Anglo-Irish Relations and European Integration: then and now

by Christopher Day (@ChrisDay96)

Since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, the country’s future relationship with the Republic of Ireland has been a key issue. The question of what to do about the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has been crucial in negotiations between the UK and the EU, but (at the time of writing) no answer has been found agreeable by all parties. Given the legacy of British involvement in Ireland, and the continuing desire of Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, this issue is especially pertinent and potentially fractious. But that has not stopped several commentators from positing the troubling suggestion that the Republic could simply leave the EU too, thus avoiding the need to create a hard border on the island of Ireland. This idea is a non-starter; a poll in March 2019 showed that just eight percent of Irish people favoured leaving the EU. Rightly, those who have suggested this ‘solution’ to the issue have been widely castigated.

That they propose this idea at all is evidence of their mistaken belief that Britain remains dominant in the Anglo-Irish relationship. Other commentators and politicians have recognised that, actually, it is the Republic of Ireland which holds the whip hand in these negotiations. Fintan O’Toole has argued that ‘for the first time since Henry II invaded in 1171, Ireland has more power than England’, while Brendan Simms believes that the Irish Taoiseach has been able to bring ‘the power of the European hegemon to bear on the UK’ and that the proposed backstop would have given the Republic ‘a greater say over important parts of the British economy than the British themselves.’[1]

For centuries, this Irish dominance in their relationship with the UK was inconceivable. It was inconceivable throughout the nineteenth century, following the Act of Union of 1801 that made Ireland part of the UK, and it was inconceivable in the 1960s when Britain and the Republic first applied to join the EEC (the European Economic Community, which became the EU). Britain applied, and the Republic had had no choice but to do the same because ‘the relationship was so lopsided.’[2] But this ‘lopsided’ relationship was overturned in the early 1970s, following the entry of both countries into the EEC in 1973. Between 1973 and 1975 it became evident that if Britain ever left the EEC, it would immediately grant more power to the Republic in the dynamic between the two nations. These years were a turning point in the Anglo-Irish relationship.

In 1973, it was still understood that ‘where Britain leads Ireland perforce must follow’, and it was expected that joining the EEC together meant that the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland ‘would be on the way to withering away.’[3] At that time, it was assumed that if Britain ever decided to leave the EEC, Ireland would follow, ‘however reluctantly.’[4] But that changed very quickly. By the time of Britain’s 1975 referendum on EEC membership, no longer did Irish ‘diplomacy consist mainly of talking to London’; instead, they could ‘exercise an independent foreign policy’ as an EEC member.[5] Moreover, membership had both rapidly boosted Ireland’s economy and reduced its dependence on trade with Britain.[6]

Britain and Ireland’s relationships with Europe diverged: Britain was a half-hearted member, while Ireland fully committed itself, holding the presidency of the European Council with enthusiasm in 1975.[7] Therefore, by 1975, it was already impossible to imagine a future that saw the Republic leave the EEC. Irish Foreign Minister Garret FitzGerald stated that if Britain voted to leave, the Republic would not follow.[8] He even declared that ‘Britain should not bank on being able to negotiate a free trade agreement with the Common Market if she votes to leave it’, demonstrating Ireland’s strength if ever Britain elected to leave the EEC.[9]

In 1975, therefore, it was already the case that a British vote to leave would effect a dramatic change in power relations between the UK and the Republic. Sure enough, such a change revealed itself after the 2016 referendum. But while it took until 2016 for this change to become evident, it can be traced back to the 1970s. The reversal in Anglo-Irish power relations that became possible then, has now been fully realised.

[1] F. O’Toole, ‘For the first time since 1171, Ireland has more power than England’, The Spectator, 14 September 2019 [accessed online at]; B. Simms, ‘From backdoor to backstop’, New Statesman, 20 September 2019, p. 39.

[2] Simms, ‘From backdoor to backstop’, p. 37.

[3] Editorial, ‘The Irish people vote for Europe’, The Times, 12 May 1972, p. 15.

[4] K. Kyle, ‘A new role for Dublin’, The Listener, 20 February 1975, p. 226.

[5] Ibid.

[6] S. Gebler Davies, ‘Warning on Free Trade’, Daily Telegraph, 23 May 1975, p. 8; M. Kennedy, ‘Irish Foreign Policy: 1919 to 1973’, in T. Bartlett (ed.), The Cambridge History of Ireland Volume IV: 1880 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 604-638, p. 633.

[7] S. Donlon, Dr Garret FitzGerald Memorial Lecture 2012: Garret FitzGerald and Irish Foreign Policy (Dublin: National University of Ireland, 2012), pp. 8-9.

[8] Kyle, ‘A new role’, p. 226.

[9] Davies, ‘Warning on Free Trade’, p. 8.


Image attribution :

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