If there is a positive outcome to the continuing imbroglio following the UK’s decision to self-eject from the European Union, it is that Ireland’s position as an integral member of the European family has never looked more assured. Of course, the breezy and contemptuous assumption of British Brexiteers was that little old Ireland would end up as collateral damage. The concerns of German car manufacturers, eager to continue selling their sleek executive motors to willing Brits after Brexit, would outweigh Irish sensitivities over border arrangements. The realpolitik of Europe’s big beasts slugging it out would inevitably result in an accommodation – with Irish interests relegated to an afterthought. Or as the African proverb has it: When the elephants fight, it is the ground that suffers. The EU would sue for peace with Britain – gladly – and Dublin would just have to make the best of it.
This, certainly, was the Brexiteer mindset; a combination of Tiggerish hubris and age-old British chauvinism. Best summed-up by Boris Johnson explaining that the issues arising from the UK having a land border with the EU across the island of Ireland was no more complicated than moving between zones on the London underground. It was a widely held delusion, with Theresa May stating in her Lancaster House speech in January 2017 that nobody wanted to return ‘to the borders of the past’ and that she would make it ‘a priority’ to deliver a ‘practical solution’ as soon as possible.
Even now, five years later, we still await a coherent explanation; with the British government currently intent – amid international condemnation – on resiling from the settlement it provisionally agreed, contained in the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. This ‘magical thinking’ about Brexit – that it would be a pain-free joyride for Britain – was a long time in gestation. Indeed, the Brit Romantic Nationalists (BRoNs) on the Tory Right – characterised by their economic cavalierism and political oafishness – have never accommodated themselves to being part of the European club, requiring, as it does, a basic expectation to treat other Member States as equals. Something with which post-imperial Britain has traditionally had difficulty.
Ireland, conversely, fitted into the EU from the start. And so, Brexit has seen a reversal of fortune. Unable to drive a wedge between Brussels and Dublin over negotiations over the Irish border, John Bull has realised too late in the game that Paddy has twenty-six mates still left in the European club rooting for him. This has been the cause of much head-scratching in Whitehall. (‘But what about those BMWs?’) The reason the EU has stood firm behind Ireland – against British expectations – goes back fifty years, to when and, crucially, why Britain and Ireland joined the then Common Market in the first place. The motivations of either country could not have been more different.
For Britain, membership was always a Plan B. A tactical decision, borne of desperation, not by a conviction in supra-national co-operation with its neighbours. The product of a pervasive sense of post-war malaise, with sluggish economic growth and the stripping away of empire, as country after country broke free of Britannia’s rule. Europe was a rebound option. A useful platform to maintain British prestige after relegation in the pecking order in the bipolar world of the Cold War.
The difference for Ireland was that Europe was never a second-best option. Becoming a Member State, on equal terms with other nations, was an end in itself. Europe offered diplomatic validation for the Irish Republic, (that even then was playing such an assiduous role in the affairs of the United Nations). Where British and Irish views did overlap was in the sense that membership of the Common Market would help with the task of economic modernisation. For Ireland, recipient of decades’ worth of agricultural and infrastructure spending, Europe has represented a particularly good deal.
Although a net contributor to the Commission’s budget from the start, Europe still saw a good return for Britain which, even now, exports 42% of its goods to the EU, with half of all imports coming from the bloc. But for Britain, that essential utility has never blossomed into a love for the European ideal. Ireland is certainly not sappy about the EU (having voted against the Nice Treaty in 2001), but the Irish bring hard-headed pragmatism where the British bring their emotional baggage. Clear-sightedness versus dewy-eyed sentimentality for a lost past.
It is why Irish diplomatic heft – leveraging support from the chancelries of Europe, right the way to the Oval Office of President Biden – has so comprehensively outplayed British insularity throughout the Brexit negotiations. Paddy’s rapier-like use of soft power has proven more effective than John Bull’s blunderbuss. It is an unexpected turn of events on the British side of the Irish Sea; but it serves as a useful reminder that co-operation wins out over belligerence.
Inspired and assisted by the Irish Foreign Affairs as part of the Communication Europe Initiative, our Ireland EU 50 series is a selection of unique stories from writers from Ireland and elsewhere. The CEI was established in 1995 to raise awareness about the European Union and to improve the quality and accessibility of public information on European issues.