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The British/Irish Relationship Faces the Full Force of Brexit


Expert analysis from Bobby McDonagh, Former Irish Ambassador to the EU, UK and Italy, Commentator on the EU and Brexit, and Executive Coach. This article has been written exclusively for IoD Ireland members.

When the full force of Brexit kicks in at the end of the year, the closeness of the modern relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland, so dearly achieved, will be part of the collateral damage. Many people of good will and good sense, in both countries, will work to minimize the inevitable damage. However, to ignore the fact that something fundamental has changed would further damage the relationship. It is therefore important, in the post-Brexit world, to reflect on the altered relationship between these islands which will continue to share so much in terms of culture, interests, responsibilities, values and, of course, geography.

The warmth of the modern friendship between the UK and Ireland, a relationship with a uniquely troubled history, was made possible principally by their shared membership of the European Union over half a century. Brexit has diminished their shared interests, the gentle blending of their perceptions and the habitual context for the pursuit of their friendship. While any conceivable Governments in Dublin and London will work to develop the bonds between the countries, Brexit poses very real challenges.

Those challenges are about much more than membership of an organization. The different paths that Ireland and Britain have now chosen in the world, in the latter case by a small - and probably no longer existent - majority, encompass differing views on identity, sovereignty, multilateralism and the interdependence of nations.  Brexit has also unsettled the immense progress towards peace and stability in Northern Ireland, made possible by cooperation between successive British and Irish Governments but for which the European Union provided the essential context.

In Ireland, we have long understood the wisdom of the line in the old ballad “thank God we’re surrounded by water”. It is a measure of the scale of the recent reversal of roles that, even as Ireland steps up its engagement with the international community, the UK has chosen to celebrate its insularity. The Brexiteer slogan about going global is meaningless in the context of the UK creating barriers within its own neighbourhood and struggling to replicate trading relationships around the world which it already had through the EU. Ironically, it is Ireland’s ambition to double its global footprint that chimes perfectly with a slogan about going global.  

The Brexit Negotiations

Ireland, as part of the EU, has helped to shape, and firmly supports, the EU’s approach to the Brexit negotiations. It would have preferred a much more ambitious and mutually beneficial EU/UK relationship than that envisaged by the UK Government.  It still strongly hopes that a “no deal” Brexit can be avoided and will use its negotiating ammunition to that end. However, it shares with its European partners a profound interest in protecting the integrity of the Single Market and therefore in the robust level playing field conditions agreed in last year’s EU/UK Joint Political Declaration. Ireland also agrees that a balanced outcome must include sensible governance arrangements and a fair deal on fisheries. We will be open to any reasonable compromises that the EU can negotiate. However, the EU naturally cannot contemplate an outcome in which the UK insists on a simplistic “sovereignty” for itself while at the same time dismissing the sovereignty of the EU to determine, for example, the rules under which goods and services may enter its market. Ireland has no reason for particular optimism that any deal can be achieved, especially as a sensible extension of the Brexit transition period to allow more time for negotiations has been gratuitously ruled out by London.

The full and timely implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed between the UK and Ireland last year, and already legally binding under international law, is a particular priority for the Irish Government. The UK was slow to table its detailed approach to implementing the Protocol, but there seems now to have been real progress. Ireland will support EU negotiators in exploring any flexibilities around the Protocol that are compatible with its full implementation, including protection of the Single Market. 

The Political Relationship

Ireland has a new Government which, despite recent controversies, has a reasonable prospect of being in office for several years. Micheál Martin as Taoiseach, with the full support of his coalition partners, is prioritising as warm and effective a relationship with the British Government as the new circumstances permit. He is rightly working to establish a close and effective relationship with Prime Minister Johnson.

This reflects a broad good will towards the UK which extends across the political spectrum in Dublin, the deep links of family and friendship, the mutual interest in a close trade relationship, and the shared responsibility for progress in Northern Ireland. Cooperation between the two countries on COVID-19 has been good and will remain important.

The two Governments have yet to define in any detail the structures necessary to underpin the bilateral relationship in a post-Brexit world.  However, the staffing of Ireland’s Embassy in London has already been strengthened. One important element in the relationship is set to be a reinvigoration of the practice of holding of annual meetings between British Permanent Secretaries and Irish Secretaries General. Ireland is also working to deepen its important relationship with the Scottish Government and it has reopened its consulate in Cardiff.

The Trade Relationship

It is particularly difficult, especially in the context of COVID-19, to make firm predictions about the restoration and development of world trade in general, and in particular about the reconnection between specific markets. To a significant extent the evolution of the business landscape across these islands is likely, initially, to reflect bottom-up efforts by businesses to get trade flowing again.

However, it is already clear, as travel has become more problematic with COVID-19 and may remain so for some time, that the proximity of markets will assume an even greater significance in the coming years. This inevitably means that the mutual importance of the British and Irish markets to each other, already very significant, is likely to grow as businesses seek to recover from the COVID recession.

The irony is that, at a time when the logic of further deepening trade between Britain and Ireland is evident, the increased trade bureaucracy inevitably arising from Brexit, including customs and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls between the two islands, will be taking effect. A “no deal” outcome of the Brexit negotiations, necessarily also involving tariffs, would further significantly compound the damage to the trading relationship.


Ireland will continue to value and nurture its important relationships with both the European Union and the United Kingdom. However, those relationships are now of a totally different nature. Ireland is not “equidistant” between London and Brussels. We are part of the European Union. The tricolour and European flag fly side by side. We are not part of the UK and never will be.

Every dimension of the future relationship between Britain and Ireland will now have to be understood and managed through the prism of Brexit. Irish businesses will need ingenuity to make the most of the trading opportunities despite the obstacles posed by Brexit. Our politicians will need subtle diplomatic skills to deepen the friendship between these islands despite the signal Brexit has sent about that friendship. Despite the different courses on which our countries are sadly set, all of us must continue to prioritise the personal friendships with our British friends which have done so much to cement the relationship between our countries.

Drawing on the spirit of that British/Irish legend Jackie Charlton, we should remain as upbeat as possible. Perhaps, the UK will decide, some day, to revisit Brexit. That seems a longshot today and for the foreseeable future. However, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility in due course - given the polls suggesting that a majority of the British people would now prefer to remain in the EU, the overwhelming support for EU membership amongst young people and, of course, the Brexit damage to Britain’s economy and influence which will become increasingly obvious. Maybe the Union Jack will one day fly again alongside the flags of its European neighbours outside the Council of Ministers’ building in Brussels; a building in which the UK defended its interests so successfully, in which it made such an immense contribution to the direction and policies of the European Union and in which Irish and British friendships were so effectively forged.