Labour and Ireland

Richard Carr

by Richard Carr

Key Points:

  1. Britain and Ireland have an extraordinarily interdependent relationship
  2. Despite this, Conservative policy has too often been ill-informed at best and atrocious at worst
  3. Labour’s history is better – though not perfect – and Starmer can pursue a much more constructive relationship than his Tory predecessors in Downing Street

1. Britain and Ireland have an extraordinarily interdependent relationship

Britain has a unique relationship with Ireland – driven by the continued importance of both geography and history. Given what follows is somewhat scathing of British attitudes on the question, the facts are worth repeating. Despite, and in some ways because of the shocks of Brexit, in 2023 the UK’s third largest export market was the Republic of Ireland. To put it another way: we currently export almost twice as much to Ireland as we do to China.xlii In the social sphere, more than six million British residents have an Irish grandparent – thereby providing eligibility to Irish citizenship, no small thing in the post-Brexit world. More broadly, about seven in ten British voters feel positively towards Ireland, compared to five for France and four for the US. Excluding the Mediterranean countries and the US, it is the place British tourists most often visit, and the Northern Irish frontier is, of course, our only significant land border. Even after leaving the European Union, various parts of our legislative corpus offer special protection and rights for Irish citizens that they do not to those from elsewhere in the EU. This all has particular resonance for the Labour Party – not least in that its traditional sites of political dominance such as Glasgow, Liverpool, and London have had significant Irish diasporas for over a century and a half.

In a monograph looking at Britain and Ireland from the Treaty to the Troubles out in 2025, I aim to show, in part, the deep connection between the politicians and the peoples of our combined archipelago from the 1920s to the 1970s. This, I argue, was an age of surprising co-operation despite high profile contretemps such as the Anglo-Irish tariff raising trade war of the 1930s, or de Valera’s neutrality during the Second World War. Yet it is undeniable that the further you go back, the more brutal the history becomes. From the plantations and Cromwell through to the Famine and struggle for independence, Britain’s impact on Ireland during almost eight centuries of occupation was stark, to say the very least. As such, the fact that Westminster has recently been led by a generation of politicians so ignorant of Irish history has been to no-one’s advantage (except, presumably until this July, their own electoral fortunes).

2. Despite this, Conservative policy has too often been ill-informed at best and atrocious at worst

Recent Conservative administrations have often treated the question with a kind of callous indifference that in normal political times would have been more shocking than it has been. In June 2018 the then foreign secretary Boris Johnson was recorded privately remarking that any fears about post-Brexit customs arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic were ‘pure millennium bug’ stuff. After all, ‘so few firms…actually use that border regularly, it’s just beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog in this way.’ A couple of months later Jacob Rees-Mogg called for the reimposition of border checks, ‘as we had during the Troubles,’ as if this would be a consequence free piece of political mastery. But why even worry? After all, as their then backbench colleague Andrew Bridgen had confidently spouted, ‘as an English person I’ve the right to go to Ireland and ask for a passport, can’t I?’ Apparently, this ‘right’ emerged from the existence of the aforementioned Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland – a very different thing.

This mixture of contempt and ignorance is not new to the political right. Writing to the Earl of Midleton during the final stages of what became the 1920 Government of Ireland Act – the legislation which in effect enshrined partition on the island of Ireland – the future Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare told his Ulster Unionist friend that ‘the great majority of the House of Commons is behind the Government,’ though it would be hard pressed to articulate why. After all, Hoare doubted that ‘10% of the House of Commons have paid any real attention to the Bill.’xliii Similarly, his colleague – the Sligo Catholic turned Conservative MP Patrick Hannon – would later describe the relationship between Britain and Ireland as ‘exasperating beyond words.’ For Hannon the ‘demented nationalism’ of Ireland during the two country’s 1930s trade war was mirrored by the ‘indifferent handling of Irish affairs on this side of the Irish sea.’xliv As such, ‘it is almost hopeless to stimulate any interest in this country in Irish affairs.’xlv

If modern politicians cared to look, they would see that, in a slightly crude sense, the history of Ireland in the twentieth century is a mirror image of Britain’s post-Brexit dilemmas. After all, in 1921 the twenty-six counties of Southern Ireland in effect signed a treaty to exit its existing constitutional union. This was clearly a new form of political independence – albeit with some caveats. But in becoming nominally sovereign – the Irish ‘Free State’ would be the nation’s title until 1937 - several issues arose. There were still ongoing financial obligations to the union it had just left, a shared border which now had to be regulated to a greater or lesser degree, and the vast majority of its economic trade was with the political bloc it was exiting. Questions of Irish citizens living within the former union, those who might wish to emigrate in the future, and of citizenship itself, remained firmly on the table. Rhetorically it was useful for parliamentarians to bash the old partner, but there were also worse threats overseas where the two would possibly have to cooperate – not least including Russia. Politics would become defined and divided over the issue of how close to remain to the larger power. From de Valera and Fianna Fáil taking power in 1932 until the late 1950s when the strategy largely collapsed, the new order shifted Ireland from a broad belief in the benefits of globalisation and free trade to significant protectionism offset with one-off trade deals. Big firms threated to leave – with some doing exactly that, with other areas of the economy bought off with costly domestic subsidy. All the while, throughout this, America was watching on intently. The proceeding narrative was almost a century before Brexit would place this familiar set of shoes very suddenly on the other foot – but, for all its strife, Ireland navigated its manoeuvrings in this regard a good deal better than five Conservative PMs have done since 2016.

3. Labour’s history is better – though not perfect – and Starmer can pursue a much more constructive relationship than his Tory predecessors in Downing Street

Labour can and must do better than Britain’s calamitous recent leaders. But even its historic relationship with Ireland has been something of a double-edged sword. On the positive side of the ledger lies the party’s condemnation of the brutality of the Black and Tans in 1920-21, preservation of the rights of Irish citizens in the UK after Ireland left the Commonwealth in 1949, and, of course, negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Balanced against this remains the some-time appeasement of Unionist interest under Attlee, and the more draconian effects of the anti-terror legislation of the 1970s. Structurally, it should be noted, Labour’s interest in the Republic has been slightly hampered by the inability of its sister party to cut through in Leinster House. Though, as I show in an essay in a forthcoming edited volume by the LHRU’s Jonathan Davis, relations between Neil Kinnock and his Irish equivalent Dick Spring were always warm, even if the latter faced accusations of being something of a Nick Clegg figure when propping up a fiscally conservative Fine Gael administration in the 1980s. On the other hand, the Irish background of a number of Labour leaders clearly mattered. J.R. Clynes’s Irish father imbued a sympathy that was significant during the Black and Tan period. Equally, Tony Blair’s Donegal mother eased not only a childhood and teenage path to holidays with Guinness and chasing girls, but a sense that The Troubles were a phenomenon he would seek to address in some form or another. In this sense The March of the Moderates towards peace in Northern Ireland was facilitated by both personal connection and political calculation. Aside from defending and working within the confines of Good Friday, in its 2024 manifesto Labour has mostly kept its powder dry on Ireland. Much, of course, has been outsourced to the wider question of whether Britain would, say, rejoin the Customs Union – ruled out under the manifesto, though a ways of squaring many of the difficulties Brexit has thrown up. As it is, Labour will ‘implement the Windsor Framework in good faith’ – a mild concession of praise to Rishi Sunak who negotiated it, ‘reset the UK Government’s relationship’ with Stormont, and set up ‘a new Council of the Nations and Regions,’ incorporating the first and deputy first ministers of Northern Ireland. Relatedly, it has pledged to strengthen the relationship ‘with the Irish Government.’

A simple procedural nod to the last point would be to expand the remit of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to include the suffix ‘and Irish Relations.’ This would resolve two long term problems. The first is that Ireland doesn’t quite sit well within any single government department – foreign or domestic. Previous governments have also wrestled with this – until the folding into the Foreign Office of the former Commonwealth department in the late 1960s, Ireland was still dealt with by the Commonwealth Secretary even though it had left that body during the Attlee government. The Republic is of course a sovereign nation with a tradition of diplomatic neutrality, but the constructive ambiguity of the Good Friday settlement – recognising pathways to both British and Irish citizenship to those from the North, and creating cross-sea institutions such as the British-Irish Council – renders its ‘foreignness’ for the British rather different to other states, as does the existence of the Common Travel Area. Secondly, such a move would also highlight the significance Labour puts on the relationship – which it should out of both pragmatism and principle. The fact that the likely next Secretary of State, Hilary Benn is a decent and serious politician who understands the politics of Ireland deeply, renders it a safe move in the short term.

Keir Starmer clearly cares about Northern Ireland, and will treat the province with a degree of seriousness that has eluded post-Brexit British leaders to date. Nonetheless, his recent contention that a border poll is an ‘absolutely hypothetical’ issue will come under pressure should Sinn Féin, as polls indicate is at least plausible, emerge as the largest party in the Dáil at the next Irish election. Surrounded by what the Irish Times called his ‘Green Army’ of advisors – figures such as the Cork born Morgan McSweeney and former Northern Ireland publican Sue Gray – Starmer will need to walk a moderate path here, though the Good Friday settlement again provides a readily defensible position. Still, projects of a cross-border nature both large and small – from a new cross-border university to looking at equitable pricing of the Enterprise service between Dublin and Belfast – should be on the table, even in financially straitened times.

Overall, the same accusation that has been made against the Starmer project in opposition – that it has been content to stay one step to the left of the Tories rather than carve out a genuinely innovative project – has generally been made of Labour’s relationship to Ireland historically. Labour hasn’t been perfect, but they’ve been better than the Tories. We shall see what happens to the economics post-election – but certainly the legacy of 14 years of Conservative rule make that a long-term project. On Ireland however, Starmer should look to be on the front foot. It is a nation where Britain has significant strategic interests, and where it has no more important relationship.

Tony Blair giving a talk

Image: Tony Blair, 2002.jpg. Original image from Flickr Commons, available on Wikimedia Commons with no known copyright restrictions.



xlii Trade and investment core statistics book on

xliii Hoare to Midleton, 9 November 1920, Templewood Papers, 1:12 (18), Cambridge University Library.

xliv Hannon to Pakenham, 1 June 1933, Hannon 58/1, Parliamentary Archives, London.

xlv Hannon to MacManus, 8 May 1933, Hannon 58/1.