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John Manley: Anglo-Irish relations rapidly cooling

Since the signing of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement relations between Dublin and London have flourished

Anglo-Irish relations have prospered in recent decades but Political Correspondent John Manley hears how the fallout from Brexit could turn back the clock.

FOR more than 30 years the once-frosty relationship between the governments in Dublin and London has been healthy.

In tandem, they helped forge peace in Northern Ireland through a partnership cemented by their membership of the European Union.

However, in the aftermath of the UK's June 2016 referendum, this affinity has come under pressure as the Republic's government sought to ensure it does not become collateral damage in the ill-thought-out Brexit adventure.

 

The former president of the European Parliament believes the Irish government is right to assert its interests in the face of the "enormous consequences" of Brexit for the island.

Pat Cox, who served as an MEP for Munster from 1989-2004, said relations between the Republic and the UK had become "strained" over the latter's decision to leave the EU – a sentiment echoed by a number of commentators.

Nearly 18 months after the Britain voted narrowly to sever ties with Brussels, there is still no indication of how the border will operate after March 2019.

The UK government has insisted it wants a "frictionless" frontier and Theresa May has said there should be "no return to the borders of the past".

However, in recent days both Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney have voiced frustration at the lack of detailed proposals from the UK government.

Last Friday, Mr Varadkar said he wanted to get a hard border "off the table" before the moving to the next round of Brexit negotiations, while yesterday in Belfast Mr Coveney said the British government was failing to provide "credible answers".

Academic Etain Tannam, a lecturer at Trinity in Dublin specialising in Northern Ireland affairs, characterised current Anglo-Irish relations as "challenging".

"The EU referendum result and the British government's management of Brexit have made relations more challenged and strained than has been the case for some time," she said.

"There have always been ups and downs but since the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 there's been a constant improvement in relations – they really flourished while John Major and Albert Reynolds were in office – but the sort of megaphone diplomacy we've seen recently would be more typical of relations in the early 1980s – though not as extreme."

Dr Tannam said the situation had not been helped by British government "infighting"

"Relations are definitely more challenging but there is commitment to the relationship and I believe this is only a temporary problem," she said.

Fellow academic Jon Tonge, from the University of Liverpool, said he understood the frustration of the Dublin government because their British counterparts had so far offered nothing but a "series mantras and platitudes rather than a set of coherent policy proposals".

The author of 'DUP: From Protest to Power' said Anglo-Irish relations had "dipped sharply" in recent months.

"There has been some hostile language between the Irish and UK governments which we we haven't seen for decades, going as far back as the early days of the Troubles before joint EU membership set in," he told The Irish News.

"Even some of the phraseology is reminiscent of the 1969-72 period when the British government would remind the Irish government that the affairs of Her Majesty's Government where purely an internal matter."

Professor Tonge said the cordial relations of recent years had been taken for granted.

"We tend to forget that before they joined the EEC in 1973 we effectively had a Cold War with rival constitutional claims on Northern Ireland – I'm not suggesting we're going back to that but everything has been put in reverse gear," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Cox, who in August told The Irish News that the British government's 'Northern Ireland and Ireland' position paper suggested the UK "wants its cake and to eat it", said Anglo-Irish relations were "not about friendship but about interests".

"To represent Irish interests is not about a breakdown in relationships, it's about honesty in a relationship," he said.

"Relations are strained because Britain made a unilateral choice to go into reverse gear on four decades of commonality, jointly constructed on social and political progress," he said.

The former Progressive Democrat MEP said the UK was seeking to "dump the consequences of Brexit on the Irish government".

With the DUP now working hand in glove with the Tory government, there's arguably less prospect of rapprochement between Dublin and London. Given the long term consequences of a deterioration in relations, the issue should perhaps be given more attention than it currently commands.

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