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Opinion: We know how little Ireland counts in Westminster - but UK relations still matter

The Fianna Fáil MEP for Dublin argues that despite current Conservative Party ideologies being bad for Ireland, relations must be maintained.

Barry Andrews MEP

I ENTERED THE European Parliament in unusual circumstances. Brexit brought me in in two senses.

I ran for election because I felt that there would be a shift in the relevance of Brussels post-Brexit.

Also I won the fourth seat in Dublin in May 2019 which only became effective when the UK left in January 2020.

My maiden speech in February 2020 focused on trying to ensure that the UK was treated not as a rival, but as a partner.

However, current Tory ideology (if dishonesty is an ideology) is having an extremely negative impact on the island of Ireland.

We are aware of how little Ireland really counts in Westminster politics – unless, as occasionally happens, a unionist party holds the balance of power. The orthodox view for years was that, for UK Prime Ministers, there was nothing to be gained in getting involved in Ireland; it was a case of, ‘leave well enough alone’.

This orthodoxy was rejected by John Major, who invested a lot of political capital in laying the groundwork for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 via the Downing Street Declaration of 1994. Major’s demise unfortunately bore out the wisdom of the orthodoxy.

Despite the British-Irish governance architecture in the Good Friday Agreement, few of the mechanisms are really effective.

The British-Irish Council (comprising Ireland, UK, and the devolved administrations) has none of the familiarity of the Nordic Council because the UK has largely ignored it, with Prime Ministers rarely, if ever, attending – the last to attend was Gordon Brown in 2007. 

Equally, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference is underused. It didn’t even meet between 2007 and 2018. There is blame on both sides for that.

Acknowledging these deficits, Taoiseach Micheál Martin set up a Shared Island Unit within the Taoiseach’s department in December 2020.

It is his view that there will not be a border poll in the next five years. Instead, his main focus is on building trust with the unionist community in particular through infrastructure projects, health, trade missions, and school curriculums. He even calls upon the Marshall Plan as an inspiration for the level of investment needed. Uniting people comes before uniting territory, although not merely a means to that end.

The knock-on impacts on our relationship with the EU also requires work.

The EU is determined to drive an integration agenda. This will be super-charged if Emmanuel Macron is re-elected as French President in May next year. The new German government is distinctly pro-EU and has set its sights on further EU integration.

This should ring alarm bells in Dublin.

Our economic model is based on inward investment primarily from the US, a pro-business climate and tax autonomy. All of these foundations are under threat. Equally plans for a European Defence Union hardly sit well with our traditional military neutrality.

Having painted this negative picture, it should be said that rumours of Ireland’s difficulties in the EU are much exaggerated. Ireland’s influence on the shape of the Brexit negotiations demonstrated a very strong diplomatic effort – ‘statecraft’, as some rather pompously call it.

Winning a seat on the UN Security Council from the group of death – which included Norway and Canada – was also a great achievement.

Finance Minister Pascal Donohoe’s success in becoming Eurozone President was also a remarkable coup. What was almost the greatest coup was nearly winning the right to host the European Banking Authority following a tied vote with France. The appointment of Philip Lane as Chief Economist of the ECB and Emer Cooke as head of the EMA are also worth noting.

Joining the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 was the biggest contributor for stability on the island of Ireland because of (i) funding towards peace projects and reconciliation; (ii) opportunities for relationships between politicians and diplomats to be formed outside of the context of the Troubles; (iii) softening of the Irish border; and (iv) allowing for the concept of nationality to evolve.

It is important to ensure that the UK’s exit from the EU does not erode these contributors to stability on this island.

We have not fully escaped the morass of Brexit but once we do, great care will have to be taken to triangulate policy based on the sets of relationships that matter to us most; the EU, the US – and the UK.

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We can position ourselves as the gateway to Europe for both of our Atlantic neighbours.

Barry Andrews is a Fianna Fáil MEP for the Dublin constituency. He is a member of the European Parliament Committee on International Trade, and a member of the EU-UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly.

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This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are 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.

About the author:

Barry Andrews  / MEP

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