Donnacha Ó Beacháin: ‘Brexit transforms Ireland from minnow to giant in the Anglo-Irish relationship’
For several decades, this State’s relative weakness imposed limitations on its strategic choices, not least on matters pertaining to Northern Ireland. For much of the last century, the UK has had a population 15 times that of Ireland and has been one of the top five world economies.
This hindered the Irish Government’s ability to get its case across internationally. Not only was its diplomatic network tiny compared to the UK but traditional networks and global influence always favoured Britain, a disparity all too clear when Ireland launched periodic international anti-partition initiatives.
Consequently, successive Irish Governments usually balked at confronting Britain on the global stage. Disputes, when possible, were raised inter-governmentally rather than internationally.
Dublin realised that for any progress to occur along the lines it desired, cooperation with London would be necessary. Attacking the British government internationally might win some plaudits at home but made London less inclined to listen to Dublin’s concerns. With a few brief exceptions, it was the Anglo-Irish dimension that took precedence.
Roads not taken
The archives are brimming with policy options relating to Northern Ireland that were considered and either rejected or rendered obsolete. These include deliberation on armed incursions into the North along with substantially increasing the military to prepare for a complete breakdown of society in Northern Ireland.
Political parties debated whether to extend their organisations into Northern Ireland or to facilitate the participation of Northern public representatives in the political system of the Republic, topics that have remerged in recent times.
Central features of Irish Government policy
Opposition to the IRA, acceptance that reunification could only take place with the consent of a majority within Northern Ireland, and the claim Dublin had a vital role to play in any solution designed to resolve the conflict were all central planks of Irish Government policy during the Troubles.
Stemming from this approach was Dublin’s preference for a comprehensive settlement based on power-sharing between representatives of the two communities and guaranteed by both governments, the better to assuage the fears of nationalists and unionists within Northern Ireland. The Government also highlighted the need for some kind of institutional arrangements between North and South (the so-called Irish Dimension) and frequently maintained there could be no purely internal solution to the Northern Ireland conflict.
Both the short-lived Sunningdale Agreement of 1974 and the Good Friday Agreement, which has provided the basis for the current peace process, included these essential ingredients.
Impact of European integration
When Ireland and the UK joined the EEC in 1973, there was a hope common membership of this supranational community could over time erode borders and reduce animosities within Ireland and between Ireland and Britain.
Processes of European integration enhanced Ireland’s status and put it on a more level footing with the UK. Before joining the EEC, Ireland was a small player in the large and rapidly expanding UN General Assembly while the UK was one of the five permanent members of the Security Council with veto powers.
In the expanded EEC of just nine members, however, Ireland had a seat on an equal basis with the UK on the Council of Ministers and representation in the other institutions, such as the Commission, Parliament and Court of Justice was also weighted to favour small states. Moreover, Britain frequently needed Irish support “in Europe” to advance its interests. Regular European summits meant the British Government could not avoid coming into contact with Irish leaders as they had often tried to do during the early stages of Troubles and, indeed, during preceding decades.
Better still, Anglo-Irish meetings could take place at the margins of EEC summits, thus reducing publicity and moderating expectations.
Response to Brexit
Following the decision of the UK electorate to leave the EU, many of the old certainties and assumptions on which Irish Government policies were predicated evaporated overnight.
Of EU regions, Northern Ireland is the most distinctly affected by Brexit. Central to the Irish Government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations has been the preservation of the Good Friday Agreement, and the avoidance of a hard Border.
An extensive mapping exercise identified 142 areas of existing North-South cooperation and underlined the fact this interaction and engagement relied very much on EU membership, which facilitated a common legal framework. The importance of maintaining an invisible, frictionless Border is not exclusively or even primarily about trade – though this is obviously important – but has implications for the peace process and interpersonal relationships.
There are 208 official Border crossings on this island, substantially more than the 137 that border the EU’s eastern flank from the Baltic Sea to Turkey.
Joint membership of the customs union and single market greatly encouraged the normalisation of cross-Border relationships throughout this island. Protecting these gains has become the major focus of Irish Government policy.
Facing an uncertain future
While the Troubles can finally be referred to in the past tense, complacency is ill-advised. Until the 1970s, the Troubles referred to an earlier Anglo-Irish war and Bloody Sunday was dated to 1920.
Too often the ‘Irish Question’, as British politicians have liked to call it, has been consigned to history, only to re-emerge with a vengeance, in large measure because of London’s wilful indifference.
The Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements institutionalised a peace process that has fundamentally altered day-to-day life in Northern Ireland. Violence has abated and former antagonists have shared power.
But while unquestionably a successful attempt at conflict management, it is perhaps too big a leap to say that what has been achieved is conflict resolution, let alone conflict transformation.
As we approach the centenary anniversary of partition, Brexit has re-introduced profound uncertainty into Anglo-Irish relations.
It is perhaps poor compensation to acknowledge it has also, in important ways, reversed the asymmetry of power. During these recent Brexit negotiations, Ireland and Britain have deliberated on opposite sides of the table but this State, as part of the EU, is now on the stronger side.
Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Associate Professor of Politics at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. His new book ‘From Partition to Brexit: The Irish Government and Northern Ireland’ is published by Manchester University Press