Book cover

The Irish Government and Northern Ireland: From Partition to Brexit

Donnacha Ó Beacháin (Dublin City University)

In its dealings with the British Government, Dublin has been transformed from spurned supplicant to vital partner in determining Northern Ireland’s future, a partnership jeopardised by Brexit.

Asymmetrical Anglo-Irish Relations

For several decades, the relative weakness of the Irish State compared to its British counterpart imposed limitations on the realistic strategic choices open to Irish Governments. For much of the last century the UK has had a population 15 times greater than that of Ireland and has been one of the top five world economies. This hindered the Irish Government’s ability to get its case across internationally. Not only was its diplomatic network tiny compared to the UK but traditional networks and global influence always favoured Britain, a disparity all too clear when Ireland launched periodic international anti-partition initiatives. Consequently, successive Irish Governments balked at confronting Britain on the global stage. Disputes, when possible, were raised inter-governmentally rather than internationally. Dublin realised that for any progress to occur along the lines it desired, cooperation with London would be necessary. Attacking the British Government internationally might win some plaudits at home but made London less inclined to listen to Dublin’s concerns. With a few brief exceptions, it was the Anglo-Irish dimension that took precedence.

Central features of Irish Government policy

Opposition to the IRA, acceptance that reunification could only take place with the consent of a majority within Northern Ireland, and the claim that Dublin had a vital role to play in any solution designed to resolve the conflict were all central planks of Irish Government policy during the Troubles. Stemming from this approach was Dublin’s preference for a comprehensive settlement based on power-sharing between representatives of the two communities and guaranteed by both governments, the better to assuage the fears of nationalists and unionists within Northern Ireland. The Government also highlighted the need for some kind of institutional arrangements between North and South (the so-called Irish Dimension) and frequently maintained that there could be no purely internal solution to the Northern Ireland conflict. Both the short-lived Sunningdale Agreement of 1974 and the Good Friday Agreement, which has provided the basis for the current peace process, included these essential ingredients.

Impact of European integration

When Ireland and the UK joined the EEC in 1973 there was a hope that common membership of this supranational community could over time erode borders and reduce animosities within Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. Processes of European integration enhanced Ireland’s status and put it on a more level footing with the UK. Before joining the EEC, Ireland was a small player in the large and rapidly expanding UN General Assembly while the UK was one of the five permanent members of the Security Council with veto powers. In the expanded EEC of just nine members, however, Ireland had a seat on an equal basis with the UK on the Council of Ministers. Representation in the other institutions, such as the Commission, Parliament and Court of Justice was also weighted to favour small states. Moreover, Britain frequently needed Irish support ‘in Europe’ to advance its interests. Regular European summits meant that the British Government could not avoid coming into contact with Irish leaders as they had often tried to do during the early stages of the Troubles and, indeed, during preceding decades. Better still, Anglo-Irish meetings could take place at the margins of EEC summits thus reducing publicity and moderating expectations.

Irish Government’s approach to Brexit

Following the decision of the UK electorate to leave the EU, many of the old certainties and assumptions on which Irish government policies were predicated evaporated overnight. Of all regions within the EU, Northern Ireland is the most distinctly affected by Brexit. Central to the Irish Government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations has been the preservation of the Good Friday Agreement, and the avoidance of a hard border. An extensive mapping exercise identified 142 areas of existing North-South cooperation and underlined the fact that this interaction and engagement relied very much on EU membership, which facilitated a common legal framework. Joint membership of the Customs Union and Single Market greatly encouraged the normalisation of cross-border relationships throughout the island of Ireland. Protecting these gains has become the major focus of Irish government policy. last, week, when introducing this year’s budget, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe described Brexit as ‘the political, economic and diplomatic challenge of our generation’. Throughout the negotiations the Government has cooperated with the EU in seeking, in the words of Tánaiste Simon Coveney (spoken on 20 July 2017), to minimise ‘the impact on our trade and economy, protecting the peace process, maintaining the Common Travel Area and its associated rights and securing the future of the European Union’.

Constitutional Debate

Brexit has reopened constitutional debates within the United Kingdom that many would have preferred remained dormant. Scots, who voted overwhelmingly against Brexit, had been enticed to reject independence in 2014 under threat of being expelled from the EU. Those who thought the 2014 referendum had put discussion of an independent Scotland to bed for a generation have been disabused. Brexit has also stimulated increased debate about the likelihood of a united Ireland. A former Director of Communications for the Ulster Unionist Party, Alex Kane, has pointed out that ‘a post-Brexit Border poll would centre around a very different question [from that posed pre-Brexit]: do you support a united Ireland (inside the European Union, protective of a multiplicity of identities and supported by the Republic’s political/business establishment) or do you support the union (outside the EU, possibly diminished by the departure of Scotland, and with the rise of a new form of English nationalism which will have no interest in the Celtic fringes)?’ While most unionists remain unconvinced, a combination of nationalists (including those previously inclined towards accepting the status quo), soft unionists and those self-defined as ‘others’, who constitute an increasing proportion of the electorate, could produce the numbers required to vote for politically uniting the island. Whether Ireland is in a position to facilitate such a merger is another matter.

Facing an uncertain future

While the Northern Ireland Troubles can finally be referred to in the past tense, complacency is ill advised. Until the 1970s, the Troubles referred to an earlier Anglo-Irish war and Bloody Sunday was dated to 1920. Too often in the past the ‘Irish Question’, as British politicians have liked to call it, has been consigned to history, only to re-emerge with a vengeance, in large measure because of London’s willful indifference. The Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements institutionalised a peace process that has fundamentally altered day-to-day life in Northern Ireland. Violence has abated and erstwhile antagonists have shared power. But while unquestionably a successful attempt at conflict management, it is perhaps too big a leap to say that what has been achieved is conflict resolution, let alone conflict transformation. Brexit has introduced profound uncertainty into Anglo-Irish relations. It will take many years before the full effects are felt and can be properly assessed.


Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Associate Professor of Politics at the School of Law and Government and an affiliated member of the Brexit Institute. His new book From Partition to Brexit: The Irish Government and Northern Ireland  is published this month by Manchester University Press. Further details are available here.

Previous Post
What’s in a Name: The Republic of (North) Macedonia
Next Post
Negotiations continue on what will replace the al-Bashir regime in Sudan