Brexit Institute News

Brexit and the British-Irish Relationship

by Etain Tannam*

The British-Irish relationship has been typified by close cooperation since the 1980s, culminating in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. However, Brexit has created challenges and at times the rhetoric between the British and Irish governments has been heated. It was in response to the perceived need to avoid megaphone diplomacy in the 1980s, following the 1982 Falklands War and the 1981 H-Block hunger strikes where 13 hunger strikers died, that the British-Irish relationship was institutionalised in the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. Arguably, Brexit’s challenges justify a commitment to using existing British-Irish institutions more fully or to creating new ones.

The reasons for the evolution of intergovernmental cooperation are multi-faceted. The failure of the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement, the need to manage the crisis as violence increased in the 1980s onwards, the H-Block hunger strikes and Sinn Féin’s decision to enter electoral politics were all fundamental factors. The influence of the former leader of the SDLP, John Hume, was also central, as well as bureaucratic learning processes. Although there were periodic strains, relations continued to flourish at least until the Brexit referendum. The EU also provided a framework for British-Irish cooperation from the 1970s. Corridor talks and shared common interests in the EU oiled the wheels of the relationship.

Thus, joint decision-making and problem-solving typified the British and Irish governments’ policy -making processes to Northern Ireland in the 1990s. Policy was based on a long-term strategy. It was not ad hoc, or reactive. Its central tenet was that in a crisis government leaders should be obliged to meet more not less often. The 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement provided for an Anglo-Irish Conference, which was deeply opposed by unionist parties, to represent the Irish government’s voice in matters of concern to nationalists in Northern Ireland. UK and Irish governments were obliged to meet regularly. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement created the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which subsumed the Anglo-Irish Conference. With the success of the peace process and the devolution of policing powers to Northern Ireland from 2007, it appeared to become less relevant .

The 2016 Brexit referendum created the following challenges for the British-Irish relationship:

  • 56% of the Northern Irish electorate voted to remain in the EU. Although, many Unionists also voted to remain, the stronger support base for Remain among nationalists and Catholics meant that the Brexit result potentially reinforced the sectarian cleavage and immediately led to calls for a united Ireland, thereby potentially destabilizing the Good Friday Agreement and peace itself.
  • 14% of Irish exports go to Britain and the UK is also a vital part of the supply chain in Irish exports to the rest of Europe. Cross-border trade is highly dependent on an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. There are also many cultural and personal links between Ireland and the UK and citizens of both states enjoy freedom of movement within the area.
  • In the Brexit negotiations, the Irish government, as part of the 27 member-state EU negotiating team, and the UK government are clearly on opposite sides of the EU bargaining table for the first time. The Irish government is not free to bargain unilaterally with the UK and both governments cannot share information in the way they once did.
  • The EU’s framework for Brexit negotiations revealed divergent preferences between the UK and Ireland. The European Council’s decision that the negotiations would occur in three Phases, not simultaneously, and that substantial progress must be made in Phase One, reflected intensive lobbying by Irish officials from September 2016. Northern Ireland and the border issue were identified as one of the three issues central to Phase One. If the 27 states did not believe that substantial progress was made on these issues, movement to Phase 2, trade talks, would not occur. The Irish government had a de facto veto in deciding whether the UK’s proposals constituted ‘sufficient progress’ on the Northern Ireland issue.
  • More generally, Brexit means that the Irish and UK governments have lost the benefits of the EU’s framework for corridor talks and increased communication. Ireland has lost a powerful ally with whom it shared many common interests in the EU. Instead, it is faced with conflicts of interest emerging from economic conflicts, for example, in fisheries and from the border issue.
  • From late summer 2017, the Irish government’s language grew more strident, stating that the border issue was problem of the UK’s making and that the Irish government would not come up with solutions –it was up to the British government to advance solutions. Reflecting the changed context, there were reports in November 2017 that the UK government was adopting a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy, believing that it could persuade some EU states to move to Phase Two of the Brexit negotiations, even if the Irish government did not believe sufficient progress had been made on the border issue.
  • In itself Brexit’s impact on the intergovernmental relationship could be more compartmentalised, but the UK government’s disarray and mismanagement of Brexit have led to increased tensions and a return to more hard-line rhetoric than in the recent past. There have been remarkably few one-to-one PM meetings, given the challenges ahead. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Council has not met either, but is hindered also by unionist sensitivities.

Although , increased communication did occur from November 2017 and Irish and UK prime ministers have met 3 times, the logic of intergovernmentalism that typified the peace process is more absent in the Brexit context. Poor communication from the UK government and a post-peace process  legacy that made less use of formal British-Irish institutions have implied that the logic of meeting more often not less often in a crisis has not prevailed to date. This deterioration could be a short-term problem, driven largely by the weakness of the UK government and the on-going Brexit negotiations. The optimistic scenario is that once a deal is done, the relationship can be strengthened once more. However, Brexit has resurrected language and issues that had been dormant and that were deliberately avoided in the past 30 years. It has shown how old wounds can resurface. Even if the EU did not cause cooperation, the UK’s departure implies that Ireland and the UK have fewer common interests. It will take careful and intensive diplomatic management and stronger use of bilateral institutions to maintain the 1990s levels of cooperation. Given the centrality of British-Irish cooperation to stability in Northern Ireland and the negativity of nationalistic rhetoric and stereotyping, the relationship certainly justifies time and attention.

* Etain Tannam is Lecturer in International Peace Studies at Trinity College Dublin.  She is currently conducting research on the impact of the Belfast Agreement and the EU on British-Irish cooperation (Oxford, OUP, 2019), including the possible effects of Brexit.

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