Requiem for a shared interdependent past: Brexit and the deterioration in UK-Irish relations.

Author:O'Brennan, John


The vote by the United Kingdom on 23 June 2016 to leave the European Union (EU) constituted an existential shock to British and EU politics. Despite more than four decades of membership characterised by the United Kingdoms reputation as 'the awkward partner' (George 1990), the referendum result came as a surprise to the chancelleries of Europe and to the world beyond. Nowhere did the shock resonate as much as in Dublin. Although the Irish government had moved to put contingency plans in place, the result when it was finally delivered in the early hours of 24 June 2016, left Ireland in the worst possible position. The United Kingdom was not just its nearest neighbour. It was also one of its largest trading partners, the main market for Irish agri-food produce, the geographic link to the continent in getting Irish goods to market (Ireland's 'land bridge') and its most important ally within the European Council and Council of Ministers in Brussels. It was immediately apparent that the vote would have very significant consequences for the totality of relationships within the island of Ireland as well as that between Ireland and the United Kingdom.

This article examines the impact of Brexit on UK-Irish relations in the 2-year period after the vote. It argues that shared membership of the EU, along with the growing interdependence arising out of the deepening of the EU Single market, facilitated the long-term building of trust between the United Kingdom 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 reshape relations between London and Dublin. The open-ended, multi-layered, shared sovereignty model which came to underpin the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) allowed for the same kinds of constructive ambiguity which had long characterised the EU model of governance.

In this article, it is argued that the referendum result had an extraordinary deleterious impact on UK-Irish relations, made all the worse by the result of the 2017 general election which left Theresa May short of a parliamentary majority and dependent for support on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which sought to use its unexpected leverage to buffer against further encroachment by the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland's affairs. Brexit resulted in an unanticipated return of the 'Irish Question' to British politics. In effect, for the United Kingdom, the 'European question' joined the 'Irish question' as one of those perennially contentious issues that are never quite settled and never fully normalised. For Ireland, the decision by the United Kingdom is momentous and opens a new phase in the contested history of Irish-British relations (Laffan in press) even as it confirms the Irish 'choice for Europe' in no uncertain terms.

The Brexit negotiations also demonstrated 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: Ireland's position as a privileged EU Insider left it in position to veto any withdrawal Treaty agreement that did not include a 'backstop' clause on the Irish border acceptable to Dublin. In itself, this constituted 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 GFA in 1998. Constitutional regimes, state borders and both individual and collective identities are all deeply unsettled by Brexit and will remain so for years to come.

Brussels as a shared space: getting to know you

Ireland joined the European Communities along with the United Kingdom (and Denmark) in the first enlargement that took place on 1 January 1973. The European regional system in the post-war period offered Ireland an opportunity to dilute the influence of the United Kingdom and to place UK-Irish relations on a new, more mature footing (Laffan in press). From the earliest days of membership, Irish elites pursued a very different approach to the EU than their British counterparts, many of whom (on both the left and the right) seemed obsessed with the notion of 'ever closer union', the alleged European pursuit of a Utopian 'end state', inevitably federal in character. The Irish in contrast viewed European integration as a rational process, a practical and dynamic mechanism for tackling regional collective action problems, and one that could particularly benefit small states in an international context which remained essentially Hobbesian in character. In the post-sovereign constellation of the EU Council of Ministers, small states like Ireland could exert significant leverage denied them in the anarchic world beyond this unique experiment in 'governance beyond the state'.

Ireland's European policy thus developed in ways that were much more noticeably 'communautaire' than that of the United Kingdom. Ireland was less committed to the 'veto' than the United Kingdom, saw the Commission as the institutional protector of small states in the decision-making process and supported the strengthening of the powers of the parliament and direct elections to that body at a time when this was still somewhat unpopular in the Communities. Although the Irish position could not be described as 'communautaire' as the Benelux states, for example, it was much more so than others, notably the United Kingdom (Laffan in press).

If the Irish response to deepening European integration has been positive (if, periodically qualified), the United Kingdom demonstrated increasing unease with 'Europe', a reflex culminating in the Brexit vote in 2016. One of the many paradoxes associated with that reflex was that the EU being rejected by UK voters had been heavily influenced by British preferences for neo-liberal modes of market integration. The Single Market Programme strongly reflected prevailing British Conservative policies supporting deregulation, enhancing competition and advancing free trade. But that conscious championing of European market integration sat uneasily with the much more equivocal attitude to political integration. That equivocation increased markedly when the Conservative party returned to office in 2010. The passion that animated Brexit, according to Fintan O'Toole (2016), was one of'English self-assertion'. Growing interdependence within the EU encouraged an 'identity backlash' which was fuelled by myths of national ethnic selection, in particular, a mythology of England proudly 'standing alone', as it did against the Spanish Armada and Nazism.

If Ireland and the United Kingdom ended their joint experience of European integration in very different positions from where they started in 1973, the modalities of shared membership facilitated very significant convergence of experience, interests, policy preferences and values. European integration encourages and promotes both functional and substantive reciprocity among participating member states: the deepening of economic and political links and legal obligations within the collective supranational produces dynamics of increased cross-border and inter-state trust and mutuality (Haas 1968; O'Brennan 2019; Ward 2018). Just as European integration facilitated deep reconciliation between France and Germany (and, later, Germany and Poland), the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingd om 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.

After 1973, the most important potential offered by joint UK-Irish membership in the European Economic Community (EEC)/EU 'was to offer Ireland away of diluting its excessive economic dependence on the UK and mediating the vast asymmetry of the post-colonial bilateral relationship between a large and a small state' (Laffan 2017: 45). Joe Lee's (1989) history of 20th century Ireland chronicled recurring economic failure in the Republic of Ireland. The main manifestations of this included slow and erratic patterns of economic growth, low productivity in many economic sectors, high and persistent levels of unemployment, exceptionally high outward migration rates and a preponderance of deep social problems (O'Brennan 2010). That desolate landscape of socio-economic failure encouraged continuing dependence on the United Kingdom decades after independence. But this baleful reality began to change decisively in the late 1970s. From accounting for 75% of Irish exports in 1960, and 61% in 1971, the UK market share fell steadily to under 20% in 2009 and 13% in 2018. In parallel with this, we have seen exports to EU states (excluding the United Kingdom) rise from just 13% in 1970 to almost 47% in 2016 (Department of Finance 2017). Market diversification away from the United Kingdom and towards other continental partners has been one of the most striking features of Ireland's membership of the EU.

Those macro trends, however, also reveal that Ireland remains highly connected to British markets in defined areas of activity and EU membership has in fact deepened those connections significantly. The United Kingdom is the second largest single-country export destination for Ireland for goods and the largest single-country export destination for...

To continue reading

Request your trial