Unrequited amity? Irish plans for enhanced British-Irish relations not reciprocated

Published: 25 June 2020

Voting takes place later this week on 'Our Shared Future' Programme for Government - agreed between Ireland's Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. Mary C Murphy, University College Cork, analyses what this might mean for the Northern Ireland peace process, Brexit and Ireland's relationship with the UK and its devolved nations. 

Ireland’s long and difficult government formation process nears its conclusion later this week. The ‘Our Shared Future’ Programme for Government – agreed between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party – contains a detailed list of policy proposals and promises. Those concerned with the environment, housing, health and transport have garnered the most headlines. However, other, less discussed proposals are just as consequential, and importantly, they are relevant for the UK and its devolved administrations.

Ireland’s 2020 general election produced an inconclusive outcome. Remarkable electoral gains for Sinn Féin saw the party emerge with the largest first preference vote and the second largest proportion of seats, but few willing coalition partners. The only viable political show in town appeared to be a coalition of three – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party.

The starting point for the agreed Programme for Government was an earlier Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael Draft Document published in April 2020 which set out a framework for facilitating negotiations with other smaller parties. That 24 page document has morphed into a 139 page document and its original ten missions have now become 12.

Of particular note is the mission on ‘A Shared Island’ which is more detailed and prescriptive than it was in the previous Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael version. The Northern Ireland peace process and Brexit form the context for the commitments made under this heading.

The document envisages working towards consensus on ‘a shared island’, although quite what a shared island means or entails is ambiguous. Nevertheless, there is a commitment to put in place arrangements and structures which will reflect on and examine future relationships between north and south, and between the UK and Ireland after Brexit.

The parties propose the establishment of a Unit within the Department of An Taoiseach to work towards a consensus on a shared island. The unit ‘will examine the political, social, economic, and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions are mutually respected’ (page 104).

There are references to increased all-island planning and additional cross-border initiatives – many of which bear the hallmarks of the Green Party’s environmental agenda.

There is a commitment to recommence meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council and to strategically reassess its work. Closer engagement between the Irish Oireachtas (parliament), Northern Ireland Assembly, UK parliament and devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales is envisaged.

The unique relationship between Ireland and the UK garners special mention. The parties promise to undertake a strategic review of the British-Irish relationship in 2020/2021 and to enhance the role of the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC). There is a commitment to develop structures for regular meetings at Heads of Government, Ministerial and Senior Official levels to take forwards agreed work programmes.

There is also explicit mention of the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales with plans to deepen relationships, and a commitment to open a new Consulate General in the north of England.

The outgoing Irish government had already embarked on a programme of relationship deepening with Scotland and Wales. In 2019, the Irish Consulate General in Cardiff was re-opened after a period of closure and a strategic review of Irish Scottish relations was conducted. The Irish Consulate General in Scotland has also been expanded.

The Programme for Government suggests an intensification of such efforts and a more ambitious approach to sustaining and nurturing relationships across these islands. It is clear that the three prospective coalition parties have an appetite for this increased level and intensity of engagement. The question however, is will that enthusiasm be reciprocated by the British government and the UK’s devolved administrations?

Despite Brexit, and perhaps even because of it, the devolved administrations have already demonstrated an openness and receptiveness to Irish proposals for greater contact and closer cooperation. The same, however, cannot be said for the British government.

Brexit has caused friction in the British-Irish relationship and the British Government’s approach to UK-EU negotiations (and more recently the Covid-19 crisis) has also highlighted a deterioration in relationships between the different tiers of government in the UK.

There is little to suggest that the British government has given any real consideration to the type of actions being advocated by Ireland’s prospective coalition government. In essence, Ireland’s post-sovereign outlook clashes with the British government’s Brexit era focus on ‘recaptured sovereignty’.

This means that British enthusiasm for new and enhanced bilateral structures and arrangements, and for deeper relations between Ireland and the devolved administrations, is neither a preference nor a priority. This does not bode well for progressing and operationalising many of the plans proposed by Ireland’s prospective coalition partners under the ‘shared island’ heading.

For the next Irish government, whatever its composition, reinvigorating the British-Irish relationship against a backdrop of discordant principles and differing ambitions will be no mean feat.

Photo by Alejandro Luengo on Unsplash