Bobby McDonagh: Rishi Sunak knows Brexit Britain can’t play silly buggers any more

Subscriber OnlyOpinionIreland's 50 years in the EU

The UK has to face up to the importance of the Northern Ireland protocol after the damage done by Boris Johnson’s unnecessarily hard form of Brexit

Ireland joined the EEC, as it then was, in January 1973. This is one of a series of articles exploring our evolving relationship with the European Union – and its past, present and future

For half a century the European Union has been a central factor in Irish-British relations. Over the next 50 years also, notwithstanding the radically changed post-Brexit context, the EU will remain a crucial facet of the relationship between our two countries. At the end of another year it seems timely to reflect on how Europe has not only shaped but will continue to affect the friendship between Ireland and the UK – on the past, present and future of our relationship. Given the season that we have just celebrated, one might think of those three dimensions as the Ghosts of the Past, the Present and the Yet to Come, as described by Dickens in A Christmas Carol.

Looking first to the past, it was principally through working together as fellow EU member states that our two countries were able to develop a deeper friendship than had ever seemed possible during the long and winding road of our complex and difficult history.

From Irish independence until joint British and Irish accession to the EU, our relationship had been largely a distant and disinterested one. Our countries perceived and experienced the world differently. For the British, Ireland was a peripheral player, a quaint and sometimes awkward cousin. For Ireland the family metaphor was perhaps a different one – in the early decades of our new sovereignty we remained wary of the embrace of “Mother England”.


The EU changed all that. At the most basic level, but crucially, a great swathe of Irish and British politicians and officials got to know each other for the first time. We found ourselves discussing the same issues around the same tables. We discovered that we had much in common; and that, even when we disagreed, we shared a way of doing business.

A relationship which had been significantly shaped by force of arms was now shaped exclusively by force of argument. For the first time our relationship was deeply embedded within legally binding structures. We found, within those European structures, that we could not only resolve differences but also pursue important common interests. The essential equality of EU member states was profoundly healthy for a bilateral relationship that had historically been defined by its imbalance.

The Ghost of the Past came in the shape of a Brexit that took precisely zero account of its inevitable impact on the UK’s relationship with its closest neighbour, or indeed on the island itself, north and south. At a stroke our representatives were no longer huggermuggering in the same corridors. The daily opportunities for personal friendships were sharply curtailed. The range of our common interests was significantly narrowed. The shared structure for pursuing what remained of our common agenda disappeared in a puff of populist smoke. The new sense of relaxed equality between our countries became edgy again as the UK’s greater size was counterbalanced by the influence that Ireland derives through EU membership.

British prime minister Rishi Sunak has been a breath of fresh air after the two previous occupants of Downing Street. He speaks and acts like a normal human being

The damage to the Irish-British relationship was greatly exacerbated by the unnecessarily hard form of Brexit chosen by Boris Johnson’s government, a political choice going far beyond what the Brexit referendum required and what the British people were promised at the time.

By no means all of the earlier progress in Irish-British friendship, which reached its high point with Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 2011, has been dissipated. We still have important common interests, not least our shared sacred responsibility for peace and progress in Northern Ireland. Our geographical proximity, our shared culture, our personal affinity and our family connections serve as the glue in a relationship that remains both precious and important to both countries. However, the UK and Ireland now find ourselves once again perceiving and experiencing the world in significantly different ways.

There are no marks for identifying the Ghost of the Present in the Irish-British relationship. The spectre of the Northern Ireland protocol looms very large at the feast as we look to 2023. The UK’s refusal to implement the protocol or, at least until recently, to engage seriously on its implementation represents a serious irritant and blockage in the Irish-British relationship

The implementation of the protocol will require good faith and political resolve on the British side as well as maximum flexibility from the EU. It is essential, for four reasons, that a way be found in 2023 to bring this about.

First, the protocol is designed to address a real and unavoidable problem arising from Brexit, namely how best, in the new circumstances, to make the essential balances of the Belfast Agreement compatible with the single market. This issue did not appear out of thin air. Huffing and puffing will not make it go away. The necessarily imperfect solution of the protocol was not imposed by the EU. It was largely designed – then agreed, trumpeted as a success, ratified and approved in a general election – by the UK. No alternative realistic solution was ever put forward.

Ireland should, like Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol, be as generous as possible

Second, the protocol is a binding international agreement. The suggestion that the UK could unilaterally renege on such a treaty commitment is not only improper and dangerous but adds salt to the wound that has opened up in Britain’s relationship with its neighbours.

Third, the protocol can bring great advantages to the people and businesses of Northern Ireland. Ironically, given unionist opposition, its implementation could be a major factor in making a success of Northern Ireland.

Fourth, the alternative to implementing the protocol is not the status quo. It is a further serious deterioration in the EU-UK relationship.

British prime minister Rishi Sunak has been a breath of fresh air after the two previous occupants of Downing Street. He speaks and acts like a normal human being. His approach to international relationships seems sensible. The mood music on the protocol has improved, and it seems that some progress is being made. However, Sunak will have a big call to make next year. Given the huge challenges facing the British economy, my strong belief is that his preference will be to slay the Ghost of the Present by reaching agreement with the EU on implementing the protocol.

Sunak needs a major trade dispute with the EU like he needs a hole in the head. Implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which purports to override the protocol, would automatically trigger such a trade dispute. So, in due course, would a long-term failure to implement the protocol. Sunak may well be able to take his bruised and battered party with him. The DUP could be a tougher nut to crack. However, a reasonable deal, which gives the DUP some but not all of what they want, is likely to be available.

Looking finally to the long-term future, Europe will inevitably continue to be a crucial factor in the Irish-British relationship.

From Ireland’s point of view, the Ghost of Yet to Come is a friendly enough spirit; namely, the significantly rumbling debate in Britain about its relationship with Europe.

Recent British polls indicate that a significant majority now believes that Brexit was a mistake; and, not surprisingly, that it is going badly. A significant majority, especially among younger people, would like the UK to rejoin the EU. Such polling does not mean that the British public is now ready, or will be ready in the foreseeable future, for another divisive referendum. However, one has to wonder how sustainable it will be over time for the UK’s essential positioning in the world to be regretted by a large majority of its citizens; or for both of the UK’s larger political parties to be dismissive of what seems to be the emerging longer-term aspiration of the British public.

Short of reopening the question of EU membership, there is also a growing belief in Britain that the UK should seek a closer relationship with the EU than the gratuitously adversarial one pursued by Sunak’s predecessors. This seems to be Sunak’s own inclination. He has moved quickly, for example, to establish a warm relationship with French president Emmanuel Macron, whereas his immediate predecessor, Liz Truss, couldn’t even say whether France was an ally.

Sunak also understands that playing “silly buggers” on the protocol is incompatible with deepening the UK’s relationship with the Biden administration. That the first state visit of Biden’s administration was accorded to the French president will have hit the British system hard. A closer, Switzerland-style relationship with the EU was floated recently, although subsequently withdrawn.

While it is for the UK itself to decide whether and, if so, how it wishes to re-establish closer relations with the EU, it will be for Ireland, along with our European partners, to decide how to respond to any such British approaches. The parameters of what can be offered to the UK will not change. Having cake and eating it will not be on the menu. However, within the limits of what is realistic, Ireland should, like Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol, be as generous as possible.

Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Rome and Brussels