Brexit and the Great Disruption in UK-Irish Relations
John O’Brennan (Maynooth University)
What we have seen play out in recent weeks in Brussels, Dublin and London is a remarkable ‘reverse asymmetry’ in UK-Irish relations: the historical dynamic of British power over Ireland yielded to the inside-outside asymmetrical logic of the Article 50 negotiations on Brexit: Ireland’s position as a privileged EU Insider leaves it in position to veto any withdrawal Treaty agreement that does not include a ‘backstop’ clause on the Irish border acceptable to Dublin.
In itself this constitutes an extraordinary turnaround in inter-state power dynamics. But the wider challenges thrown up by Brexit threaten to also reverse the hugely improved relationships on the island of Ireland and across the Irish Sea which had been achieved incrementally and painstakingly over many decades, and, in particular, through the signature of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Constitutional regimes, state orders and both individual and collective identities are all deeply unsettled by Brexit and will remain so for years to come. Both Ireland and the United Kingdom are thus approaching the third decade of the twenty-first century facing a very unsettled geoeconomic and geopolitical environment.
Shared membership of the European Union, along with the growing inter-dependence arising out of the deepening of the EU Single market, facilitated the long-term building of trust between the UK and Ireland: the ‘totality of relationships’ across the British Isles included an important European dimension after 1973. Over time, transformation, ‘normalisation’ and reconciliation were significantly bound up with joint membership of the EU which helped to decisively re-shape relations between London and Dublin. The open-ended, multi-layered, shared sovereignty model which came to underpin the Good Friday Agreement allowed for the same kinds of constructive ambiguity which had long characterised the EU model of governance.
Just as European integration facilitated deep reconciliation between France and Germany (and, later, Germany and Poland), the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom developed in the shadow of this grand experiment in transnational governance. Brussels offered a neutral space in which politicians and civil servants could ‘get to know each other’. In the framework of mutual exchange which characterised the Council in particular, patterns of increased trust and better bilateral relationships became the norm: the multilateral bargaining forum facilitated both functional and normative adaptations by the member states.
British and Irish civil servants got to know each other as much in the new informal spaces offered by Brussels (cafes, bars, diplomatic receptions, and other social spaces) as the formal institutional landscape mandated by the treaties. The introduction of the ‘Council Presidency’ also encouraged intense interaction and engagement across the spectrum of EU legislative activity.
This isn’t to argue that joint UK-Irish membership of the European Union was a panacea for every ill in the bilateral relationship. There is no doubt that the relationship remained a very difficult one throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as ‘the Troubles’ continued in seemingly insoluble form. Episodes such as the Arms Crisis, the Hunger Strikes in 1981 and the assassination of Lord Mountbatten, as well as IRA attacks on London and other cities, not to mention daily atrocities in Northern Ireland itself, often placed enormous pressure on relations between Dublin and London. But I would argue that joint membership of the EU did play a critical role in the gradual emergence of a consensus between the UK and Ireland on how both to respond to the conflict and (potentially) de-escalate it: intense bilateralism deriving from functional multilateralism facilitated pragmatic Anglo-Irish problem solving. After 1998 the North-South and East-West elements of that engagement increased exponentially.
In January 2018 the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in a landmark speech to the European parliament in Strasbourg, consciously sought to link the European Union model of integration as enabling peaceful inter-state co-existence with the peace process on the island of Ireland. Varadkar specifically emphasized the inter-linkages between and indivisibility of the two models and referenced former SDLP leader and MEP John Hume in asserting ‘it is hard to imagine the Good Friday Agreement being made without our shared membership of the European Union and the Single Market.’
Here we should note the constructive ambiguity which characterises both the EU as a post-sovereign cross national peace project and the Good Friday Agreement as a framework for accommodation of otherwise opposed communal identities and traditions. The EU architecture is built on a combination of intergovernmental and supranational logics and decision-making mechanisms. It is a hybrid model of political community and inherently ambiguous as to its endpoint. That ambiguity is crucial in that it facilitates the co-existence of, and cooperation between, often opposed national positions in the Council. Its macro purpose is to preserve the peace between national components with a bloody history of conflict. It is in this sense that European integration enabled national sovereignties to be viewed as complementary rather than threatening, Kantian rather than Hobbesian.
This framework of shared sovereignty began to come under pressure immediately on the return to office of the Conservative party in 2010. Prior to that, the UK was considered an ‘awkward partner’ but was not an especial outlier in terms of being outvoted in Council. A detailed study conducted for Votewatch in November 2015 examined voting records within the Council, between 2004-09 and 2009-15. It demonstrated that within that time period the UK was not only the most outvoted member state but was on the losing side a far higher proportion of the time than any other EU government in the 2009-15 period: jumping from being on the minority (losing) side only 2.6 per cent of the time in 2004-09 to being on the losing side 12.3 per cent of the time in 2009-15. In marked contrast, Ireland found itself on the losing side of the vote less than 2 per cent of the time in both periods under review. Thus, UK dis-engagement within the Council and divergence from Ireland (and from the EU mainstream) began well before the Brexit referendum in 2016 and under ‘Remain’ advocates David Cameron and George Osborne rather than ‘Brextremists’.
The difficulties experienced by the United Kingdom in seeking to detach itself from the EU after the Brexit referendum provide a striking reminder of the depth of both economic and legal interdependence which has cumulatively characterised the EU order. Over time Ireland made a determined move from the periphery to the mainstream of the European Union whilst the United Kingdom moved in the opposite direction. The Irish commitment to ‘Europe’ deepened significantly after the UK decision to leave the EU was made in 2016: with every unanticipated crisis experienced by the UK, the Irish choice to commit to European integration has become clearer.
John O’Brennan is Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration and senior lecturer in European Politics in the Department of Sociology at Maynooth University, Ireland.