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Peter Kyle and Keir Starmer Alamy Stock Photo
Neighbours

What will a Keir Starmer premiership mean for Ireland?

Starmer has made campaign promises in some policy areas that would affect Anglo-Irish relations.

THE UNITED KINGDOM has a new prime minister, the first Labour government in 14 years, and Keir Starmer has some decisions to make about Ireland. 

Prime Minister Starmer will have a lot of competition for his attention in the early days in Downing Street, one of which will be the normalisation of relations with Ireland.

Comments made by the new Prime Minister have indicated he is planning to ease diplomatic tensions between the UK and Ireland, with implications for the Northern Ireland border and investigations into crimes committed during the Troubles.

He has criticised the approaches of recent Conservative governments when it comes to dealing with Ireland, saying tensions between Dublin and London should never have become as strained as they were over Brexit. 

Starmer made campaign promises in some policy areas that would directly affect Anglo-Irish relations.

labour-leader-keir-starmer-meets-with-sinn-feins-president-mary-lou-mcdonald-at-the-labour-party-headquarters-central-london-as-the-northern-ireland-troubles-legacy-and-reconciliation-bill-receiv Keir Starmer meets with Sinn Fein's President Mary Lou McDonald at the Labour Party headquarters, central London. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Troubles Legacy Act

He has promised to revisit the Conservative government’s Troubles Legacy Act, which shut down historical investigations into crimes committed in Northern Ireland between 1966 and 1998. The Irish government has brought a legal challenge against the legislation.

“I’m against it for a number of reasons,” he told LBC on 18 June. “The first is it doesn’t have the support of any of the political parties in Northern Ireland. This is the wrong way of doing business.”

He also noted that the act doesn’t have the support of victims groups either.

“There are very powerful arguments and counter arguments. I do want to find a way through this because I think in the end we have to find a way.

“But doing this in a way which doesn’t have the approval of victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland… is not a sensible way to proceed.”

Starmer himself has first-hand experience of dealing with politics in the North, having lived there for five years when he served as a human rights advisor to the Northern Ireland Policing Board. 

“I was in love with this island and that love has stayed with me,” he said in a speech at Queen’s University Belfast in January last year. “It’s also taught me so much about politics, about change, about the power of hope.”

Starmer and his wife spent their first holiday after they got married in the North and he’s been known to wear a Donegal GAA jersey while playing five-a-side football.

During that speech, Starmer said: “The Good Friday Agreement is the greatest achievement of the Labour Party in my lifetime, without question.”

That kind of talk will provide some comfort to the government in Dublin after the disregard recent Tory prime ministers showed the treaty during Brexit negotiations. 

labour-leader-sir-keir-starmer-delivers-a-speech-for-the-hume-foundation-during-a-visit-to-st-columbs-college-in-derry-northern-ireland-picture-date-friday-march-3-2023 Keir Starmer delivers a speech for the Hume Foundation, during a visit to St Columb's College in Derry in March 2023. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Boris Johnson’s premiership, and his approach to Northern Ireland in particular, left relations between Ireland and the UK at their frostiest in decades. Liz Truss did not help matters but Rishi Sunak made some progress in agreeing on the Windsor Framework, which put to bed some of the thorniest issues around post-Brexit trade. 

“One should acknowledge that Sunak is a great improvement on his two predecessors,” Bobby McDonagh, a former Irish ambassador to the UK, told The Journal ahead of the election.

“I think he’s done quite a bit to make some progress towards restoring relations by, for example, agreeing the Windsor framework and behaving in a broadly normal way, unlike Johnson and Truss.”

On the possibility of a Starmer-led government taking over 10 Downing Street, McDonagh says it would be a good thing for Anglo-Irish relations. 

“I think it will be good for British-Irish relations in a number of ways.

“First of all, in terms of the North, the whole peace process was built on what is now called co-guarantorship, where the Dublin and London governments were co-guarantors of everything that happened. 

“And that was because it was recognised that there were two communities in Northern Ireland with different aspirations.”

leader-of-the-ulster-unionist-party-doug-beattie-left-centre-peter-kyle-third-right-shadow-secretary-of-state-for-northern-ireland-labour-leader-sir-keir-starmer-second-right-and-shadow-leader Starmer and members of his shadow cabinet met with political leaders in Northern Ireland during the post-Brexit deadlock. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

This idea held in relations between Britain and Ireland up until the UK government led by David Cameron.

“But since Brexit, and despite some efforts by Therese May, the idea of the two governments working together as equals in the process has got somewhat lost,” says McDonagh.

He says the UK’s Troubles Legacy Act was “a mistake for many reasons, including that every party in Northern Ireland opposes it”, but also because it was enacted without consultation with the Irish government.

“And it’s not just a matter of, you know, irritation or principle. They will make mistakes, as they have done on the Legacy Bill, if they don’t work with and listen to the Dublin government.

“So I think the first way in which a Starmer government will represent an improvement is that we would expect to return to that sort of equal joint working of the two governments, which worked so well between Dublin and London over several decades.”

EU relations

Another way McDonagh sees the relationship changing between the two countries is the approach the Labour leader has said he would take to the European Union.

Starmer has said he will seek closer ties with the EU in terms of foreign policy and defence matters. He has also indicated he wants to sign a veterinary agreement, which would ease restrictions on trade, particularly with the North. 

“I think Starmer will move slowly but steadily towards a more pragmatic relationship with the European Union, and by definition that means a better relationship with Dublin, because Europe is part of what we are,” McDonagh says. 

That said, Starmer has said he does not want to rejoin the EU. 

Another factor in considering Starmer’s stance on issues involving Ireland could be the number of people with Irish heritage he has in his team of advisors.

For McDonagh, this may lead to a more informed and friendly approach to Ireland but ultimately it will be the quality of the advice Starmer receives that matters most.

“The Labour Party, I suppose, does have a more empathetic relationship with Ireland than the predominant strain of the Conservative Party these days,” McDonagh says.

But that doesn’t mean Starmer is going to completely overhaul Anglo-Irish relations.

“He’s not going to suddenly become a radical Irish nationalist or anything like that. 

“It’s part of his job as British prime minister to keep the peace process on track and to show respect for both communities in Northern Ireland, and that’s what the Irish government tries to do, and it’s what he should try to do. 

“So whatever he does, he has to listen to nationalists and their concerns, he also has to take account of Unionist concerns.”

 

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