It is a pleasure to address your group this evening on the subject of Irish-UK relations, the manner in which they have been shaped by our shared membership of the European Union since 1973, and the challenges that will arise for both our countries when the UK leaves the Union in a few years from now.
When I was a student of history at University College Cork during the 1970s, my studies took me from the Act of Union of 1800 to the achievement and consolidation of Irish independence in the 1920s and 1930s. My focus was on Ireland’s struggle for independence or for the establishment of a Home Rule parliament in Dublin.
Even after independence, Anglo-Irish relations remained a vexed domain, with an economic war during the 1930s and Ireland’s international campaign opposing partition in the 1950s. However, the most significant development that took place during that decade was the opening up of the Irish economy from 1958 onwards which, together with the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement of 1965, prepared the way for Ireland to join what is now the European Union in 1973.
As far as I am concerned, EU membership has been a real game changer for Ireland - and for our relations with the UK. Thus, my reaction to the UK’s decision to leave the EU is one of sadness and regret at what has happened.
From the time I came here in September 2013, the prospect of the UK leaving the EU has been on my radar and that of my colleagues at the Embassy. We followed with intense interest the debate on the UK’s future in Europe, both before and since the June 2016 referendum. I have been active in making the case, through my speeches and media appearances, for the value of EU membership – for Ireland and in terms of its beneficial effects on my country’s relations with our nearest neighbour. We have in particular engaged with the large and diverse Irish community in Britain, all of whom were entitled to vote in last year’s referendum.
It goes without saying that we accept the outcome of your referendum. Our aim, as neighbours with an intensive, complex set of relationships with you, will from now on be to minimise negative consequences for Ireland from the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Our concerns relate to the implications of the UK’s exit from the EU:
for our economy and our trade and investment links with the UK;
for the situation in Northern Ireland;
for our relations with the UK;
for Irish people in Britain; and
for the future of the European Union.
This evening, I want to review the triangular relationship between Ireland, the UK and the EU, and to explore the manner in which Ireland's relationship with our nearest neighbour is likely to be affected as we enter this period of negotiations and, ultimately, a post-Brexit era.
The first decades of Irish independence were characterised by a continuing economic dependence on Britain. Let me cite one figure that sums up the economics of Irish independence in the period before our EU membership. In 1960, after almost four decades of independence, 74% of Irish exports went to the UK. This level of economic dependence was hardly consistent with political sovereignty. It meant that, when Britain decided to join the EEC, Ireland effectively had no realistic option but to follow suit.
Both our countries sought to join the EEC in the early 1960s, but our membership ambitions were blocked and had to be revived in the late-1960s. One of the arguments put forward in Ireland during the 1960s in favour of membership was that it would help to reduce our excessive dependence on the British market.
The then Taoiseach Sean Lemass was unambiguous in his enthusiasm for membership. 'Ireland belongs to Europe by history, tradition and sentiment no less than by geography. ... Our people have always tended to look to Europe for inspiration, guidance and encouragement.'
Our White Paper on EEC membership tackled the issue of sovereignty head on.
'There is no form of cooperation between nations that does not involve for them some limitations on their freedom of action. ... Countries willingly accept such limitations where they consider that their interests are being served by participation in the international cooperation involved ... Ireland is no exception.'
One of the first concepts I encountered when I joined our diplomatic service in 1978 was the notion of ‘pooled sovereignty’, the idea that by sharing authority in certain policy areas with our EU partners we could achieve better outcomes for Ireland. I am not sure that this concept has ever been properly embraced here in Britain.
While perhaps the most obvious impact of membership has been in the economic sphere, its effects have gone well beyond that. In the New History of Ireland Vol. VII the point is made that membership ‘helped galvanise social and economic change’ in Ireland.
I recently had a look at a table of statistics from the 1970s comparing Ireland with other EU member states under twelve socio-economic indicators. They show that Ireland was the worst performer in ten of the twelve categories. Tellingly, our GDP per capita was just a little over one-third of the wealthiest European state (Luxembourg). In 1972, our GDP per capita was just 60% of the EU average. Today, Ireland's wealth levels are significantly above the EU average and this seems to me to make an unanswerable case for Irish membership.
Ireland and the UK joined on the same day in 1973 at a time when our two Governments were again at odds with each other following the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. Our then Foreign Minister, Patrick Hillery, came to London in 1969 following the outbreak of serious violence in Northern Ireland, but failed to secure a meeting with his counterpart, the then Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, but was met by an FCO Minister of State, Lord Chalfont. It was a difficult meeting, with Chalfont indicating that he could not consult with a member of 'a foreign government' on developments in Northern Ireland, insisting that this was 'a domestic affair.' The upshot of this unsatisfactory encounter was that Ireland took the issue of Northern Ireland to the United Nations in 1969.
It took considerable time and effort for the two governments to find an agreed approach that recognised the special character of the Northern Ireland situation and the road to an agreed solution. It is probably no coincidence that the first breaking of the ice between the two governments occurred with the negotiation of the Sunningdale Agreement in December 1973, just under a year after our two countries acceded to the European Union.
The European Union provided a very productive framework within which a more accommodating relationship could be developed. The kind of unsatisfactory discussion that Patrick Hillery had with Lord Chalfont in the summer of 1969 would thankfully be unthinkable today as our two governments have learned to work in close cooperation on issues to do with Northern Ireland.
Prior to our accession in 1973, our trading relationship was profoundly asymmetric. Before 1972, our trade was governed by the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement, in which Ireland offered access for British manufactured goods to our market in return for access for our agricultural exports to the British market. I can recall seeing TV coverage in the 1960s of Irish Ministers boarding Aer Lingus on their way to London to seek concessions from the British Government. This was not a good basis for a mature relationship between two neighbouring countries.
In 1959, the Irish Government offered full, tariff-free access for British industrial goods in return for Irish agricultural produce being given equal treatment with British produce in the British market. This offer was rejected by London as offering too much advantage to Ireland. This illustrates the nature of free trade agreements, which are competitive as both sides seek to maximise the advantages accruing to them. This is something which may usefully be borne in mind in the forthcoming negotiations.
One of the spin offs of EU membership has been a diversification of our trade with our partners including with the UK. While over 40% of Ireland's exports of food and drinks still go to the UK, this is now only a fraction of our overall exports which currently consist mainly of manufactured items and services.
Ireland's economic development has benefited hugely from the development of the single market since 1993 and it is in the years since then that Ireland has bridged the gap between our wealth levels and those of the UK and our continental neighbours. In our first 20 years of membership, Ireland’s GDP per capita went from 60% to 72% of the EU average. By contrast, the first decade of the single market saw Ireland’s wealth levels increase quite dramatically. This illustrates its value, which is why we had hoped that the UK would decide to remain within the single market. .
EU membership has been very good for our trading relationship. While the UK has declined in relative importance as a market for Irish exports, the scale of those exports has increased dramatically. Ireland and Britain trade over €1 billion worth of goods and services every week. Ireland is now the UK’s 5th most important export market. This is a significant trading relationship by any standards and confers benefit on both our economies and our peoples. Given the extent of our trading relationship, it can hardly be surprising that we look with a degree of trepidation on the implications of the UK leaving the single market. It is hard to predict the precise impact of such a development, but it cannot possibly be positive.
Accordingly we have a huge interest in minimising barriers to trade between us and would like to see the UK retain as close a trading relationship with the EU as possible. We want the coming negotiations to produce a sensible set of arrangements governing the UK’s departure from the EU and future UK-EU relations.
Reflecting on the impact of EU membership on Irish-UK relations during his time as Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd put it well in a speech he gave in Dublin in 1994 when he said that: 'Britain and Ireland joined the Community together because of a sense of our place in history. For the British it was about finding a new place in the world after the two centuries of imperial experience.' Mr Hurd summarised his assessment of the Irish rationale for membership. It was, he said, about 'confirming Ireland's position as a modern state in Europe ... and its decisive shift away from the embrace of Britain.' In fact, I would argue that EU membership has led to a more mature embrace by our two countries of each other, respecting our differences while nurturing affinities between us. Being partners in Europe has helped us to understand how much we have in common. We tend to see eye-to-eye on a wide range of EU issues.
On any given day in Brussels, there will, after all, be up to 30 separate meetings taking place at various levels within the EU’s structures. At these meetings, Irish and British delegates will often find themselves tic-tacking in advance, supporting each other during meetings and perhaps comparing notes afterwards over a coffee.
We take part together in several like-minded groups on issues where we have shared interests and perspectives. Ireland and the UK have traditionally been champions of the single market, from which we have both benefited. We both favour smart regulation. We are allies in advocating the advantages of free trade, from which both our countries have derived considerable benefit. Our economies are very similar in profile and structure although quite different in scale.
This increased interaction between Irish and British officials, and the understandings thus fostered, have been beneficial by-products of our EU membership. That is not to say that the UK is Ireland’s only EU ally – certainly not – but there is a special affinity between us which we will miss when the time comes for the UK to leave.
I doubt if the mutual confidence required to facilitate the Northern Ireland peace process would have come about without the experience of working together as partners within the EU. The first in a series of productive high-level relationships developed between Albert Reynolds and John Major, whose friendship was forged around the Ecofin table in Brussels when they were both Finance Ministers. When they became heads of government they were able to put their friendship to good use in kick-starting what became a successful peace process. Over the decades it has been invaluable for Irish and UK Prime Ministers to be able to meet in the margins of EU Summits to exchange views on Northern Ireland and find agreed ways forward during some troubled times.
It is regrettable that future generations of Irish diplomats will not have the experience of partnering with their UK counterparts around the EU negotiating table, and nor will our Ministers and heads of government have such regular contact on EU business. It will take much bilateral effort to compensate for these losses.
It is fortunate we have institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement that may be able to provide a framework for future engagement between us. The British-Irish Council brings together representatives of the administrations in Dublin, London, Belfast, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Guersney, Jersey and the Isle of Man. The work of the Council has taken on a new relevance in the months since the UK’s referendum in June last year. We also have a British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly which is attended by elected representatives from the various jurisdictions on our neighbouring islands these. Such institutions, and other initiatives that may be undertaken, will not fully compensate for the losses that will arise when our day-to-day contact within the EU becomes a thing of the past.
Our concerns about the UK’s departure from the EU are most acute when it comes to Northern Ireland.
To quote our Foreign Minister, Charles Flanagan in a speech he made last year, “the fact that Ireland and the United Kingdom shared a common EU citizenship provided a space for reconciliation that transcended the zero-sum equation of British or Irish sovereignty. The Irish Government does not underestimate the sense of disquiet now felt by many people in Northern Ireland at the prospect of the loss of their connection to the European Union.”
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was a huge achievement for both our countries. The open border in Ireland has come about because of the combined effect of the peace process and EU membership. The current border arrangements are of benefit to both parts of Ireland and to all our communities and need to be preserved. It is encouraging that the need to avoid a hardening of the border in Ireland is shared by our two governments and by the parties in Northern Ireland. It is a positive development that the unique circumstances applying on the island of Ireland featured in Prime Minister May’s Article 50 letter and in very similar terms in the EU’s response.
But I would stress that we need to work hard on this in the negotiations ahead to find practical ways to achieve this, not least with regard to future customs arrangements.
Any effort to control the free movement of people across the Irish border, or indeed between Britain and Ireland, would be very damaging indeed and I am sure that no one would want to contemplate such a step.
When the UK does leave the EU, Northern Ireland will be in the unique position in that almost all of its residents are entitled to citizenship of an EU country, Ireland.
Our two countries need to work together closely in the coming period with the aim of preserving the benefits of the unique, unprecedented degree of friendship that has evolved between us.
In our discussions with other EU partners, we have found them very much aware of, and sympathetic to, Ireland’s particular concerns. I hope and trust that the particular circumstances that apply in Northern Ireland will be front and centre when it comes to the working out of the UK's future relations with the EU.
It is an irony, just over 100 years from the events of Easter week 1916, and with the relationship between our two countries at an unprecedented peak of friendship, that the UK should be about to embark in a new and uncertain direction. This concerns us deeply. We worry about the implications of Brexit for British-Irish relations, for North-South links in Ireland and for Europe itself.
It is, in my view, unfortunate that the UK is set to unravel itself from more than 40 years of economic and political interaction with its fellow European nations, which has created such a positive legacy of peace and prosperity. We hope that this will ultimately work out well for the UK and the EU, but there is no doubt that this will demand some skilled negotiating and a will to seek compromise solutions if we are to reconcile our respective sets of interests and aspirations.
The UK’s departure from the EU will usher in a new chapter in Irish-UK relations. The Irish and British Governments are both firmly committed to preserving our close relations, building on the enormous progress we have made in recent decades. We owe it to those who have worked to transcend the awkward legacies of our past history to strive for a continued productive bilateral relationship after the UK leaves the European Union. We will find ways of coping with this new set of circumstances, but it is a pity that we have to make this special effort to secure benefits on a bilateral basis that have accrued to us over the decades from our shared membership of the European Union.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London