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Anglo Irish Relations

I entered the EP in unusual circumstances

Brexit brought me in in two senses.

I ran for election because I felt that there would be a shift in the relevance of Brussels post-Brexit. Also I won the fourth seat in Dublin which only became effective when the UK left in January.

You could say that Brexit was both the parent and the mid-wife.

Accordingly, my maiden speech last February focused on trying to ensure that the UK was treated not as a rival but as a partner. However current Tory ideology is having an extremely negative impact on the island of Ireland. I am also of the view that this approach is likely to make to the case for a border poll sooner rather than later.

Sadly recent developments in Boris Johnson’s government make it difficult be positive about the future Ireland UK relationship. I am not an angloskeptic but it is hard to hold the line.

For my part, I recognise not just a high level of economic integration between Ireland and the UK but also the cultural and social affinity between the two islands. On a personal level despite having grandparents who were members of the IRA in the war of independence I have a huge admiration for and interest in most things British - sports, culture, music, history and politics.

In Ireland, we consume an enormous diet of UK media and hardly any at all from the European continent. Which doesn’t mean to say that generally we understand UK politics. We just understand it better than politics anywhere else.

It is on this basis that we are aware of how little Ireland really counts in Westminster politics - unless, as occasionally happens, a Unionist party holds the balance of power. The orthodox view for years was that, for UK Prime Ministers, there was nothing to be gained in getting involved in Ireland; it was a case of, ‘leave well enough alone’.

This orthodoxy was rejected by John Major who invested a lot of political capital in laying the groundwork for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 via the Downing Street Declaration of 1994. Major’s demise unfortunately bore out the wisdom of the orthodoxy.

It was astonishing last week to see Boris Johnson set up his ‘Union Task Force’ (consisting of Tory MPs from England, Scotland and Wales) while omitting any reference or connection to Northern Ireland. His real focus was on Scotland but the Northern Ireland oversight will have rankled with unionists. This future oriented initiative almost reads into the record that Johnson does not see Northern Ireland as part of the Union in the long term.

But it’s not just Johnson that ignores Ireland.

Despite the British Irish governance architecture in the Good Friday Agreement, few of the mechanisms are really effective.

The British Irish Council (Ireland, UK plus devolved administrations) has none of the familiarity of the Nordic Council because the UK has largely ignored it. It was never legislated for in the UK.

Equally, the British Irish Conference is also underutilised. It didn’t even meet between 2007 and 2018. There is blame on both sides for that.

All of this gets worse as English, as opposed to British, nationalism emerges more strongly.

There was for a long time no real distinction between England and Great Britain. But the inner empire (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) is now disintegrating.

Ulster Protestants are among the few that routinely describe themselves as British.

Anticipating these changes, the Taoiseach, Micheal Martin, set up a Shared Island Unit within the Taoiseach’s department over the summer. It is his view that there will not be a border poll in the next five years.

His main focus is on building trust with the unionist community in particular through infrastructure projects, health, trade missions and school curriculums. He even calls upon the Marshall Plan as an inspiration for the level of investment needed. Uniting people comes before uniting Ireland although not merely a means to that end.

I also believe that a border poll would be enormously divisive in the short term. I also doubt whether it would pass in Northern Ireland. And, indeed, as a recent academic paper prepared by University College London points out, we have a long way to go to accurately describe the landing ground of a future united Ireland.

One of the major flaws in the Brexit referendum was that the Cameron Government refused to do any serious thinking about the implications of ‘leave’ winning. This left questions about the Single Market, fish quotas, Security and defence and customs and of course Northern Ireland to be contested after the outcome of the vote.

I will continue to argue for close Irish British relations but we will need someone like John Major on the other side if long term damage is to be avoided.

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