Irish foreign affairs


74e048eb-4187-4cd3-970d-74884796a102Location                    Western Europe

Area  84,421 km2 (32,595 sq mi)

Population                 6,572,728 (2016)

Largest city               Dublin (pop. 553,165)

Languages                 English, Irish, Ulster Scots

Government Unitary parliamentary constitutional republic


Ireland, Irish Éire, country of western Europe occupying five-sixths of the westernmost major island of the British Isles. The island of Ireland consists of 32 counties, six of them are known as Northern Ireland and they are part of United Kingdom since Ireland gained its self government in 1922.


The emergence of Ireland as an independent country is a fairly recent phenomenon. Until the 17th century, political power was widely shared among a rather loosely constructed network of small earldoms in often-shifting alliances. Following the so-called “Flight of the Earls” after an unsuccessful uprising in the early 17th century, Ireland effectively became an English colony. The island was an integral part of the United Kingdom from 1800 to 1922, when, by virtue of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 6, 1921, the Irish Free State was established as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. Independence came in 1937, but Ireland remained a member of the British Commonwealth until 1948. Since then, Ireland has become integrated with the rest of western Europe, joining the EU in 1987, though the country generally retained a neutral role in international affairs. In 2008 Ireland became an impediment to the enactment of the Lisbon Treaty – an agreement aimed at streamlining the EU’s processes and giving it a higher international profile – when the Irish voted against the passage of the treaty in a national referendum. The treaty, however, was approved by Irish voters in a second referendum, held the following year.

Dependent on agriculture, Ireland was long among Europe’s poorest regions, a principal cause of mass migration from Ireland, especially during the cycle of famine in the 19th century. Over time the situation has improved a lot and therefore Ireland is now both urbanized and Europeanized and is classified as a developed state.

Main points of current foreign policy

Ireland’s foreign policy and external relations are fundamental aspects of Government,
providing the means to ensure their stability and security and contribute to their economic prosperity and well-being.

Ireland has a long tradition of supporting effective multilateralism, based on the UN. For example: promotion of human rights, including through their current membership of the UN Human Rights Council, advocacy for disarmament and arms control, the fight against hunger and poverty and their support for international development, their contribution to UN-mandated peace support operations and commitment to global conflict resolution efforts.

Irish-British relations

Early days of English rule

Over the years and centuries, it is a relationship that has been marked by insurrection, war and strained diplomacy despite geographical proximity and many cultural and familial ties.

The Norman invasion of Ireland in the late 12th Century marked the beginning of 700 years of shared history between neighbouring islands .

The English Crown did not assert full control of Ireland until 1541, when the Irish Parliament bestowed the title of King of Ireland on Henry VIII after an uprising by the Earl of Kildare threatened regal hegemony.

The arrival of thousands of Protestant settlers from England and Scotland displaced many of the existing Catholic landholders and sowed the seeds for centuries of on-off sectarian and military conflict.

Wars in the middle and end of the 17th Century cemented the Protestant ascendancy, with William of Orange’s victory over James II in the Battle of Boyne in 1690 both celebrated and mourned to this day.

The Irish Parliament was abolished in 1801, with Ireland becoming a part of the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland under the Act of Union.

The birth of a nation

The second half of the 19th Century was marked by the rise of competing nationalist movements and battles over home rule which decided the fate of British prime ministers.

Those seeking a constitutional route to self-government were rewarded with the restoration of home rule in 1914 – although this was soon suspended at the outbreak of World War I.

More than 200,000 Irish men fought for their King and country in the conflict, almost a quarter never to return.

It was against this turbulent backdrop that those who believed that armed struggle was the only way to achieve their ultimate goal of independence for Ireland asserted themselves.

The Easter Rising of 24 April 1916, which was brutally dealt with by the authorities after hopes of German assistance did not materialise, remains to this day the most symbolic manifestation of this fight.

The 1919-21 Anglo-Irish War which followed saw numerous atrocities on both sides, by a nascent Irish Republican Army (IRA), whose leaders included Michael Collins, and a British government whose authority was waning.

The agreement which eventually led to the 1922 partition of Ireland and the creation of the Irish Free State.

The troubles

The “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” signs displayed in boarding houses in British cities in the 1950s and 1960s seem part of a distant era now but were a virulent symbol of the distrust between the two countries.

While tensions were not new in Northern Ireland and IRA attacks on parts of Britain dated back to 1939, the 30-year conflict known as the troubles was of a different magnitude altogether.

Events such as Bloody Sunday, the hunger strikes, the bombing of the Conservative Party conference at Brighton and the Omagh bombing are seared on the consciousness of a generation.

It is estimated that more than 3,600 people were killed during the violence between 1969 and 1998.

The vast majority of deaths were in Northern Ireland, but more than 100 people are estimated to have been killed in other parts of the UK and also in the Irish Republic.

1970 US newsreel about the background of the Troubles , available here.

brits out

Political reconciliation

After decades of strife, the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement was a ground-breaking moment. Signed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Irish counterpart Garret FitzGerald, it paved the way for regular conferences between British and Irish ministers on matters affecting Northern Ireland.

This gave Dublin a role in Northern Ireland for the first time in more than 60 years.

The fruits of this closer co-operation, although resisted by some at time, were felt later as international support for the peace process in Northern Ireland gathered pace after the 1994 IRA ceasefire.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which reaffirmed Northern Ireland’s constitutional status in the UK while also repealing the law by which Ireland was partitioned, was approved by 94% of Irish voters in a referendum.

Ulster PM Blair/Ahern sign

The Crown and Ireland

Before her successful state visit in 2011, Ireland was one of the few countries that the Queen had never visited in an official capacity.

This was evidence of the legacy of historical recrimination and mutual suspicion which until recently existed between the two countries.

Despite becoming a self-governing dominion in 1922, the Irish Free State remained a member of the British Empire, with the British sovereign remaining as head of state.

Ireland became a fully independent state in 1937 but did not withdraw from the Commonwealth until 12 years later. The prospect of rejoining has never been seriously pursued.

However, the Queen’s 2011 visit – in which she paid her respects to republican dead and gave a speech on Anglo-Irish history – drew near universal praise and the prospect of members of the Royal Family attending events for the centenary of the Easter Rising is being entertained.



2017-01-18_opi_27893527_I1The 2016 Brexit referendum created the following challenges for the British-Irish relationship:

  • 56% of the Northern Irish electorate voted to remain in the EU. Although, many Unionists also voted to remain, the stronger support base for Remain among nationaliststholics meant that the Brexit result potentially reinforced the sectarian cleavage and immediately led to calls for a united Ireland, thereby potentially destabilizing the Good Friday Agreement and peace itself.
  • 14% of Irish exports go to Britain and the UK is also a vital part of the supply chain in Irish exports to the rest of Europe. Cross-border trade is highly dependent on an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. There are also many cultural and personal links between Ireland and the UK and citizens of both states enjoy freedom of movement within the area.
  • In the Brexit negotiations, the Irish government, as part of the 27 member-state EU negotiating team, and the UK government are clearly on opposite sides of the EU bargaining table for the first time. The Irish government is not free to bargain unilaterally with the UK and both governments cannot share information in the way they once did.
  • The EU’s framework for Brexit negotiations revealed divergent preferences between the UK and Ireland. The European Council’s decision that the negotiations would occur in three Phases, not simultaneously, and that substantial progress must be made in Phase One, reflected intensive lobbying by Irish officials from September 2016. Northern Ireland and the border issue were identified as one of the three issues central to Phase One. If the 27 states did not believe that substantial progress was made on these issues, movement to Phase 2, trade talks, would not occur. The Irish government had a de facto veto in deciding whether the UK’s proposals constituted ‘sufficient progress’ on the Northern Ireland issue.
  • More generally, Brexit means that the Irish and UK governments have lost the benefits of the EU’s framework for corridor talks and increased communication. Ireland has lost a powerful ally with whom it shared many common interests in the EU. Instead, it is faced with conflicts of interest emerging from economic conflicts, for example, in fisheries and from the border issue.
  • From late summer 2017, the Irish government’s language grew more strident, stating that the border issue was problem of the UK’s making and that the Irish government would not come up with solutions –it was up to the British government to advance solutions. Reflecting the changed context, there were reports in November 2017 that the UK government was adopting a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy, believing that it could persuade some EU states to move to Phase Two of the Brexit negotiations, even if the Irish government did not believe sufficient progress had been made on the border issue.

In itself Brexit’s impact on the intergovernmental relationship could be more compartmentalised, but the UK government’s disarray and mismanagement of Brexit have led to increased tensions and a return to more hard-line rhetoric than in the recent past. There have been remarkably few one-to-one PM meetings, given the challenges ahead. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Council has not met either, but is hindered also by unionist sensitivities.

 Oliver K. R., Rene Indrek P., Tauri V.


Overview of  Ireland

Review of Ireland’s Foreign Policy and External Relations

Brexit and the British-Irish Relationship

Census 2016 Summary Results

A brief history of Anglo-Irish relations




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