Brexit, the British Irish Council and the future of Anglo-Irish diplomacy

Brexit, the British Irish Council and the future of Anglo-Irish diplomacy

This week, Tony Craig (Staffordshire) discusses the future of Britain’s border with Ireland in the post-Brexit world.

Though Britain’s border with Ireland and the practicalities of how it will be managed have been the mainstay of Brexit negotiations so far, this week in Jersey the British Irish Council have without great publicity or fanfare, and as they have done since 1999 to discuss the ‘totality of relations’ between these islands. This blog argues that the fixation with discussions relating to the border often overlooks the sad fact that this is not an electorally crucial component of national politics in either the UK or the Republic of Ireland and that it is the trading relationship worth £30Billion a year in goods and services to both countries[i] that will make or break the Anglo-Irish relationship. This blog looks at how Anglo-Irish relations were handled (and on occasion mishandled) before both countries joined the EEC in 1973 and offers a few lessons on how this important relationship may be best managed in the future. The results indicate that there may already exist in the British Irish Council just the kind of quiet diplomatic tool that will be required to manage relations in the post Brexit Anglo-Irish relationship.

Traditionally Anglo-Irish relations are at their best when the executives of both governments acknowledge cooperation in matters of shared interest is mutually beneficial. In working together on the first two EEC applications in 1961-62 and 1965-68 the UK and Ireland were forced to present to the rest of Europe a united and consensual front, developing an Anglo Irish Free Trade Area Agreement (AIFTAA) that spilled over into technical, infrastructural, and even cultural co-operation within just a few short years. Harold Wilson, in 1965 speaking on St Patrick’s Day at the Irish Club in London noted definitively ‘Not only do I think there has ever been a time when our friendship has been closer but I also think that the hopes of even closer friendship have never been greater.’[ii] The Irish government secured, because of these improved relations, the remains Roger Casement[iii] executed for his part in arming the 1916 Easter Rising along with a flag that the rebels had flown above the GPO that very week. Both were later used by the Irish government in their own official commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the rebellion.

Since independence in 1922 matters relating to the management of border issues have often been deferred to semi-state companies in order to avoid their being handled in the public eye. The Erne Hydro Dam project ran smoothly precisely because it benefitted those on both sides of the border. The Great Northern Railway running between Belfast and Dublin was jointly owned for a period despite the fact that Northern Ireland and the Republic were barely on speaking terms; and interestingly the Republic’s Foyle Fisheries Act of 1952[iv], managed to not even mention the Northern Ireland Government, not even by one of its long-used pseudonyms (e.g. ‘The Six Counties’) despite the fact that the Northern Ireland government held a 50% stake in the resultant Foyle Fisheries Commission with whom they also shared the (albeit meagre) profits.[v]

Irish Prime Ministers Éamon de Valera, Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch all found occasion to comment critically on Northern Ireland and the border as a means of maintaining support at home. Lemass from time to time would remind his supporters of his views on partition, noting for example, in 1963 that he felt ‘in foreign rule [there lies] the never-failing source of all our political evils.’[vi] These kinds of statements would of course be rebuked publicly in Northern Ireland, putting back the public cooperation efforts with Northern Ireland to secure temporary domestic support. On no occasion did lashing out rectify issues or compel the British or Northern Ireland governments to do anything other than refute the allegations publicly. The converse is also true of course and when Churchill publicly rebuked de Valera for ‘frolic[king] with the Germans’[vii] during the War and de Valera soon responded in kind with his own speech noting that Ireland ‘had stood alone not for one year or two but for several hundred years’ against foreign aggression.[viii] Though it plays well to the gallery, in a post-Brexit Anglo Irish relationship this kind of jingoism especially in the era of Twitter (not to mention Trump) risks stirring the kinds of animosities among constituents both governments would do best to avoid.

In the initial years of the Northern Ireland Troubles, Anglo-Irish trade talks often created space where the truly problematic matters could be aired without fear of either side losing face. In 1969 and 1970 the AIFTAA agreement’s requirement for regular ministerial meetings often allowed senior officials to learn more about each other’s policy stances by reporting concerns and explaining positions in ways that would not be publicised in the subsequent press briefings. In 1969 the new Irish Foreign minister, Dr Patrick Hillery in a tactic divergent from his predecessor Frank Aiken used his ministerial visits in ways meant specifically to embarrass the UK government by pointing out Unionist intransigence or the over zealous actions of the RUC or B-Specials in Northern Ireland. Hillery was told directly in one case that ‘Derry was the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Government, the more London interfered with the exercise of that responsibility, the less effective the results might be.’[ix] by the very people that were at that moment planning the intervention of British troops. The Irish government were shut out of the decision making loop in London as a result of Hillery’s outburst and this kind of diplomacy had proven once again just as effective as the patriotic bombast of their party conference speeches that had gotten successive Irish governments nowhere.

Conflict is expensive and unwise and in Anglo-Irish relations having the patience to live with problems has more often proven a better strategy than escalating disagreement. The Anglo-Irish Trade War, 1932-1938 began with de Valera’s refusal to repay pre-independence loans secured on Irish land to the British Treasury. The British responded by simply raising this money from a 20% tax on all Irish imports to Britain – then approximately 90% of all of Ireland’s exports – and creating a severe economic recession that only served to push the Irish economy down a protectionist trade policy for a generation to come, harming the development of native industry and crucially perpetuating emigration from the Irish state.[x]

Of course, these lessons come from a time before either country had joined the EU and in a less globalised world where nation states had far greater leeway for negotiation than they do today. However, they also occurred before the UK had openly acknowledged the right of the Republic of Ireland to an opinion on Northern Ireland affairs which they did as part of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and subsequently the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Brexit negotiations have demonstrated the continued disruptive nature of the media on complex international negotiations and therefore the risks of using high level summit meetings to conduct Anglo-Irish relations should also be apparent. In this situation one might find the regular and mundane activities of the British Irish Council[xi] to be just the kind of forum that is increasingly needed. With a regular council, issues of importance can be discussed away from the public eye and in atmospheres where mutually beneficial arrangements can be worked-out far more easily than at formal negotiations. It will therefore be interesting to see how this Council begins to grapple with the new issues it will need to face in the coming years.


[i] Central Statisitcs Office, Brexit: Ireland and the UK in Numbers (Government of Ireland, 2016)

[ii] Harold Wilson, Speech at the Irish Club, 17 March 1965, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) 2000/5/38, National Archives of Ireland (NAI).

[iii] ‘How Casement’s remains returned at last’ Irish Independent, 28 December 2007 [accessed 9 November 2017].

[iv] Stephen Kelly, Fianna Fáil, Partition and Northern Ireland,1926-1971 (Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2013)

[v] No. 5 of 1952, Foyle Fisheries Act, Acts of the Oireachtas (online) [accessed 9 November 2017]. £46,200 was submitted as profit for the Dublin and Belfast governments as the Commission’s two shareholders between 1956 and 1966, Foyle Fisheries Commission reports and Accounts, Department of Taoiseach files (DT) 2001/6/155, NAI. See also Foyle Fisheries Commission 1961–1970, CAB 9F/21012 Public Record Office, Northern Ireland (PRONI).

[vi] Lemass Speech to Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis, Tralee, 29 July 1963, DT S-9361 K/63, NAI.

[vii] Winston Churchill, “Forward, Till the Whole Task is Done” 13 May 1945 Speech on BBC Home Service

[viii] Cited from K. Theodore Hoppen, Ireland since 1800: Conflict and Conformity (London, Routledge, 2nd ed. 1998), 204.

[ix] Minutes of discussion at the Foreign Office, 1 August 1969, DFA 2000/5/38, NAI. For more see Anthony Craig, Crisis of Confidence: Anglo Irish relations in the early Troubles 1966-1974 (Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2010); 39-84.

[x] Kevin O’Rourke. “Burn Everything British but Their Coal: The Anglo-Irish Economic War of the 1930s.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 51, no. 2, 1991, pp. 357–366. JSTOR,

[xi] British Irish Council Summit Communiques

Dr Tony Craig is an Associate Professor at Staffordshire University and author of Crisis of Confidence: Anglo-Irish relations in the early Troubles (Irish Academic Press, 2010). 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s