Skip to main content

Irish-UK relations: past, present and future

In the aftermath of the UK's referendum in EU membership, I have been invited by a number of groups to speak about the impact of Brexit on Irish-UK relations. Here is the gist of what I usually say on such occasions about Irish-UK relations, past, present and future.

Times Past: When looking at the back story of Irish-UK relations, there is no need to go as far back as the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland in 1169. We can begin in 1916. That was the year in which the modern Irish State was conceived, during the Easter Rising, when Irish nationalists declared an independent republic and fought for six days before surrendering in the face of the overwhelming military force ranged against them. 1916 was also a year when many thousands of Irishmen of all backgrounds and political traditions fought in British uniform at the Battle of the Somme. 1916 therefore was a year of British-Irish confrontation and cooperation.

Our war of independence and the partition of Ireland left an awkward legacy of unresolved tensions between our two countries which took decades to unwind as successive Irish Governments sought to extend the scope of our independence. There was a tariff war between us during the 1930s and in the 1950s the Irish Government conducted an international publicity campaign against the partition of Ireland.

Relations have, I would say, generally been on an upward curve since the early 1960s although there have been periods of particular difficulty, notably during the early years of the Northern Ireland troubles in the late 1960s and 1970s when the two governments had very different approaches to the problems there.

I can see three reasons behind the greatly improved relations between our two countries. First, our shared membership of the European Union since 1973 has helped create important bonds of understanding and friendship between us. This positive influence will be missed when the UK leaves the EU. Whatever happens, Ireland will continue to be an EU member and therefore wants the Union to be strong and successful.

Second, the need to work together on the task of fostering peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland has been an important, positive influence on relations between us.

And, third, the development of Ireland's economy, currently experiencing robust growth, has turned us into a more attractive partner for the UK.

The present situation: Irish-UK relations are now in better shape than at any time during our history. Our two governments work closely together in support of peace and political progress in Northern Ireland and on a range of issues of common interest.

Two-way trade between Ireland and the UK now amounts to more than £1 billion each week. This supports around 200,000 jobs in Ireland and a similar number in Britain. The UK is Ireland's most important trading partner while Ireland, with a population of 4.6 million is the 5th most important market for British exports, thus illustrating the significance of geography in facilitating economic interaction.

People-to-people contacts also contribute an important strand to the Irish-UK partnership. The Irish community is part of the fabric of British society and Irish people make a significant contribution in every walk of life in today's Britain. For example, there are more than than 60,000 Irish-born directors of British companies. Recent figures have revealed that some 6,800 of the 360,000 people who work in the City of London come from Ireland.

All of this leads me to conclude that our two countries today enjoy a mutually-beneficial relationship whose advantages need to be nurtured and further developed in the years ahead, but this is not helped by the UK's decision to leave the EU.

Future challenges: And what of the future direction of Irish-UK ties? Obviously, the biggest cloud on our horizon comes from the result of the referendum on EU membership, an outcome which we regret. We accept that the UK will at some point cease to be a member of the EU and our aim is to ensure that this should come about in a manner that minimises negative consequences for Ireland, for the situation in Northern Ireland, for our relations with the UK and for Europe. Ireland will, of course, be on the EU side of the table in these negotiations, seeking an outcome that will serve the EU well for the future. 

We have four broad areas of concern. The first relates to the economic relationship between our two countries. Any reduction in trade flows between us will have a negative impact on both sides of the Irish Sea and, for that reason, we hope that the UK will retain the closest possible trading relationship with the European Union, preferably as part of the single market, so that strong flows of trade can continue to benefit both our economies. We accept that this will not be easy to achieve.

Second, we want to protect the gains made in Northern Ireland and in north-south relations in Ireland on the back of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The fact is that when the UK leaves the EU, practically everyone in Northern Ireland will be entitled to an Irish passport and thus to be an EU citizen. This illustrates the unique status of Northern Ireland, which differs from the rest of the UK.

Enhanced ties between north and south in Ireland constitute a central pillar of the Good Friday Agreement. Anything that turns the clock back would, therefore, be deeply unwelcome. This is why it is so important to preserve an open border in Ireland, one without customs barriers or restrictions on the free movement of people. It is vital that the progress we have made in Northern Ireland, something from which both countries can take pride, are not put at risk as a result of Brexit.

Third, we want to preserve the advantages to both of us of the Common Travel Area which allows Irish and British citizens to live and work in each other's countries without restriction. This system has operated to our benefit since the formation of the Irish State, but it has never done so in a situation where with one country an EU member and the other outside the EU. We need to ensure that nothing in the arrangements for the UK's exit from the EU will compromise this mutually-beneficial, bilateral system of free movement.

Fourth, we will miss the day-to-day cooperation with the UK around the negotiating table in Brussels where, for more than 40 years, our Ministers and officials have met, worked together and developed friendships that have helped our bilateral relations to grow and prosper. At some time in the coming years, that unique partnership will come to an end and we will need to find ways of replacing those lost connections.

In concluding, I want to stress vital importance for Ireland of our relations with the UK which have never been better than they are today. As we prepare for the UK's future exit from the EU, we want these positive ties to continue to serve us well in the future also. The bottom line, however, is that Ireland will continue to be an EU member with a commitment to preserving and building on the Union's distinguished record of achievement. We hope that the UK will be able to develop the kind of close, cooperative relationship with the EU that will serve all of our interests. Such an outcome will not be easy to achieve, but it is an ambition that we need to keep front and centre as these complex future negotiations between the EU and the UK get into their stride during the coming year. 


Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London