The Good Info Project

'There are good and bad days': Are Anglo-Irish relations worse now than during Brexit negotiations?

More direct links with Wales and north England are planned to improve Anglo-Irish ties post-Brexit.

HOW ARE ANGLO-IRISH relations going, separate from discussions about peace in Northern Ireland and membership of the EU?

Though some in the Irish Government have suggested that relations between Ireland and Westminster are “worse” now than they were during the four years of Brexit negotiations, others point to regular bilateral meetings and visits across the waters in recent months.

“We have good days and bad days,” a source close to the Government told The Journal.

A shift has also taken place in the Irish State’s view of the United Kingdom: instead of focusing on relations with Westminster, direct links are being built up with Wales, Scotland, and the north of England.

Despite acknowledgements that Brexit has made things “difficult” for Anglo-Irish relations, Ireland is aiming to work on areas where cooperation is possible in a “tripartite” way, sources say.

This could include situations where the Government works directly with the UK on understanding what it is trying to achieve, and then checking back to ensure EU positions aren’t compromised.

Some areas where Anglo-Irish cooperation could develop include climate and energy, culture, tourism and education. From the EU side, security, defence and data transfers have been mentioned.

It’s also been suggested that the Irish Government is willing to ‘beef-up’ two diplomatic forums set up as part of the Good Friday Agreement – the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference – but any desire to do so at the moment is seen as being “one-way” only.

clockwise-from-left-chief-minister-of-jersey-senator-john-le-fondre-first-minister-arlene-foster-chancellor-of-the-duchy-of-lancaster-michael-gove-secretary-of-state-for-northern-ireland-brandon The British Irish Council summit in Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh. 11 June 2021. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The idea that there is minimal co-operation on British-Irish talks has been disputed by other arms of the Irish Government, who say that there have been 54 high-level meetings this year already – most at political level.

The Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister are said to have regular discussions, and there have been “extensive” ministerial exchanges in addition to these, both bilaterally and at set-piece events such as last month’s British-Irish Council summit.

‘Sucking the oxygen’ out of relations

The idea to enhance more formal British-Irish forums precedes Brexit’s official start date.

In September 2019, Fianna Fáil TD Niall Collins told the Dáil that Ireland “cannot allow Brexit suck all of the oxygen from Anglo-Irish relations”, saying that it needs to “actively nurture” this relationship, outside of Brexit.

But Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney responded that because of Brexit, things will change, saying: “We are simply not going to see British ministers as often because they will not be around the EU negotiating tables with us.”

Coveney added that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) and the British-Irish Council (BIC) would therefore “need to be utilised to the fullest extent possible” to maintain those relationships.

“The relationship between Ireland and the UK is and will continue to be a unique, vital, and complex one. It is a relationship which requires great care, close attention and ongoing engagement at every level.”  

These forums are hoped to be used to develop direct relations with Scotland, Wales and the north of England, rather than directly with Westminster. This year, an Irish consulate has been opened in Manchester, and another reopened in Cardiff.

left-to-right-mayor-of-greater-manchester-andy-burnham-stockport-council-leader-elise-wilson-foreign-affairs-minister-simon-coveney-wendy-morton-mp-and-consul-general-sarah-mangan-in-manchester Minister Simon Coveney, Wendy Morton MP, and Consul General Sarah Mangan at the opening of the Irish consulate for the north of England. October 2021. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

It’s also understood that since Brexit, the UK Government has a team within the Cabinet Office that is working on the UK’s relationship with Ireland.

Ireland’s UK strategy has stretched beyond London post-Brexit, and that the British-Irish Council and Intergovernmental Conference will be for developing relations with devolved administrations.

Next year, the mayors of Manchester and Liverpool will travel to Ireland at the end of March, where tourism and trade will be a key focus. 

The British-Irish Council

The British-Irish Council has been attended by the Taoiseach of the day since its inception after the Good Friday Agreement, bar one summit in June 2006.

A sitting British Prime Minister hasn’t attended the British-Irish Council since July 2007, and November 2003 before that.

No Tory Prime Minister has ever attended a British-Irish Council summit.

But the British-Irish Council is not just about Ireland.

A source close to the Government suggested that the UK Prime Minister’s absences could be more to do with not wanting the UK to appear on equal footing as Scotland and Wales, rather than neglected relations with Ireland.

The source also pointed out that former British Prime Minister David Cameron launched an “ambitious” ten-year bilateral agreement with former Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2012, but that he didn’t attend the British-Irish Council.

britains-prime-minister-david-cameron-meets-his-irish-counterpart-enda-kenny-outside-of-10-downing-street-in-london-britain-november-9-2015-reutersstefan-wermuth David Cameron meets Enda Kenny outside 10 Downing Street. November 2015. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Post-Brexit, however, the absence of the British Prime Minister from these meetings is more striking.

“Certainly, if the British Government were serious about beefing up relationships, [the UK Prime Minister attending the British-Irish Council] would be a good symbolic start,” Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond said.

In the early years of the British-Irish Council, the deputy British PM would attend on behalf of the UK. From 2008 onwards, the Northern Ireland Secretary has been leading the UK delegation, but this changed recently when David Lidington and Michael Gove held the role of the Duchy of Lancaster – effectively the deputy Prime Minister.

taoiseach-micheal-martin-left-and-chancellor-of-the-duchy-of-lancaster-michael-gove-at-the-british-irish-council-summit-in-lough-erne-resort-in-enniskillen-co-fermanagh-picture-date-friday-june-1 Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove at the British-Irish Council in Fermanagh. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Lidington suggested in conversation with Neale Richmond earlier this year that Ireland and the UK could ‘swap’ civil servants as part of trying to build up Anglo-Irish relations post-Brexit. 

He also said both sides could celebrate each others’ culture, as a non-political way of creating ties – which may also tie into the Irish Government’s plan to appeal more to unionists as part of a ‘shared island’.

There is currently an Irish secondment – a temporary transfer to another position – to the UK Government’s Treasury. A Welsh secondment to the Irish Government’s diaspora unit was recently confirmed.

The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly

Brexit’s influence on UK politics has changed the areas where cooperation between Ireland and Britain is possible – but has it affected relationships between elected politicians in both countries?

minister-of-state-at-the-department-of-finance-brian-hayes-td-a-former-bipa-member-centre-and-irish-co-chair-joe-mchugh-td-seventh-left-along-with-with-members-of-the-british-irish-parliamentary The British Irish Parliamentary Assembly visit the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, Dublin. March 2014. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly (BIPA) was set up in 1990, and updated in 2001 to include members of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly the Senedd, as well as the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The British co-chair of that assembly, Andrew Rosindell, is an ardent Brexiteer – and was among the 28 rebel Tory MPs who voted against Theresa May’s Brexit deal three times in 2019 over what he referred to as the ‘ghastly’ backstop – which, if used, would have kept Northern Ireland in the European Union to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The backstop was defended by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for European Affairs at the time as integral to the Withdrawal Agreement and Ireland’s interests.

This group of Tory rebels recently met up to mark the protest vote against the backstop; Rosindell said he never waivered over the decision to vote against it. 

Rosindell also recently urged the Prime Minister to “take back control” of its borders, after 27 migrants died while attempting to cross the Channel from France to England.

He told the House of Commons this week that the UK wouldn’t be able to stop the “endless waves of illegal migrants crossing the English Channel until we break free of the constraints of the European Convention on Human Rights”.

When the Irish co-chair of the same assembly, Fianna Fáil TD Brendan Smith, was asked by The Journal whether it’s difficult to maintain Anglo-Irish relations when the UK Government is taking such opposing views to Ireland’s on Northern Ireland and its place in the world.

He said “on a personal and political basis, it’s not difficult”, but acknowledged that more work would be needed on the assembly post-Brexit, and that the assembly has “a more tasking role than previously”.

Smith said that as members of the European Union, Ireland and the UK were “bound together” and had a forum for discussions.

We would be supporting the British and they would be supporting us. We were close working colleagues at the Council of Ministers. We built up a great friendship and a great knowledge of one another.

He said that the Taoiseach Micheál Martin addressed a virtual plenary session of the assembly in February last year, and said the assembly should play a greater role than it had in recent years, which Smith said was “warmly welcomed” by the British delegation and showed “a common desire in promoting the relationship” post-Brexit.

Smith gives one way in which cooperation is possible: one of the four committees of the assembly is working on a report on the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines across Britain and Ireland, and lessons to be learned from both vaccine rollouts.

Another will look at opportunities to increase trade relations. When asked whether an upcoming discussion on the Protocol would result in flared tensions, Smith said:

People can get their point across in a respectful manner, we will differ from each other on different matters, but our job is to reach a consensus if possible.

“But many of the British assembly delegation were anti-Brexit. Members of the Labour party and Scottish and Welsh assemblies, and even members of the Conservative party were not all in favour of Brexit… plenty of Conservative voices would have opposed Brexit.”

“I was on the assembly in the early days of the 1990s – and it was all about politics, resolution to violence. After the Good Friday Agreement, it moved to maximising the benefits the two countries were getting from the GFA, and now its by-and-large bread and butter issues, and Brexit issues.

“Brexit brought back a more political element to the Assembly.

I’ve seen over the years that views don’t break down in a British-Irish context, but often views can be different within the British delegation or the Irish delegation, and there can be a variety of views in the British delegation as it’s made up of Wales, Scotland, and England. We want to see the issues there resolved, it’s in the best interest of both Ireland and Britain.

The UK is ‘more than just David Frost’s view’

Over in Europe, a similar parliamentary liaison group has been set up by the EU with the aim of maintaining relations between the European Union and its recently departed member state.

Fine Gael MEP Seán Kelly was appointed first vice-chair of the European Parliament’s half of the EU-UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly this week – and hopes that the group will be able to get a more nuanced, diverse view of the UK’s aims than the top leaders can.

boris-johnson-ursula-von-der-leyen-2021 Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen share an elbow bump. 2021. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Though Westminster’s 35 members have not yet been appointed, Kelly has stressed that if it is a cross-party group, and includes representation from Northern Ireland, it could make a difference.

When asked if the group could smooth out the paths between the leaders, Kelly said: “Very much so, because if we get a similar cross-party group in the UK, you’re not depending on David Frost to get the United Kingdom’s view.

I can see why in some respects why [the Westminster delegation has not been selected yet] because I would say Johnson wants to own this. If you have a broader political group from the UK, it would allow for far greater cooperation.

When asked whether the rest of Europe is sick of Brexit, as has been suggested, Kelly said: “I would say its true of the general population and that’s very understandable, but not for Parliament – there’s a long way to go yet with relations with the UK, if they’re willing to play ball.”

There are plans that the assembly would meet in Brussels, London and possibly Northern Ireland, and that it would “help guide post-Brexit relations from the top table”.

Kelly mentions that security, defence, and data transfers, and probably relations with the United States would be areas for future EU-UK cooperation.

“Also where trade is working out, where we can improve and try to be flexibile. We all have obligations to find areas of cooperation where it’s possible.” 

Relationships will ‘continue to be vital’

A British government spokesperson said in a statement to The Journal: “Maintaining the long-standing historical relationship with our closest neighbour remains of the utmost importance to the Prime Minister and wider Government.”

In a 12-paragraph statement, a DFA spokesperson said that Ireland’s relationship with the UK will continue to be “vital”, as both populations are “profoundly intertwined and we will always be close neighbours, trading partners and co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement”.

The Government remains committed to strengthening our relationship with the UK post-Brexit. Our actions have demonstrated this. We have invested in our footprint and relationships across the UK and prioritised political engagement.

The statement references the new consulates in Manchester and Cardiff, and “deepening” ties with the devolved administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff.

The statement also said that Government visits to the UK have “increased sharply” since the summer:

“The Taoiseach, Ministers and parliamentarians have been prioritising East-West and North-South engagement. The Taoiseach and Prime Minister are in regular contact. Ministers and senior officials from across Government have continued to meet with their UK counterparts frequently, with the number of visits to the UK increasing sharply since the summer.”

The statement notes that the Government aims to increase the value of trade of goods and services with Great Britain from the €90 billion made this year “despite the challenges associated with Brexit and the pandemic”.

The statement also notes that cooperation on COP26 and climate change, Covid recovery, the Common Travel Area, citizenship, and legacy, security & political stability in Northern Ireland is ongoing.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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