“The family ties and bonds of affection that unite our two countries mean there will always be a special relationship between us,” declared Theresa May.
The British Prime Minister could have been talking about America, during this weekend’s trip to Washington, the first foreign leader to visit President Trump.
But she was actually referring to the Republic of Ireland – words so warm as to be, until relatively recently, unthinkable from a Conservative party leader.
May made this statement during her landmark “priorities for Brexit” speech in London almost two weeks ago. Safeguarding UK-Irish relations and joint interests came an eye-catching fourth among the British government’s stated “negotiating objectives” while leaving the European Union.
The “family ties and bonds of affection” the Prime Minister highlighted, and her emphasis on allaying Ireland’s Brexit concerns, speak volumes. As a dual-citizen, who grew up “London Irish” during the 70s and 80s, it is astonishing how far relations have come.
In turning down the opportunity to address the Dail, though, during tomorrow’s visit to Dublin, I believe May has misjudged the symbolic importance such a speech would have held. She has also, ahead of what are likely to be tough negotiations with the EU, potentially undermined both British and Irish interests.
It is no surprise that Ireland is nervous about Brexit. The UK accounts for a quarter of all trade, driving one in ten Irish jobs. Will Britain leaving the single market harm commerce between our two countries? Will the related end of “freedom of movement” stem the flow of Irish youngsters who have long “gone to England” seeking work?
Being in the EU has always meant far more to Ireland than to the UK. Joining in 1973, along with Britain but on equal terms, was an enormous step. The Irish Republic, a mere quarter century on from formal independence, was finally able to represent itself on the world stage.
It’s this escape from the stultifying dominance of “the Brits”, rather than Brussels-funded motorways, which has surely made EU membership central to modern Ireland’s identity. And that’s why Brexit now causes such unease – because it renews the gnawing sense that, despite the huge improvement in relations, Ireland is yet again set to suffer, economically and politically, from the seemingly thoughtless actions of its much bigger neighbour.
I was pleased, then, that May was said explicitly in her London speech that “maintaining a Common Travel Area with the Republic of Ireland” will be “an important priority” during negotiations with the EU. The lack of formal borders dates back to the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922 – long before the EU was even thought of. Maintaining document-free travel post-Brexit could prove tricky, though. If the UK and Ireland have open borders, Brussels may argue, why not the UK and France?
Then there’s the hugely sensitive issue of open travel and trade between the Republic and the North. “There can be no return to the borders of the past,” said May, mindful that it’s barely a decade since military checkpoints were removed. “Delivering a practical solution is a priority”.
Again, that may not be straightforward. Both London and Dublin want to keep today’s land border open, but without providing a back door for EU citizens from elsewhere into Britain, via the Republic. Passport checks between Northern Ireland and the mainland would rile Unionists – as they’d be travelling “within the UK”. But checks along the land border could stoke-up old tensions everyone wants to forget.
Squaring this circle will mean compromise – with British and Irish border authorities no doubt collaborating closely. But both governments will also need to negotiate with the EU. In the heat of the UK-EU talks, when tempers are frayed, the Republic could find its loyalties split.
That’s because Dublin clearly wants a common sense “special agreement” guaranteeing open borders and free trade with Britain – the continuation of a long-settled arrangement, that the people of both countries want.
As a proud and fiercely loyal EU member, though, Ireland will be mindful Brussels could view the UK’s overwhelming wish to maintain the Anglo-Irish status quo, and not threaten in any way what’s been achieved since the Good Friday agreement, as a weakness to exploit. The big EU economies could try to use “The Irish question” as a bargaining chip, to get the upper hand over London in other, far more commercially significant aspects of the broader UK-EU Brexit deal.
Ireland is starting to be a bit more positive about Brexit. While concerns remain – not least among agricultural exporters – there’s a growing sense being the EU’s only high-skilled, English-speaking economy, with fantastic universities and an ambitious financial services sector, could prove beneficial.
And, despite what the eurocrats say, there is every chance Britain and Ireland could secure some kind of special arrangement. EU-funded lawyers will scream I’m wrong. Officially of course, the Republic can only negotiate trade deals as part of the EU. Well, officially, all EU members must keep their budget deficits below 3pc of GDP, eurozone money-printing is banned and bail-outs of sovereign governments can’t happen. When the politics dictate, EU treaties bend. Anyone who doesn’t get that hasn’t been paying attention.
Relations between Britain and the Republic have, perhaps, never been better. And, when it comes to the UK’s Brexit negotiations, the incentives of both nations, our economies intertwined by habit and blood, are uncannily aligned.
That’s why it made sense for the British Prime Minister, at the vital moment, to take yet another step towards total respect and trust between our countries – becoming the first Conservative Prime Minister ever to address the Parliament of the Irish Republic.
Britain and Ireland, after all, are going to need to stick together during what will unavoidably be a fraught EU-UK negotiation over Brexit. Ancient Anglo-Irish suspicions will loom, despite everyone’s best effort. And, on visiting Ireland, Theresa May has only one chance to make that vital first impression.
Liam Halligan writes a weekly column for The Sunday Telegraph