We are one another’s biggest trading partners and connected by proximity, geography, history and culture.
Since leaving the European Union, regular face-to-face meetings between UK and Irish ministers have nosedived and the Brexit process has strained relations, worsened trade and caused tensions around the Northern Ireland protocol which the UK agreed with the EU.
Covid has also contributed to added difficulties to meet and solve problems in person, but as we emerge from lockdown the opportunity is there to find solutions.
This past weekend saw the annual meeting of the British-Irish Association at Pembroke College, Oxford University, which brought together the key people at the heart of the relations, from politics, diplomacy, business, community relations and academia.
I attended on behalf of the Scottish government, as did Taoiseach Micheál Martin for Ireland, First Ministers Paul Givan and Mark Drakeford for Northern Ireland and Wales respectively, and Michael Gove as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for the UK government.
Discussions at the association are covered by Chatham House rules to foster trust and candour, but it is possible to say that in general there was a feeling that relations could and should be better.
Not only are ‘East-West’ relations between the UK and Ireland overshadowed by the consequences of Brexit, so are ‘North-South’ relations in Ireland and in the UK with the approach of the British government to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The hostility of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to devolution, which he described as a “disaster” is clear. Brexit is being used to re-order devolution, reduce the power and influence of the democratically elected parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, and restore the ability of Westminster to directly control the ‘Celtic fringe’.
Long gone are the days when UK Prime Ministers were keen to be regularly seen working with their First Minister colleagues. Long gone is the rhetoric of ‘four nations’ and a ‘respect agenda’, instead an ‘Internal Market Bill’ drives a coach and horses through the devolution settlement and an emerging UK Shared Prosperity Fund is a cynical, pork-barrel Trojan horse to bypass devolution by the UK Tory government which is unliked in both Scotland and Wales.
This dangerous confrontational approach also matters directly to Northern Ireland where the protection of peace and the Good Friday Agreement is of primary importance to everyone with any sense.
At the heart of the peace process are the principles of consent and democracy, which are being dangerously undermined by the British government. The UK is supposed to be voluntary and multinational not a single union state where one part orders the others round.
The recent undemocratic suggestion of a 60 per cent referendum threshold by a UK government minister came as unwelcome news in both Scotland and Ireland, north and south.
In the recent Scottish Parliamentary elections, parties advocating an independence referendum won and those that opposed one lost. A future referendum in Northern Ireland is covered by the Good Friday Agreement.
Either the UK supports consent and democracy or it doesn’t. Mucking around with either will not improve relations on these islands.