Despite tensions over Drumcree, Anglo-Irish relations have been transformed over the past 25 years. Inside the EU, Ireland has become a more open, self-confident country, pursuing with Britain the goal of peace in Northern Ireland. But Garret FitzGerald and Paul Gillespie fear that differences over Europe and the rise of English nationalism threaten the ententeby Garret Fitzgerald / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Pessimism about the condition of Northern Ireland since the end of the IRA ceasefire and July’s Orange march confrontation at Drumcree is widespread, and justifiably so. The retreat of the security forces at Drumcree in the face of a unionist mob infiltrated by paramilitaries was seen in Britain as a sensible move to avoid bloodshed. But it was greeted with dismay, even despair, in the Republic. Irish governments have attempted over several decades to persuade Northern nationalists-especially those in isolated areas and city ghettos-to rely on the security forces for their protection and to abandon a view of the IRA as their ultimate defender. The retreat at Drumcree may have given the IRA its best recruiting argument for a generation. Even more depressing, division between the two communities now seems to come from ordinary people, rather than, as so often in the past, from opportunistic political leaders. There has even been a return to shop boycotts in certain areas.
The ugliness of the present should not, however, obscure the profound, and positive, shifts that have taken place in relations between London and Dublin over the past 25 years-over Northern Ireland and much else. These shifts are a necessary, although clearly insufficient, condition of a settlement in the North, and have gone rather unsung in both countries. Hopefully the new Anglo-Irish relationship can withstand tremors such as Drumcree; but it must now brace itself for the longer and deeper rumbles from Britain’s identity crisis.
it has become a clich?o talk of Ireland’s new political and cultural self-confidence, borne on a tide of rapid economic growth. What is less well appreciated is the contribution of the European Union to this self-confidence and, indeed, to a reassessment of the insular tradition of Irish nationalism. It is no exaggeration to say that-Northern Ireland aside-EU membership has completed the project of Irish independence, which had been hamstrung after 1922 by the extent of the continuing links with Britain.
This has had an economic as well as a political dimension. Although Britain remains Ireland’s largest trading partner, the share of Irish exports going to Britain has fallen from 61 per cent to 26 per cent and Irish imports from Britain from 51 per cent to 40 per cent since both countries joined the Community in 1973. Ireland also benefited from unexpected economic diversification thanks to the flood of inward investors, especially from the US.
Politically, membership of the EU introduced into the Anglo-Irish relationship both greater equality and a more neutral arena in which to conduct relations-“a decisive shift away from the embrace of Britain,” as Douglas Hurd put it at a recent seminar in Dublin. This largely unanticipated liberation from a debilitating anglocentricity should not be underestimated in Britain. It has released considerable creative energy as Irish people have rediscovered cultural and historical links with Europe once sustained mainly by the Catholic church.
Many people in Britain suppose that Ireland’s enthusiasm for economic and political integration into the EU stems only from the undoubted benefit of budgetary transfers. In fact it has as much to do with the benefit to smaller states of transcending Europe’s balance of power diplomacy which had marginalised their interests for so long.
But as the case of Denmark shows, not all small countries living in the shadow of larger ones are enthusiastic Europeans. On the basis of the first 50 years of independence, Irish nationalist sentiment might have been expected to opt for a minimalist EU membership, preferring to hang on to the sovereignty it had so painfully won from its neighbour. The opposite has been the case. The consolidation and affirmation of Irish identity through Europe has released the country from the inward-looking nationalism of the four decades after independence. The irredentist claim on the territory of Northern Ireland has given way to a pluralism which accepts unionism as an Irish tradition entitled to recognition on an equal footing with nationalism, and insists upon the (unlikely) consent of a majority in Northern Ireland as a precondition for political unification.
The objective of Irish unification has been gradually replaced by the goal of restoring peace in Northern Ireland. The policies of the British and Irish governments thus converge on the same objectives in Northern Ireland even though there remain, as we shall see, differences about how to bring the violence to an end. But the policies of the two states profoundly diverge on Europe. In both cases, Ireland’s interests have prevailed over its emotions. But in Britain’s relations to Europe, its emotions seem to have prevailed over its interest in containing the power of Germany within a more integrated EU. This, at least, is how many Irish people see it.
Britain’s European question has implications for Ireland and for Northern Ireland. The re-emergence of English nationalism is tugging at relations with the EU and at the centuries-old constructive ambiguity between Britishness and Englishness. Identity is being re-evaluated elsewhere in these islands too, not least in Scotland. In the Irish state the old separatist nationalism has been successfully challenged by the idea of an Ireland with different, and equally valid, traditions. In Northern Ireland, some nationalists are having difficulty coming to terms with this new nationalism of the South, while the unionists’ British identity is challenged by the disappearance in Britain of the Protestant imperialist form of Britishness which they cherish. In the light of all these uncertainties and possibilities, it is worth dwelling, briefly, on the historical, social and psychological background to today’s Anglo-Irish relations.
relations between small states and large neighbours are rarely free of tension. The Anglo-Irish relationship has been characterised by several well-known further complications. First, the dominant strains in their respective populations are culturally differentiated to a marked degree, stemming from two quite different branches of the Indo-European mainstream-Teutonic and Celtic. Second, an attempted colonisation and settlement of the smaller island by the larger, stretching over a period from the 12th to the 18th century, was half successful; it left behind a resentful Irish majority and an insecure settler minority. Third, the mutual antipathies thus aroused contributed to, and were later exacerbated by, the divergent reactions to the Reformation. In Ireland, this had the negative effect of inhibiting the process of inter-marriage between the indigenous population and the settlers, a process which might otherwise have fused the two communities.
Disparities of size often have their own psychological repercussions-and the Anglo-Irish relationship has been marked historically by a superiority complex on the British side and a corresponding inferiority complex on the Irish side. Further, while smaller countries can become dangerously fixated on larger neighbours, the latter, having more outlets for their energies and interests, often have neither the time nor inclination to understand the pre-occupations of smaller neighbours. This, too, seems to have been true of the Anglo-Irish relationship.
Full independence for Ireland may not have been inevitable. Certainly there was a time when a large proportion of the Irish people seemed happy to continue in a close relationship with Britain-so long as this was accompanied by control over their own domestic affairs. But the mishandling of the Home Rule issue in 1914, the execution of the leaders of the 1916 rising, and the abortive attempt to impose conscription on Ireland in 1918, converted most Irish people into supporters of complete independence.
At Britain’s insistence, independence for Southern Ireland in 1921 initially took the form not of a republic but of dominion status within the British empire. This precipitated a civil war and for some decades thereafter the new state’s politics were dominated by the form taken by Irish independence. A gradual process of constitutional revision began, which in 1949 culminated in the declaration of an Irish Republic outside the Commonwealth.
The political division of the island remained an outstanding grievance, exacerbated by discrimination against nationalists in the North; Irish politicians competed with each other in the stridency of their demands that Britain “hand back” Northern Ireland. The Irish state remained anglocentric in foreign policy while in other respects it turned inward, seeking post-colonial solace in promoting the Irish language. The period was also marked by industrial protection, the negative impact upon small farmers of British cheap food policies, and undynamic government by the now elderly survivors of the independence movement.
This combination of factors created conditions of economic stagnation that seemed for a time to threaten the very survi-val of Irish society. But the late 1950s and early 1960s saw the abandonment of protectionism and the gradual take-off of the economy. Ireland’s external focus also shifted to the young European Economic Community which became a beacon of hope for the future.
The eventual negotiation of British and Irish entry to the EEC in the early 1970s coincided with renewed tension between the two countries over Northern Ireland after the outbreak of violence in the wake of the civil rights movement. The Irish state and people were ill-prepared for this. The decades of irredentist propaganda had been toned down during the 1959-1966 premiership of the last and most pragmatic of the revolutionary leaders, Sean Lemass. But the half true commonplace of today that “the people of the Republic are uninterested in the North” was certainly not the case in 1969. And passions were re-aroused by the brutality associated with the introduction of internment in September 1971 and the killing of 13 innocent civilians by the parachute regiment five months later.
Irish governments were, however, quick to recognise the threat the IRA posed to security throughout the island, and from the mid-1970s sought to channel constructively the emotions aroused by events in the North. The concept of the right of a majority in Northern Ireland to determine under which sovereignty that area was to live-contested by a large majority of Irish people throughout the first 50 years of independence-came to be accepted by an overwhelming majority in the Republic.
This rethinking of Irish nationalism was in part, as we have argued, due to the growing self-confidence of Ireland in Europe. It was also driven by a deep abhorrence of IRA violence among the Irish people. But there were and are significant differences with Britain about how to end that violence.
The principal objective of Irish policy in relation to Northern Ireland has been the undermining of support for the IRA among a section of Northern nationalists. This was seen to require sensitive handling of security in the North and the removal of causes of Northern nationalist alienation. For successive British governments, however, the objective of undermining the IRA by eating away at the tolerance it has enjoyed from a part of nationalist opinion, has taken second place to two quite different concerns: minimising the alienation of Northern unionist opinion and protecting the morale of the security forces in the campaign against the IRA.
Political opinion in the Republic has, arguably, paid insufficient attention to unionist alienation. Irish governments expected a warmer response from the unionists to their effective abandonment of a territorial claim on the North, and when they did not get it, they tended to dismiss unionist fears as paranoia. But such fears, once aroused, take a very long time indeed to dissipate.
Part of the problem here is that whereas Irish opinion sees unionists as the majority group in Northern Ireland, unionists have never ceased to think of themselves primarily in all-Ireland terms-as a threatened minority in the island of Ireland. The depth of this siege mentality is still inadequately understood in the South.
Another divergence between the Irish and British governments has related to the issue of the timing and manner of contacts with the IRA. Since 1970 the Irish approach has been to refuse any contact unless the IRA shows a willingness to end its violence-and when this finally happened in 1994, the Irish instinct was to move quickly to a negotiation in which one issue alone, that of consent as a precondition of reunification, would be non-negotiable.
The repeated British contacts and negotiations with the IRA between 1971 and 1981, when there was no real evidence of a willingness on their part to end the campaign of violence, were seen by many in the Irish government as offering encouragement to the IRA. And the 16 months of stalling by the British government after the IRA cessation of violence in August 1994 is seen in the Republic as having effectively aborted the best chance of securing peace in Northern Ireland.
The complexity of the relationship between the peoples of these two islands-as distinct from the inter-state relationship described above-almost defies analysis. But one thing is clear to all but the most closed of minds: the many Irish inheritances from British rule have had the effect of maintaining a sense of familiarity-even comfort-with British ways of doing things. Despite differences between the electoral systems of the two countries, the Irish parliamentary system is quite closely modelled on that of Britain-as are the judicial and legal systems as well as company law, the trade union structure, and the professions. Of course some significant Irish innovations have been superimposed on top of these structures-most notably a written constitution strongly protective of individual rights. And the Irish education system is less class-differentiated and much less specialised.
The extent of direct human and family ties is probably unprecedented between two independent states, principally due to large-scale emigration from Ireland to Britain, which peaked in the 1950s. Even now emigrants make some 1m visits a year to their homeland. And between 500,000 and 750,000 visits are made by Irish people to emigrant relatives in Britain each year- apart from the many hundreds of thousands of Irish people who each year travel to Britain as tourists or on business. Moreover, the number of British visitors to Ireland other than Irish emigrants has risen in the past decade from 500,000 to almost 1.5m a year.
For a state with just 3.6m inhabitants this represents a very high degree of social intercourse with its larger neighbour. When to these direct human contacts is added the impact of British television in Ireland (where three fifths of the population have access to it), it is evident that to most Irish people Britain and the British are not abstract political concepts to which they react with historically-conditioned hostility-but are rather a place and a people with which most of them are familiar, even intimate. When Irish mothers were asked in a 1970s survey for their reactions to potential sons-in-law, the most desirable alternative to an Irish son-in-law was an English one.
We are less well equipped to comment on the British view of Ireland. However, it is self-evident that Britons’ knowledge and understanding of their island neighbour cannot be anything like as extensive or intimate as Irish knowledge of Britain. This can create a prickly sensitivity among Irish people who unrealistically expect a reciprocal degree of knowledge and understanding of Ireland. This sensitivity is also (more understandably) evident when Irish figures are casually appropriated by the British media-as was evident in Seamus Heaney’s objection to appearing in the Penguin book of British verse. However, in recent years Irish achievements in literature, rock music and sport, as well as the remarkable dynamism of the Irish economy, have begun to impinge on the consciousness of people in Britain. From Terry Wogan through Roy Keane to Roddy Doyle, Irish figures are part of the furniture of British society.
All these aspects of the past and present must be kept in mind when examining the Anglo-Irish relationship and the two challenges that the two states have faced together-the crisis in Northern Ireland and the evolution of the EU. For today it is no exaggeration to say that Britain appears to be facing a crisis of identity-including questions of borders, shared myths of origin, and common culture-and not just “an enormous identity muddle,” as Neal Ascherson argued in the May issue of Prospect. Because of the close interdependence, this is not only a theoretical issue for Irish policy makers, but a most pressing political matter.
in postwar europe, Britain, not Ireland, was the odd man out. Instead of defeat in 1945, Britain suffered post-imperial decline, disguised for two generations by the cold war “special relationship” with the US. This differentiated it from the French, Germans and Italians; as Jean Monnet put it: “Britain had not been conquered or invaded; she felt no need to exorcise history.” British attitudes towards sharing sovereignty also diverged from most of the rest of Europe because of its absolutist conception of sovereignty exercised by the Crown-in-Parliament.
But the end of the cold war has disturbed this British exceptionalism. It has also removed the strategic issue which lay at the heart of the historical relationship between Britain and Ireland-Britain’s need to secure the Atlantic approaches against an Irish temptation to call in Britain’s European enemies of the day: successively Philip II’s Spain, Louis XIV’s and revolutionary France, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. Once formal independence had been achieved, Eamon de Valera saw that entering into alliances hostile to Britain made no sense, and that a policy of interdependence better suited Ireland’s interests. (It was because of political constraints, not least the fear that to join the war on Britain’s side might reopen the civil war, that he opted for a policy of neutrality in the second world war. However his public even-handedness-the cause of much bitterness in Britain and Northern Ireland-concealed very close co-operation over security and intelligence information.)
It is significant that the famous disclaimer in the Downing Street declaration of December 1993 to the effect that Britain has “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland,” was made after the end of the cold war. In its impact on Anglo-Irish relations the abandonment of this centuries-old principle may prove comparable to the belligerent convulsions that reshaped Anglo-Irish relations 75 years ago.
It is also no coincidence that Dublin was able to play the Irish-American card with some success during the peace process at a time when the “special relationship” was unravelling. President Bill Clinton’s decision to override the state department’s advice about refusing a visa to Gerry Adams would not have been made during the cold war.
This development came as a shock to the British political class. It revealed that the Irish-American lobby has become a powerful political and economic force, most of it now decisively arrayed against terrorist violence-but none the less aligned with Irish nationalism. Clinton’s decision struck a raw nerve, shown by the publicity given in the British press to James Baker’s attack on it at the Republican convention. He said it had led to the worst deterioration in relations with Britain, “our oldest ally,” since the Boston Tea Party.
The Clinton decision seemed further to “equalise” relations between Britain and Ireland, and underlined to most Irish, European and American observers the need for Britain, in its own self-interest, to pursue a more European foreign policy. But it would be prudent for Irish policy makers not to make too many assumptions about which course Britain will actually take.
Britain’s imminent election campaign will certainly fuse the double sovereignty question: how is sovereignty to be shared externally with other nation states and how is it to be shared internally within Britain’s multinational state? The English nationalists will battle hard against all further sharing. When a draft of the framework document was leaked suggesting that a North-South authority might formulate policy for the whole of Ireland “in respect of the challenges and opportunities of the EU,” it demonstrated, according to Andrew Marr, “in the narrowed, glinting eyes of true British nationalists, that Brussels gold is to be used to achieve the break-up of the UK.” John Major’s dependence on Ulster Unionist votes in the House of Commons has increased the influence of such attitudes in London.
The resolution of Britain’s identity crisis is going to take time and in the meantime it is likely to prove a volatile and awkward partner. Ireland must tread carefully. During the next few months of its EU presidency, Ireland can best secure its own interests and those of the EU by acting as a mediator between Britain and other member states.
It now seems probable that we are drifting towards a more variable Europe, with Germany and France pressing for a flexibility clause which will allow them to pursue further integration without being held up by Britain. Such a multi-tier Europe would pose a great many problems for Ireland and would put Britain and Ireland at odds on a range of policies.
Nevertheless, Britain’s interests-and Ireland’s too-dictate that it will eventually take its place at the heart of Europe. The problem for Ireland is that there is likely to be a timelag of some years before it does. What in the meantime should Ireland do? Should it follow Britain and build on the new interdependence that now characterises Anglo-Irish relations? Or would Irish interests be better served by keeping pace with the EU core, notwithstanding the costs in terms of relations with Britain? This is the first time since the second world war that a serious foreign policy choice has had to be faced by the Irish state and it may not be easy to find a formula that will reconcile Ireland’s European, Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish policies. The probability is that Ireland will choose to join Emu in the expectation that Britain will follow some years later and that this will not have any negative effect on the eventual relationship with Northern Ireland or with Britain.
For it is not merely wishful thinking to talk about a European dimension to an eventual settlement in Northern Ireland. Europe has helped to dissolve Irish irredentism and facilitated the historic improvement in relations between London and Dublin. Under an EU roof, there is the promise of multiple identities, parity of esteem between nationalities and the creation of a new “constitutional patriotism” in the North. A severe rupture in Britain’s relations with the EU, even its continued semi-detached status, would undermine such possibilities. n