legally more correct UK-Irish catches up with devolution in Scotland and Wales.
Neither terminology catches the direction of influence and policy being discussed, however. Diverging interests and policies resurrect older asymmetries, so that Irish-British and British-Irish relations means rather different things. The same can be said of North-South and South-North relations, as of East-West and West-East ones.
A greater recognition of such pluralism will be required to mend these relations after the Brexit crisis. Power and scale asymmetries will endure even if income levels converge. It is a multi-layered and complex interdependence.
As President Higgins put it on his recent visit to Liverpool: “We must together face the uncertainty we are now confronted with, and endeavour to ensure, whatever the outcome of the Brexit odyssey, that the warm relationship, built on ties of family, friendship and shared interests, will endure and will grow.”