'Brexit will test Anglo-Irish relations as never before'
As historian and commentator Dr Éamon Phoenix reflects on the highs and lows of Ireland's relationship with Britain over the past 100 years, he says that the coming months, where politicians wrestle to come up with solutions for Brexit and a border backstop, Anglo-Irish relations will be tested like never before
IT wasn’t meant to be like this. Just seven years ago the first official royal visit to Dublin in 100 years seemed to mark the high point in Anglo-Irish diplomacy; a new era of cordiality and co-operation in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement and the partnership of Britain and Ireland as members of the evolving European Union.
Gone were the bad old days of megaphone diplomacy and recurring tensions over border security, extradition, policing and fair employment in the north.
The piece de resistance of Queen Elizabeth’s historic visit was undoubtedly the dinner in Dublin Castle hosted by the Ardoyne-born President Mary McAleese.
There, in the presence of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, British prime minister David Cameron and Stormont's First and Deputy First Ministers from the DUP and Sinn Féin respectively, the queen intoned her inaugural greeting in the Irish language once suppressed by her predecessors.
She went on to speak of the ‘golden thread’ which linked the peoples of the two islands and of how in the long, conflicted history of Anglo-Irish relations there were things which might have been done better or perhaps not at all. Little wonder that the Irish President was moved to respond with a spontaneous, ‘Wow!’
That event in Dublin Castle now seems a very long time ago.
Over the past three years, in particular, the shock decision of the UK (essentially England and Wales) to leave the European Union has darkened the scene.
Since 23 June 2016 the destabilisation of the political elites, both Tory and Labour, and the re-invention of the DUP as born-again Brexiteers and the emergence of the Irish ‘backstop’ has put the Dublin-London relationship under immense strain.
As the poet Yeats wrote about impact of another turning point in Anglo-Irish relations, the Easter Rising, ‘All is changed, changed utterly’.
Yet over the last century, Anglo-Irish relations have ebbed and flowed, especially in face of major global and continental crises.
The failure of the British government to implement the 1914 Home Rule Act - the clear demand of Nationalist Ireland - in face of the threat of violence from Ulster Unionism and the Conservative Party, not only ‘strained the British Constitution to breaking point’ but, led directly to the 1916 Rising.
Despite the shabby treatment of the moderate Nationalist parliamentarian, John Redmond by Asquith and Law, the Rising lacked popular support.
But the subsequent execution of the leaders alienated Irish public opinion from British rule. British policy effectively destroyed the constitutional nationalism of John Redmond, a Home Ruler and imperialist, who had controversially encouraged 200,000 Nationalist Irishmen to join the rush to the colours at the outbreak of war in 1914.
In the post-war 1918 general election, the incoming Tory-dominated coalition government was faced with a Sinn Féin landslide in Ireland and the demand for an Irish Republic.
The British government simply ignored the Irish demand, symbolised by Dáil Éireann which formally declared a Republic in 1919. Ireland was soon in a state of war as Lloyd George responded to the IRA campaign with a policy of repression which outraged liberal opinion in Britain and abroad.
The coalition, in connivance with James Craig and their Northern Unionist allies, were able to use ‘the blessed abstentionism of Sinn Féin’ ( in Churchill’s phrase) to deliver partition on unionist lines in June 1921.
In the subsequent Treaty negotiations Collins and Griffith were forced to accept pre-existing partition and Canadian-style dominion status for 26 counties. Despite the total lack of safeguards for northern nationalists, Westminster had escaped from ‘the Irish bog’ .
From the confirmation of the border in 1925 until the O’Neill-Lemass summit of 1965 it seemed to many in Britain that - in the words of historian AJP Taylor - ‘Lloyd George had conjured the Irish Question out of existence’.
In the late 1920s, while Craig established his ‘Protestant state’ in the north, the pro-Treaty Free State government shamelessly abandoned northern nationalists.
The return of Eamon de Valera to power in 1932 was followed by an ‘economic war’ with Britain as the former Anti-Treaty leader sought to dismantle the shackles of the 1921 Treaty.
He immediately refused to pay the land annuities (paid annually to the British Exchequer) and used the Abdication Crisis of 1936 (when Edward V111 suddenly abdicated) to remove the King from the Irish Constitution.
The result was the the 1937 Constitution with its extra-territorial claim over Northern Ireland -the famous Articles 3 and 3.
De Valera’s strategy was crowned with success in the 1938 Anglo-Irish Treaty which settled the economic question and saw the return of the ‘Treaty Ports’ (retained by Britain in 1921 at Cork and Lough Swilly) to Ireland.
The Treaty owed much to the good personal chemistry between de Valera and the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain. De Valera raised partition and the treatment of the northern minority.
This produced an acknowledgment by the Dominions Secretary that Catholics faced discrimination under Stormont but a planned investigation was thwarted by the immediate outbreak of World War II. Tragically, nothing was done.
Any lingering hopes by Chamberlain that de Valera would support Britain in the conflict were shattered when the Taoiseach adopted a policy of neutrality.
Irish neutrality was to anger both Churchill (the new prime minister) and Roosevelt who demanded the use of Irish ports for the Atlantic defences. De Valera, backed by all parties, stood firm though leaning heavily in the Allies’ direction from permitting the ‘Donegal corridor’ for the RAF to the release of Allied airmen across the border.
In 1940 Churchill -to the apoplectic anger of Craigavon- actually offered de Valera a united Ireland in return for the use of the ports. Dev rejected the offer, convinced that Churchill would be unable to deliver the Unionist government.
In the immediate post-war years Anglo-Irish relations were rocked by the decision of the Taoiseach, John A Costello to declare a formal Republic in 1949.
Costello’s decision which aimed ‘to take the gun out of Irish politics’ rebounded unexpectedly. The Labour government of Clement Attlee, mindful of the north’s vital contribution to the war effort, passed the Ireland Act (1949) .
This copper-fastened partition by stipulating that any change in the north’s constitutional position required the consent of the Stormont Parliament.
Apart from Dublin’s occasional references to ‘the sore thumb’ - partition - at the UN in the 1950s, relations between Dublin and London improved during the premiership of Sean Lemass with his more conciliatory northern policy and deep distrust of the nationalist party in the north.
1965 saw two major initiatives by Lemass - the signing of the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement which allowed Irish goods free access to the British market, and the historic meeting between Lemass and the Unionist prime minister Terence O’Neill - the first between Irish leaders since 1925.
Yet the thawing of Anglo-Irish relations was soon tested by the outbreak of the Troubles after 1968 following the Civil Rights campaign. Jack Lynch was not consulted about the Wilson/Callaghan decision to send British troops into Belfast and Derry in August 1969.
The east-west relationship was strained further when Ted Heath permitted Unionism’s last PM, Brian Faulkner to introduce internment against the IRA with devastating results in 1971.
The tragic events of Bloody Sunday saw the withdrawal of the Irish Ambassador from London ‘for consultations’. In the aftermath of Direct Rule in March 1972, and the impending admission of both countries to the EEC, the Heath government finally realised the need to involve Dublin its new policy of power-sharing with an Irish dimension’.
As Sunningdale collapsed and the Troubles continued, a new Taoiseach, Charles Haughey met Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1980 to discuss ‘the totality of relationships’.
Though their relationship soon soured , the 1981 Republican Hunger Strike led to growing support for Sinn Féin.
The fear of the new Taoiseach, Garret Fitzgerald and Thatcher of an escalation of support for the IRA was to lead to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
Over the next decade, Irish Ministers and officials were able to put forward views on proposals ‘on a whole range of matters from parades to Fair Employment’.
Thatcher was shocked by the tidal wave of Unionist hostility to the Agreement but its structures ensured that the two governments worked closely together into the he 1990s.
There followed Hume-Adams, the commitment of US President Clinton to a peace envoy -to the annoyance of the Major government- and finally the return of a Labour government led by Tony Blair in 1997. The Good Friday Agreement followed.
Reflecting on what had been achieved in an address at Westminster in May 2007, Bertie Ahern paid tribute to Tony Blair as ‘a friend to Ireland’ , adding: ‘The relationship between Britain and Ireland has changed fundamentally and for the better….The success we have seen in the re-imagining British-Irish relations and in the establishment of peace in Northern Ireland is not the end but only the beginning of what we can achieve together.’
Amazingly, in David Cameron’s mad gamble in calling a Brexit referendum in 2016 no consideration at all was given to the sensitive Irish situation where the non-border’ of recent decades was a symbol of how far we had come.
As a series of Tory leadership hopefuls wrestle with the backstop and dismiss Irish concerns over Brexit, Anglo-Irish relations are likely to be tested as never before in the uncertain months ahead.
Dr Éamon Phoenix is an historian and commentator and member of the Taoiseach’s Expert Advisory Group on Centenaries