British-Irish relationship stronger than ever in difficult times

As we all know, sometimes newspapers overlook or underplay an important story because it doesn’t make sensational headlines. The meeting between Prime Minister David Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny in London last March – and the joint statement which came out of it  – was one such story. We in Northern Ireland, in particular, would do well to study that statement and ponder its implications closely.

The statement was unusual in that it set out the parameters of a closer British-Irish relationship over the next 10 years. The language was warm and positive in a way that was unprecedented for such an inter-governmental declaration. It spoke of the relationship between Britain and Ireland having ‘never been stronger or more settled, as complex and important, as it is today’, and of the huge success of the Queen’s visit last year, ‘serving as a symbol of a modern, deep and friendly relationship.’ In particular the two countries ‘enjoy a uniquely close political relationship, grounded in the progress we have led together over the last 25 years in the peace process in Northern Ireland.’ It noted the presence of a ‘large, confident, valued and integrated Irish community in Britain’. And perhaps most importantly, it stressed that ‘our two economies benefit from a flow of people, goods, investment, capital and ideas on a scale that is rare even in this era of global economic integration.’

The agreed need for much closer economic relations informed the whole statement. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach announced ‘an intensive programme of work aimed at reinforcing the British-Irish relationship over the next decade’. It said the two governments wanted to see an expansion of the 1 billion euro trade in goods and services which flow between the two countries every year. The extraordinary statistic that Britain exports more to Ireland than to the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) combined has often been cited.

The two governments would prepare ‘a joint evaluation of the depth of economic relations between the UK and Ireland and of the opportunities for closer collaboration in support of growth to our mutual benefit.’ Work is now under way to explore how to increase cooperation in areas such as third level research, electricity and energy, food security, financial services and the creative industries. This work will often have to go back to basics: for example, the basic problem of key statistics between the two countries – such as for measuring trade flows – often not being compatible.

In a sign of the times, Northern Ireland takes up only 25 of the 135 lines of the statement, and even this section stresses the economic dimension. The emphasis on working together for mutual prosperity, particularly on an all-island basis, is there again: ‘We support and encourage intensified economic cooperation on the island of Ireland that delivers benefits in stronger growth and better public services.’

There is also a section on ‘Working together in Europe’. Britain’s ‘half-in, half-out’ relationship with the EU – highlighted by the UK’s refusal to back the Fiscal Treaty and sterling’s separation (but not independence) from the crisis-hit euro zone  – means that she needs all the friends in Europe she can get, and  has clearly identified Ireland as one of those friends.
Cooperation in the EU on an internal market in energy, the digital economy and reducing regulation are all things that London and Dublin can agree on.

Increasingly, political and business leaders are forecasting that the only way out of the euro crisis is for a very significant deepening of European union, starting with a fiscal and banking union. This will require a referendum in the UK, one which will almost certainly not be passed. What then for Britain in Europe?  An arm’s length trading relationship? Total exclusion? And what will be the impact on Britain’s largest trading partner, the Republic of Ireland? How will it affect the North-South relationship on this island if the UK effectively leaves the European Single Market, and how might the impact on that relationship of such a cataclysmic development be mitigated? These are the massive issues – raised earlier this month at an SDLP conference on the ‘island economy’ by that incisive commentator, Dan O’Brien, economics editor of the Irish Times – which are bending minds in Dublin and London these days, more than anything specifically to do with Northern Ireland.

This is something that both the DUP and Sinn  Fein – neither used to thinking much about issues beyond this island – would do well to reflect on. I would hope it would act as a reality check on their normal default positions of, respectively, hostility to anything Irish (including North-South cooperation) and antagonism to anything British (although with Martin McGuinness shaking hands with the Queen, this may be beginning to change). In the much colder financial climate looming ahead, issues like the British Exchequer’ s keenness on the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government sharing, through North-South collaboration, the provision (and cost) of some public services, must be seriously on the table.  A recent CCBS report on this subject by Dublin business consultant Michael D’Arcy should serve to open this debate.1

Both parties must realise that the inter-island and international landscape outside Ireland and Northern Ireland (including the possible independence of Scotland) is changing rapidly. It is no coincidence that the final section in the  Cameron-Kenny statement talked about climate change, international security and development aid. We are moving into historically difficult – even dangerous – times in the world.  Our little province and our small island will not be immune.

Andy Pollak

1.  Michael D’Arcy, Delivering a Prosperity Process: Opportunities in North/South Public Service Provision. Centre for Cross Border Studies, 2012.

  • I attended the same Conference to which Mr Pollak refers.
    Mr O’Brien, whose address was very sobering……I think referred to an impending “make your mind up”. It is Ireland that is just as much half in and half out of Europe..
    The Integration and political unification of Europe..always planned by the eurocrats as stealth… now inevitable due to the economic crisis.

    Britain will inevitably vote against closer ties with Europe.
    This will probably produce a “make your mind up moment” in Dublin. To have closer economic ties with Europe or Britain?

  • Mister_Joe

    The latest figures I have been able to find are for 2009 and Ireland’s exports to the rest of Europe exceeded those to the UK. Interestingly, exports to the USA just edged out those to the UK, both around 18% of the total.

  • Andy, could you please tidy-up your labelling? The two states are known officially as the UK and Ireland but you sometimes slip into using ‘Britain’ and ‘Republic of Ireland’.

  • tacapall

    Next we’ll be hearing we’re re-joing the Commonwealth, that would be humiliation. They just cherry picked the benefits added in special relationship, no need for symbolic gestures or displays of loyalty, just let the old lady visit whenever and be proper hosts.

  • Granni Trixie


    Forgive my ignorance but I always refer to “the south” as the Republic or in writing as ROI. I honestly do not wish to offend anybody. And who said these are ,wrong, labelling (aside from yourself?).

  • Granni, thanks for asking. I’m merely seeking greater clarity and easier understanding via consistent labelling – especially from those who hold positions of authority or influence. When I read one of Bertie Ahern’s speeches it was sometimes difficult to figure out when he was talking about Ireland the state and Ireland the island; it was often a bit of a muddle.

    Just to illustrate the point with a current example, take a look at The Gathering Ireland 2013:

    Whether you’re Irish born, Irish bred or Irish in spirit, get involved & celebrate a year of Irish connections

    When you click on the ‘Plan Your Visit’ tab you’ll see that it doesn’t apply to the whole island, something that is likely to confuse the Diaspora and possibly annoy nationalists and others in Northern Ireland.

  • weidm7

    This communiqué shows the failure of the Irish revolution to achieve true independence. We are still economically and culturally shackled to our larger neighbour, we are developmentally retarded and have failed to stand up on our own two feet as a respectable, sovereign nation. Ask most Europeans and they won’t be able to tell the difference between a person born in Birmingham and one born in Blarney, if we could finally sever our subservience to Britain, we could be able to innovate rather than be tied to outdated models, to become a nation rather than a province, in psychology as well as economy, despite our two assemblies in Dublin and Belfast, we have never truly achieved this.

  • Mister_Joe


    You’re being pedantic, deliberately I think. Stop it. It’s obvious to the rest of us what people are referring to.

  • “You’re being pedantic”

    No, Mister_Joe. I’ve stated my position very clearly to Granni Trixie so there’s no need to walk the straw dog 😉

  • OneNI

    Andy are you one of those people who still think the euro is a good idea?
    Face facts. IF the euro survives the Republic will not be in it and needs to ask itself what will it do then. there are sound reasons – not least to huge trade btwn RoI and UK – to link to sterling.
    You appear to suggest that the UK needs the Republic as a friend in europe. i would suggest the opposite – to maintain any fiscal independence the Republic needs the UK.
    What on earth makes you think the UK will be leaving the Single Market? Simply not going to happen.

    As the Cameron – Kenny statement implies the future lies in closer integration – not into Europe but between the Republic and the UK and certainly not in integrating NI into the Republic.

    Nationalists leap at the idea of intregation as some UI by stealth but look at the statement:
    ‘increase cooperation in areas such as third level research, electricity and energy, food security, financial services and the creative industries.’
    It is obvious these only work on ‘these islands’ basis not an All Island isolation.
    I guess we must all remember the ‘totality of relationships’ as someone once said

  • Henry94

    We originally joined the euro on the assumption that Britain would follow us in. If the currency fails we need to act in a sensible way and peg to Sterling until things settle down.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Your explicit call and Cameron and Kenny’s implicit call for a more outward facing perspective is welcome. I’m also of a mind that, like children when they work themselves into a rut with bad behaviour and can’t find a way out, changing the subject is the best approach. It gets their minds working on something else. That’s really what people in NI need more than anything else – engagement with the wider issues of the UK, Europe and the World (yes and the Republic too for those that way minded). Introspection is necessary but Ulster introspection has a morbid quality to it that saps rather than invigorates.

    Andy’s labels are clearer than yours. Britain is in any case a synonym for the UK (yes including NI) in everyday speech and certainly in political speech. And in discussing the ROI and NI, Ireland is just confusing, as you never know if it means the country or the island. Rep of Ireland is much clearer.

  • Mainland Ulsterman, if you return to my first post, you’ll see that my criticism of Andy’s article was that it was a mix of labels: UK/Britain and Ireland/Republic of Ireland. If you think about it, ‘Britain’ is often used for the island as well as the state so that puts it in the same league as ‘Ireland’.

    “everyday speech and certainly in political speech”

    This might have been true twenty or so years ago but political speech and official labelling has moved on; just check out the .uk and .ie on modern media. Following my suggestion, the annual digest of statistics changed from Britain [year] to UK [year]; this may well have influenced a change from ‘Britain in the USA’ to ‘UK in the USA’.

  • “British-Irish relationship stronger than ever in difficult times”

    There does appear to be quite a good relationship between the political establishments in London and Dublin; unfortunately it’s been at the expense of democracy in Northern Ireland. Martin McGuinness’ slightly surreal performance in London yesterday will have entertained them but it’s unlikely to do any damage to political relationships here; he appears to still be firmly hooked on the ‘two islands’ lingo despite the package he and his colleagues signed up to in 1998 and subsequently.