The ever-complicated relationship between Ireland and the UK—what can we expect next?

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2021), Platform, Volume 29

By Aileen Bowe

The relationship between Ireland and the UK could best be described as ‘complicated’. Reams and reams have been written about various historical events involving both countries, sometimes peaceful but often violent. Recent history would suggest that the relationship is currently being redefined in a way that is markedly different from the last two decades.

One particular instance where this tense relationship has been on display was the case of the Irish ‘backstop’—the now-defunct mechanism by which Northern Ireland would temporarily remain with Ireland in the Single Market while the Brexit negotiations were ongoing. In 2018 a Tory MP, Priti Patel, suggested using the threat of food shortages against Ireland to leverage a way out of the backstop. The MP later clarified her comments, but the outcry that followed showed that, despite the years of peaceful relations, the simmering tension was never far below the surface.

Nonetheless, the economic and social value of a positive relationship between the two countries is too important for indulgence in point-scoring. For this reason it is worthwhile searching for some of the positives in the relationship between Ireland and the UK and considering what form its next stage will take.

It is well documented that generations of Irish labourers built large swathes of the infrastructure of Britain, including the railway systems, canals and other large engineering projects. For the most part, Irish people moved to the UK in search of work or an improved quality of life. How they fared was not always better: there are numerous accounts of the horrendous living conditions in which Irish people found themselves. In London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, slums grew up and became known as ‘Little Irelands’. The work that they managed to get was low-paid, dangerous and undesirable.

During the Famine, contemporary accounts show that British city officials scarcely knew what to do with the sheer number of people arriving at the ports every day. They were characterised as being less civilised than the British population, and the conditions in which they lived did nothing to change this perception. Severe overcrowding, the spread of disease and lack of sanitation co-existed with newspaper accounts of how the Irish were in a constant state of public drunkenness.

Friedrich Engels is known to have had some harsh words about how the Irish lived, unkindly blaming them for their poor conditions: ‘For work which requires long training or regular, pertinacious application, the dissolute, unsteady, drunken Irishman is on too low a plane’. With time, however, and with a greater understanding of the human condition under industrial capitalism, he revised his earlier pronunciations on the Irish character. In a letter to Karl Marx dated 19 January 1870 he wrote: ‘The more I study the subject, the clearer it is to me that Ireland has been stunted in her development by the English invasion and thrown centuries back’.

Despite the significant improvements in living conditions in the UK over the decades, and the establishment of the NHS free public health service, life expectancy for the second-generation Irish in Britain remained lower than the average for the UK population, and lower than the average Irish rate until at least the 1980s. In fact, even today the rates of poor mental health for Irish nationals in Britain are significantly higher than for British-born citizens and higher than most other migrant groups. Similarly, a 1996 study found that mortality rates for working-age second-generation Irish immigrants were higher across all social classes. The authors asserted that ‘entrenched economic and cultural differences in life factors’ were probable causes of this high rate.

Despite the many examples of how Irish migrants have suffered while living in the UK, there have been examples of how the UK has positively affected Irish lives. The Central Statistics Office estimated that approximately €5.7 billion was sent to Ireland from the UK between 1940 and 1970, a sum which undoubtedly contributed to the Irish economy and individual families at a time when the Irish economy was struggling. Over £13.5 million was sent home by Irish emigrants in the UK in 1961 alone. These remittances were a clear indication of how hard the Irish population were working in their host country, and how concerned they were with supporting their families back home in Ireland. There are few studies into the impact that this money has had on the growth of the Irish economy, but it is likely that Ireland would look quite different today without it.

It has been noted that there exists a palpable sense of guilt on the part of Irish emigrants living in Britain. Central to the work of playwright Tom Murphy was a passionate fury about the necessity for Irish people to emigrate to the UK and elsewhere. The identity issues that arose as a result of having to ‘go to England’ in order to build a life were likely made more difficult by the prevailing anti-Irish sentiment and anti-Irish racism, which increased during the Troubles and rose sharply following IRA bombings in places like Manchester and Birmingham.

The reasons why a person decides to migrate influence the degree to which they will successfully integrate into the host country. People who are forced to move under duress or because of circumstances outside their control are less likely to settle happily. The complicated and complex history between Ireland and the UK has meant that, even now, some emigrants still express a sense of guilt, resentment or unhappiness at having to leave their home country. This is made even more complicated when considering the colonial history of the two countries and the many years of conflict and oppression.

On the one hand, Irish people have relied on Britain as a means by which to increase their living standards and to access capital and opportunities that do not exist at home. On the other, what would Ireland look like today if it did not have a colonial past, and can the argument be made that Britain directly caused the conditions that stifled growth and development, to the point where the Irish had no choice but to leave their country? There is not much value in conjecturing on this point, but it is worth referencing the examples of millions of Indian, Nigerian, Pakistani and Jamaican immigrants who migrated to the UK for similar reasons to the Irish. Of course, the irony of modern immigration structures means that people from former colonies who have struggled to create a life in their home country as a result of political, economic or social conditions have consistently been demonised when trying to move to the UK.

Above: Although the Common Travel Area is still in existence and grants broad freedoms to both UK and Irish citizens, whether such arrangements will continue remains uncertain.

There is a long history of Irish people using the UK for their own benefit and for the improvement of their lives and the lives of their families. The Irish were far from being the only migrant group to suffer from poor living conditions and low life-expectancy rates in the UK, nor was Ireland the only country to live under the harsh and violent rule of a powerful colonising power. This argument should be framed within the wider discourse of global economic inequality and the role of colonialism in determining this divide.

When considering the relationship between Ireland and the UK today, and the importance of maintaining peace in Northern Ireland, it seems as though the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries is becoming decidedly less so. Although the Common Travel Area is still in existence and grants broad freedoms to both UK and Irish citizens, whether such arrangements will continue remains uncertain. The UK’S Centre on Constitutional Change recently noted that, despite the Irish government’s commitment to diplomatic cooperation, the UK government has not been so forthcoming. Indeed, the prevailing ideology of ‘taking back control of our borders’ has meant that previously strong relationships are being reconsidered in the light of this new mantra.

The next chapter of the Irish–British relationship will no doubt serve as more than a footnote in the history books, if the tumultuous events of the last few years are a reliable indicator.

Aileen Bowe is a writer and correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors in the UK that provides legal aid to forcibly displaced persons.



Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568