External Association and the Brexit Dilemma

The Brexit negotiations have been plagued with political point scoring and little ‘real’ progress since the onset. There is a whirlwind of media noise surrounding any development when in reality the only concrete thing to emerge recently is the Chequers deal.

This serves to embed the perception that Brexit is an intractable enigma, a foreign and absurd entity the likes of which we have not seen before. In reality, this kind of complex negotiation that fundamentally seeks to secure bi-lateral relationships between nation-states is neither novel nor rare. One does not have to look very far from the UK to find examples of this.

Let us look specifically at Autumn, 1921. A team of negotiators consisting of Irish republicans including: Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, and Gavan Duffy arrive in London to negotiate a treaty to determine Ireland’s future relationship with Britain and her Empire. This was the result of a prolonged and bloody conflict, a conflict in which many believed Irish republican mythos became reality, where Irish guerrillas justly fought a ruthless British invader.

The ensuing negotiations were complex with future relationships between the two nations uncertain whilst competing demands emerged over issues such as autonomy and head of state. The similarities with the Brexit negotiations stems from this inability to find a position that satisfied those seeking to keep a close relationship with Britain and those that wanted to cut ties entirely to carve a truly ‘independent’ path. The comparison is tenuous, but if any insight can be gained there is value in the discussion.

The Anglo-Irish negotiations necessitated hard-nosed negotiation and creative thinking from British and Irish negotiators. Eamonn De Valera’s thinking in particular could be of considerable value. These days there may seem to be little to agree with Eamonn De Valera (Dev) about. He was a titan of Irish politics during the 20th century, with a political career spanning over half a century, from 1917 to 1973, holding both posts of Taoiseach and President. Today he appears as an out-dated figure of conservative Catholic Ireland with his ideological focus on creating an idyllically rural, Gaelic, Catholic Ireland especially archaic. Some have gone as far to compare him to an Irish Franco. Contrary to this narrow view of De Valera, he is a complex and intelligent figure that likely has greater relevance than generally touted.

De Valera was most likely the best negotiator Ireland had during these negotiations. Lloyd George remarked that negotiating with Dev was like ‘picking up mercury with a fork’ which Dev wittily responded stating that the Prime Minister should ‘try a spoon’. Whether this was mere flattery, De Valera understood the intricate situation at hand. Specifically, that two camps existed that needed appeasing: hard-line republicans and the British government.

De Valera found himself in a position in which he aspired to achieve greater autonomy for Ireland whilst needing to satisfy conditions under which Ireland retained aspects of the commonwealth and empire. In an attempt to move beyond this seemingly intractable dilemma, Dev promoted a concept known as ‘External Association’. This meant Ireland would be a sovereign state associated with the commonwealth but not a member of it, and that the monarch would be the head of this association but not the acting head of the new Irish state. This kind of ambitious but ambiguous thinking would not be out of place with the current state of Brexit negotiation.

De Valera, a trained mathematician, utilised set theory to elaborate on his thinking. Set theory examines sets, basically collections of objects, and studies these mainly for the purposes of mathematical logic. Using visualisation to elaborate, Dev represented the British Commonwealth by a large circle, within which were contained smaller circles representing self-governing countries. Ireland was drawn as a smaller circle outside the large circle, but which importantly touched it. This highlighted a level of cooperation between the two entities but not in the same way as the countries contained within the large circle representing the commonwealth. Dev stressed that in this unique relationship cooperation with Ireland was based on the understanding that no laws were imposed on Ireland against her will. If the British government granted recognition to the republic, they would co–operate with Britain as long as Britain did not attempt to impose control.

This thinking was side lined when negotiations moved away from Dev’s control, as he decided to remove himself from the negotiating table and situate himself in Dublin acting as a mediator. Dev’s development of external association and his actions during the negotiation period show a developed understanding of the political climate. De Valera was very aware of the issues arising surrounding the need for a deal that enhanced their own position whilst accepting compromise:

“The problem is to devise a scheme that will not detract from Irish freedom… What may happen I am not able to judge [but] you should realize the difficulties that are in the way and the fact that the best people might legitimately differ on such a scheme. The worst thing that could happen would be that we should not be tolerant of honest differences of opinion.”

Theresa May could benefit from taking a page out of Dev’s book. Dev’s external association reflects a nuanced understanding of his political climate, understanding the need for compromise to reach the best agreement. The need for greater nuance and acceptance of compromise is something the Conservatives could significantly benefit from. Dev’s model of External Association, promoting Ireland both being outside the commonwealth whilst being heavily associated with it, could be something of value to consider for Brexit negotiators.

Theresa May further ought to consider adopting a mediator approach, much like Dev. Following Boris Johnson’s resignation, she has done the opposite, putting herself at the forefront. This may be interpreted as intelligent brinkmanship, as any deal to arise reflects her ownership of the situation and therefore ensures consistency with her position from Westminster. Following the Dev playbook however this instead looks like a serious political miscalculation and puts her on the front-line open to both criticism and personal responsibility for anything that goes wrong with any outcome. Dev’s position in the negotiations ensured his political survival, and a long and successful political career, Theresa May has decided to gamble instead.

By Aidan Harkin

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.