The Complexity of British-Irish Interdependence

Posted on behalf of Paul Gillespie

This blog presents the arguments from a paper in the special issue of IPS ‘Breaking Patterns of Conflict in Northern Ireland’, available here The transformation of British-Irish relations from dependence to interdependence from the 1960s to the 2000s occurred in an international setting dominated by both states’ membership of the EEC/EC/EU and their various relations with the USA’s global hegemony, politically and economically. The paper interprets these changes by reference to complex interdependence and other theories in international relations. Northern Ireland was a central factor in this transformation, but was not its primary cause, since both Ireland and the UK have an abiding interest in normal, stable inter-state relations aside from that conflict.

Real  independence  for  Ireland  from  continuing economic and cultural blanketing by Britain from the 1920s to the 1960s – a condition of continuing dependence in effect – was achieved  only  when  membership  of  the  European  communities  allowed  a  diversification of interests and affiliations from the 1970s. Ireland now has a more healthy and complicated interdependence with its larger neighbour.   This process occurred alongside the growing need to engage on and manage the Northern Ireland conflict. The Belfast Agreement of 1998 was its culmination, institutionalising the new East-West relationship as well as the North-South ones and allowing a fuller normalisation of inter-state and popular relations. This is reflected in public attitudes North and South, which have become accustomed to the settlement and believe it offers stability based on the principle of consent, according to polling evidence. The  bilateral  Ireland‐UK arrangements  agreed  in  the  March 2012  Downing  Street  Statement between Taoiseach Kenny and Prime Minister Cameron now supplements existing British-Irish links.

Paradoxically, however, just as the official discourse of transformation reached its height the normalisation on which it was based was challenged by the dual constitutional question unsettling the United Kingdom: Scotland’s vote on independence and a likely referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. These decisions  are  organically  linked  and  their  working  out  over  the  next  five years  will  necessarily  be  a  central  priority  of  Irish  foreign  policy.

The paper develops four scenarios linking these two decisions and their potential  implications for Ireland. Scenario 1 would see Scotland out of the UK and the UK out of the EU. A UK breakup is likely in this case, since a Eurosceptic dominated England would be less willing to fund Wales and Northern Ireland, and they too would want to rethink their futures. Irish unity would be put on the political agenda far more quickly than its political elites and voters expect or desire. A new deal would  have  to be negotiated between  the UK and the EU and between Ireland and the UK to avoid a disastrous re‐imposition of (EU) border  controls  between  North  and  South  and  a  much  more  ruthless competitive  space  between  them.

Scenario 2 would see Scotland out of the UK and the UK remaining in the EU. It would unsettle the UK and reduce its solidarity because a dominant England would be less willing to fund Wales and Northern Ireland. There would have to be a rethink within the remaining parts of the UK and a redesign of the British-Irish regime.

Scenario 3 would see Scotland deciding to stay in the UK but the UK later deciding to leave the EU, almost certainly with an English majority determining the referendum result. That would re-open the Scottish question and therefore the UK one, also unsettling the UK. Major issues would be posed for the British-Irish regime, including borders and regulation. The new East-West arrangements outlined in the 2012 Downing Street statement would be used to negotiate them bilaterally and with the EU.

Scenario 4 keeps Scotland in the UK and the UK in the EU. Deepening Scottish devolution and a renegotiated UK relationship with a changing EU and deepening Eurozone, probably through a new EU treaty, would trigger a debate on whether the UK should become a federal state. Because of present political cultural values and political structures in England that may not be feasible. Either way the British-Irish regime would require deep change taking account of this unsettled and fragmenting condition.

These four scenarios show how unsettled the UK will be in the coming years as it deals with its dual internal and external constitutional questions. Since the framework set up by the complex interdependency regime created since the 1970s between Britain and Ireland directly involves both these dimensions, the outcomes will have reciprocal effects and mutual causation on both states. A great deal depends on how robust the structures are to withstand the asymmetric power relations where the larger entity in the relationship may assert its own basic interests over common ones set up by the regime. These outcomes could be much more immediate than is currently anticipated by Irish leaders, public opinion or voter preferences.

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