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Early this month, the taoiseach of Ireland responded to criticism from DUP leader Arlene Foster that he was ‘scaremongering’ about Brexit by saying, ‘I think we should be afraid of a no-deal Brexit … [it]would have very serious impacts on the economy, north and south, and on Britain. It could have security implications as well and it could have constitutional implications‘. There have even been suggestions that a no-deal Brexit could put peace at risk on the island of Ireland. The UK and Ireland are no doubt experiencing a difficult relationship at present, but complex rifts and deep tensions between the two nations arose long before Brexit came up on the agenda.
1916 is the year which has come to signify the nature of the complicated relationship between Ireland and the UK. It was the year of simultaneous British-Irish confrontation and cooperation. Home rule, a policy under which Ireland would be given more power over its destiny but remain a member of the United Kingdom, was an idea which had simmered in British politics from around 1885, but by April 1916 republican insurgents decided that the time had come for Ireland to assert its ‘national right to freedom and sovereignty‘, and launched a violent uprising. This rebellion became known as the Easter Rising, but it was brutally crushed after six days when 20,000 British soldiers confronted around 1,600 rebels, who later surrendered unconditionally. Despite material failure, the long-term outcome was, according to Dr Fearghal McGarry of Queen’s University Belfast, that it ‘exposed the oppressive nature of British rule and it transformed public opinion by winning public support for republicanism‘. This undoubtedly contributed towards its journey towards independent statehood which was finalised in 1948 under the terms of the Republic of Ireland Act.
1916 was also the year that thousands of Irishmen of all political and social backgrounds fought alongside British soldiers in the same uniforms at the Battle of the Somme. More than 3,500 Irish soldiers died in this Battle, whilst only three square miles of territory was gained. The battle was a disaster, but is a demonstrative example of UK-Irish cooperative abilities.
Since 1960, British-Irish relations have been steadily improving. This can be put down, in part, to shared membership of the European Union since 1973, but more importantly, the common goal of peace has brought the two nations together. On 31 August 1994, after decades of violence on the island of Ireland between Unionists, who valued Northern Irish membership of the UK, and Republicans, who aligned themselves with the Republic and saw Northern Ireland as an occupied region at the mercy of the UK, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) announced the cessation of military action. This was the beginning of the Irish peace process, which culminated in the ratification of the Good Friday Agreement after two separate referenda in both parts of Ireland in 1998. The Agreement covered three broad bases:
- the creation of a democratically elected Assembly
- the creation of a North/South Ministerial Council
- the creation of a British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Governmental Conference.
The Northern Irish Assembly was set up in such a way that all major parties could be represented, and that both Unionists and Republicans had a voice in the executive. and despite weathering a decade of internal politics, the Assembly is currently suspended and holds the world record for the longest period without a sitting government, which it passed after 589 days. This can be put down, in part, to the fact that the single largest Unionist and Republican parties in the Assembly must share equal power as First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, with one office only existing with the full support of the other.
Since the outcome of the EU referendum held by the UK in 2016, relations have frayed. This stems in part from fears that any reduction in trade flow between the countries as a result of the imposition of tariffs will have a negative economic impact on both sides of the Irish Sea; German economists have predicted that a no-deal Brexit will hit the Irish economy three times harder than the UK’s.
Then there is the Irish border. With the EU’s insistence that the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Irish backstop which has been rejected by MPs three times, is non-negotiable, the likelihood of the imposition of a border which nobody wants between Ireland and Northern Ireland increases. This will, according to the Irish government, ‘turn[…] the clock back‘, and risk peace in the region.
Leaving the EU’s customs union and single market inevitably means that the UK will have different trade and immigration rules to the EU’s member states, including Ireland. This creates important questions around the future of the Common Travel Area, which has ensured the existence of a frictionless border between the countries since 1923.
In a recent visit to Liverpool, President Higgins of Ireland said, ‘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‘. Irish politicians and journalists have repeatedly stressed the importance of the retention of positive UK-Irish relations, which have, according to Daniel Mulhall, the Irish Ambassador in London, ‘never been better than they are today‘.
The UK’s relationship with Ireland is undergoing change. Ireland is heavily committed to its membership of the EU, but the UK is leaving. Paul Gillespie, writer in the Irish Times, has argued that the bilateral friendship will ‘never be the same again‘. With such monumental political earthquakes occurring in the UK at present, this is undoubtedly true. But with the persevering attitude of cooperation which the UK and Ireland have mastered over the last century, UK-Irish relations can certainly improve.