A number of things have been happening over the past few years which are beginning to have an impact on the relationship between Ireland and the UK, and may go on to have profound implications for the future of the EU, or at least Ireland's place within it. In the past an historic enmity between Ireland and Britain arising from almost a thousand years of invasions, wars, colonial occupation, famines, economic exploitation and neo-colonial struggle led the nascent Irish state to adopt an almost "anybody but Britain" attitude to foreign affairs: staying officially neutral during the Second World war and enthusiastically adopting the EU project as a means of reducing its economic dependency on the UK. The ongoing troubles in Northern Ireland merely added fuel to these flames.
However the success of the Northern Ireland Peace Process, the emergence of a much more self-confident (not to say arrogant) Irish Republic during the Celtic Tiger years, and the modernisation of the economic infrastructure and social attitudes as part of the European project has softened what tensions remained. Now even the Queen has visited Ireland; Martin McGuinness, former IRA Chief of Staff and now Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister has shaken her hand, and the Irish and UK Governments are increasingly allied on all matters of foreign policy - and especially so in relation to the EU. In particular, the seemingly endless Eurozone crisis is leading to a re-evaluation of whether closer ties with the UK may not be such a bad idea after all.
It has ever been thus, of course. Even during the height of Irish nationalist struggles against British occupation, many thousands of Irishmen (and a few women) served and died in the British armed forces in their various colonial wars and the first and second world wars. Those who deserted from the Irish Army to serve in the British army have only just been officially pardoned by the Irish state. Generations of Irish men and women emigrated to Britain and her colonies as well as the USA in search of work during the chronically depressed years before and following Irish independence - generally to do menial work, though some rose to position of influence within the British establishment. There have always been some in Ireland - often derided as "West Brits" or the Anglo-Irish - who saw a close relationship between Ireland and the UK as the natural order of things. But they were generally in a small minority, comprised mainly of protestants, dissenters, and a few (posh) "Castle" Catholics.
But what has changed is the attitudes of official, Catholic nationalist Ireland. The child abuse scandals have reduced the Catholic Church to a mere shadow of its former, triumphalist, self. The recent international Eucharistic Congress was a pale shadow of its predecessor in the 1930's which marked the almost total domination of Irish public life by the Catholic Church. Now most Irish people are embarrassed by the sectarianism of the past - both North and South.
More recently, whilst Merkel et al were insisting that Irish taxpayers should refund in full those German and other Banks and speculative investors who had lent recklessly to private Irish banks and developers, the British Government was helpful and remarkably devoid of shadenfreude, providing relatively cheap loans and offering practical and moral support. Ireland and the UK may have differed on the Charter of Fundamental Rightsand on joining the Euro and there has never been a widespread Eurosceptic movement in Ireland, but on most EU issues the two governments now agree.
For instance, both countries have relatively large financial services sectors and have thus opposed Tobin taxes, and both support relatively low rates of corporate taxation as a means of attracting (mostly US) foreign direct investment. That both these policies might be objectively wrong in terms of promoting sustainable development is not the point I am currently making: It is the fact that the two states are increasingly acting in concert within the EU that marks a change in their strategic relationship.
It is of course not surprising that two states which share the same archipelago and a great deal of language, culture and history should have many interests in common. What has changed is that Ireland now sees the UK as an ally within the EU, whereas before it saw the EU as a strategic partner in reducing Ireland's dependency on the UK. This change in focus is perhaps illustrated by the discussion on Gavin Barrett's article in the Irish Times entitled UK engagement with EU is central to Irish interests. I first came across Dr. Barrett at a seminar in Trinity College Dublin where he argued the case for Ireland passing the referendum on the Fiscal Compact and which I documented in The balance of anger and fear.
In the article Dr. Barrett argues that the UK has made a strategic mistake in failing to join the Eurozone and in not engaging more positively with the EU more generally. Britain has failed to maximise its potential benefits from the EU in consequence, and the resulting public disillusion makes it more difficult for the UK to be a more effective player within the EU in the foreseeable future. He argues that it is in Ireland's interest that the UK does become more positively engaged with the EU and that recent developments have shown the benefits of Ireland's more positive engagement.
It is not often that an Irish Times article generates much interesting discussion amongst its readers, but this article may be an exception. The dominant reaction amongst the 65 comments is to ask what planet Dr. Barrett is living on. Most (of the predominantly Irish) commentators regard the UK's decision not to join the Euro as an inspired dodging of a bullet rather than the strategic mistake Dr. Barrett alleged. Most commentators are also extremely sceptical that Ireland's positive engagement with the EU in recent times has yielded much more than the burdening of the state with an unsustainable level of debt within the context of an increasingly unstable and dysfunctional Eurozone which threatens to beggar us all if not rapidly and radically reformed.
My point is that many of the commentators seem to be on the point of giving up on the EU and advocating a closer realignment with the UK instead - an argument that would have been extremely rare until very recently. It may be little more than a straw in the wind at the present time, but Ireland's love affair with the EU seems to be very definitely over if so many seem willing to embrace the Auld Enemy instead. Adopting anti-EU attitudes in Ireland used to be the preserve of Sinn Fein, Declan Ganley's Libertas, and an oddball assortment of small Catholic fundamentalist groups opposed to the liberal social reforms associated with the EU. There are many things I admire about the UK, but Euroscepticism isn't one of them. I hope we are not going to start following the British in that regard.