In a recent online panel organised by the Antall József Knowledge Centre, we had the opportunity to discuss with His Excellency Ronan Gargan, ambassador of Ireland to Hungary, and with Professor Brigid Laffan, director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, how Brexit strengthened Ireland’s strategic position not only within the European Union but also as a bridge between the United States and the EU. Here are some takeaways from the panel discussion and some thoughts about the future of the Irish question.
In a recent online panel organised by the Antall József Knowledge Centre, we had the opportunity to discuss how Brexit strengthened Ireland’s strategic position not only within the EU but also as a bridge between the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) with His Excellency Ronan Gargan, ambassador of Ireland to Hungary, and with Professor Brigid Laffan, director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. Ireland’s Atlantic connection, the name we decided to give to the solid bond linking Dublin and Washington, is surely not a new thing but has been greatly reinforced in the last few years and, to some extent, by Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House.
As it is easy to imagine, by leaving the EU, the United Kingdom yielded its historical role of being an advocate of the US interests and positions in the European context. With the UK’s renouncing its European membership, the whole idea of the Special Relationship, which has been the main driver of the British foreign policy since WWII, showed its weaknesses, and, therefore, Brexit will make it harder for the United Kingdom to reaffirm itself as a reliable partner in the eyes of the United States. On the other hand, Brexit opened up new opportunities for Ireland, the country which is now the last Anglo-Saxon stronghold in the EU.
The painstaking work of the Irish diplomacy during the long and tiresome UK–EU negotiations proved crucial for the final positive outcome, and, quoting Ambassador Gargan, this was because “Ireland was probably one of the first countries to even look at what the consequences of Brexit could be for the EU, and Ireland specifically.” In addition, the arrival of the “Irish” Joe Biden at the White House will most probably strengthen Ireland’s position in the wider European context, and the US can find Dublin its main intermediary. This is a view also shared by Ambassador Gargan, who affirmed during the panel: “Ireland will be a strong advocate for a deeper transatlantic relationship between the EU–UK–US and Canada.” And this is exactly why Ireland will have an important role in reconnecting the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean and rebuilding the Brussels–Washington dialogue, seriously strained by the Trump presidency.
The likelihood that, under Biden’s mandate, the cultural, political, economic, and historical connections existing between Ireland and the US could undergo a new revival is happening right before everyone’s eyes. The new head of the US administration speaks about his Irish origins proudly and has already shown a high degree of empathy towards his homeland during the Brexit negotiations and, most recently, the dispute caused by the UK’s breaching the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that the US financial and economic interests in the island are also quite widespread, and the chance that Dublin might attract many businesses leaving London and looking for new headquarters in Europe will certainly point up Ireland’s importance in the US.
Ireland can surely find the US a very like-minded partner—more than some “continental” EU member states are. Ireland is a small open economy with a very pro-business and globalist attitude. These characteristics helped the country change from one of the poorest member states to one of the richest in just a few decades. However, Ireland’s status in the EU will not go unchallenged, and its very liberal approach and generous corporate tax of 12.5% is expected to be, sooner or later, objected to by the advocates of a common taxation regime and a more centralised EU. However, despite the importance the US connection has for Ireland, the country’s geopolitical anchor in the world will surely remain its membership in the EU even after Brexit. As Professor Laffan reiterated, “there is no other geopolitical anchor for Ireland other than the EU. However, because of Brexit and because of Northern Ireland, Ireland will have to rebuild a closer relationship with London, but Brexit is the breaking of the umbilical cord between Ireland and Britain.”
However, the shared responsibility for Northern Ireland is also a fundamental concern for Ireland and the United Kingdom. In the current situation, Ireland’s and the EU’s focus should remain on the implementation of the Brexit agreement and the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. According to the new free trade agreement (FTA) signed by the EU and the UK at the end of 2020, a border of sorts has been introduced in the Irish Sea to avoid the introduction of a land border in Ireland and to protect the common market. All goods entering Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom which are thought to reach the EU will be checked there. Even if the protocol promises to “impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in both parts of the island,” it, de facto, left Northern Ireland inside the EU customs territory to the great disappointment of the Unionist community, which is afraid that, under these circumstances, its link with Great Britain will be put in danger.
Since Brexit, Ireland’s strategic role in acting as a bridge between the US and the EU has been greatly enhanced Source: lonndubh/Shutterstock
To make things even more complicated, at the beginning of March, the London government decided to unilaterally extend until 31 October the three-month grace period negotiated in the protocol, during which border checks on goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are not to be introduced. The UK’s violation of the provisions of the agreement was met with sharp criticism in the EU and forced the European Commission to launch legal action against London.
At the same time, President Biden warned Boris Johnson’s government in response to the British actions that undermining the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and endangering its achievements in Northern Ireland would have a direct effect on London’s ambitions to arrange a trade deal with the United States. Symbolically, Biden’s warn arrived during the Saint Patrick’s Day meeting, held online, where the US president and the Irish taoiseach discussed, among other things, the post-Brexit settlement in Ireland. The US administration’s sympathy for Ireland’s and the Northern Irish nationalists’ cause, who are concerned that the failed implementation of the protocol could return the region to chaos, reveals the importance that Ireland and the peace process still have in the US, where the Irish form a very influential community. The favoured access Ireland has to the US leadership could also potentially increase Dublin’s influence, while the importance of re-establishing post-Brexit British–Irish relations, carelessly ignored in 2016, is underlined by the growing public attention to the issue of Irish reunification.
As seen, the protection of the GFA is at the forefront of not just the EU’s strategy but also that of the US, while Brexit and the British government’s attitude towards the protocol are currently undermining the agreement’s achievements. A main element of the GFA is that it was signed under the assumption that both Ireland and the United Kingdom would always be part of the EU, a feature that was taken for granted in the years before Brexit. Joining the European Community helped Ireland leave behind its sense of unequal sovereignty with regard to the United Kingdom and contributed to the Europeanisation of the Irish question. Ambassador Gargan emphasised how “one big part of the peace process was that [the] UK and Irish politician[s] could meet and get together in Brussels on a regular basis and [attend] meetings and [see] each other as equals.” Brexit represents a dangerous withdrawal in the relationship between the two countries, one with hardly foreseeable consequences. Even if the prospect of the return to violence is unlikely today, it must not be forgotten, as Professor Laffan also highlighted, that “the GFA did not solve the conflict in Northern Ireland, but it simply made it largely non-violent.” Keeping this in mind, it is predictable that any deviation from the protocol or the spirit of reconciliation promoted by the GFA—and, therefore, the possibility of returning to the old divisions in Northern Ireland—will see the British government come under pressure from Brussels and especially Washington, the ultimate guarantor of the settlement. As Professor Laffan also noticed, “Boris Johnson is torn between his instinct for sovereignty first, including Northern Ireland, and, therefore, his first instinct is to ignore the protocol. But, if he does, there is no doubt that the US will intervene behind the scenes.”
At the current stage, the situation in Northern Ireland remains very unstable. On the one hand, the Unionist community—which, for the first time since the creation of the Northern Irish state one hundred years ago, may no longer represent the majority—asks the repeal of the protocol, fearing that their link with Great Britain would be severely weakened if this did not happen. Moreover, Unionists are also looking with anxiety at the developments in Scotland, where there will be local election in May. As Professor Laffan pointed out, the reason for this fear is that “for a Northern Unionist, Scotland is the natural interlocutor in the UK because they are culturally very close.” As she added, if Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party wins the election—and polls indicate they have all the chance to do so—and “if Scotland [becomes] one day independent, and that is a big if, then . . . the dynamics in Northern Ireland are also altered.”
On the other hand, Northern Irish nationalists do also sense that the moment for a referendum on unification, as envisaged by the GFA, is a more immediate prospect than it used to be and that there is nothing that Unionists can do to avoid this outcome. However, a border poll similar to the 2016 Brexit referendum does not represent a viable option. Indeed, an Irish reunification backed by only a narrow margin would be a fatal mistake that could break the new country up along sectarian cleavages and bring about the resurgence of violence. However, as Professor Laffan noted, “in the Brexit process, Unionists, and particularly the DUP, have acted against their long strategic interests. They have legitimised major constitutional changes on 52% of the vote. That is not smart if you are a Unionist in NI, because we know that the demographic [is] shifting,” and “a future referendum in Northern Ireland will not be decided by the Unionists or the Nationalists but by that middle ground who identifies as neither one [n]or the other.”
In principle, people favouring unification are in the majority in Northern Ireland today, and the census conducted these days will probably verify this demographic change dreaded by the Unionists. However, even if, according to the GFA, a border poll can be called at any time and it appears likely to the Northern Ireland Secretary that a majority of people in Northern Ireland would vote for a united Ireland, it must be kept in mind that—as Taoiseach Albert Reynolds also affirmed it in the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, which is considered the foundation for the GFA and the entire peace—“stability will not be found under any system which is refused allegiance, or rejected on grounds of identity, by a significant minority of those governed by it.”
In fact, “the unification of the island of Ireland,” said Laffan, “is not simply the absorption of Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic, but it implies a major shift in the political structure and logic of [the] organisation of the state itself.” Therefore, it is necessary to convince the Unionists of the merits of Irish unity and reach a negotiated settlement. Today, there is little evidence that this kind of persuasion takes place between the two communities in Northern Ireland. On the contrary, Unionists and Nationalists are more polarised than ever, are talking past one another rather than with one another, and concentrate on territorial sovereignty rather than reconciliation. From this point of view, the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland could end up making things even more unstable.
In fact, the protocol has a consent mechanism built in, meaning it ultimately rests on the “democratic consent” of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has to approve of its continuation or otherwise. Indeed, the assembly will be asked to consent to the customs and single market provisions four years after the transition period ends, and every four or eight years after that, depending on the results of the previous vote. This will surely represent a major challenge, considering the Northern Irish political landscape and the likeliness that the power-sharing institutions could again stop working. Unionist anxieties may mean that they will vote against the protocol every time, bringing the possibility of a hard border back to the table over and over again. Nationalists, in turn, will, in all likelihood, promote the vote as a proxy referendum for Irish reunification. In this sense, it is entirely possible that Northern Ireland will be entrapped into an endless Brexit argument, which would further damage the political situation in the region.
The Northern Ireland Protocol creates a de facto border for goods in the Irish Sea Source: Ivan Marc/Shutterstock
By making use of the third strand of the GFA, the one on North–South cooperation, and through the Shared Island initiative, the Dublin government intelligently tries to protect the achievements of the last twenty years and show the benefits of having an all-Ireland approach in some areas. This helps to shift the focus from the controversial border poll—not excluding it, however, from the negotiations—reassuring the Unionists and building consensus around a growing number of political, economic, and social initiatives involving Ireland and both communities in the North. As explained by Ambassador Gargan, “one area where the taoiseach really focussed on . . . is the establishment of an own department and a ‘Shared Ireland’ unit, to basically look at more areas where more can be done together but also to work for reconciliation and listen to all communities, to women, to young people, listen to Unionists and listen to Nationalists.”
However, whether they like it or not, Unionists must be aware that a referendum is now inevitable—some speculate that it will happen even before the end of this decade. DUP’s intransigence is shared by fewer and fewer people, and the middle ground of swing voters is growing in Northern Ireland. The most important thing is, though, what Dublin has already recognised and President Biden is trying to signal: the sooner the United States and the Irish American community can take part in the debate, just as it happened in 1998, the better for everyone.