24 May 2022

The servile relationship: why do we put up with American nonsense about Ireland?


British Atlanticism is cringe. I’m sorry to say it, because I know it remains popular in Conservative circles – part of the intellectual package of nostalgia for Thatcher is nostalgia for Reagan. 

But for those of us born too late to remember the Cold War, the ‘special relationship’ is pure Boomer cope. Under its auspices, the United Kingdom rows in behind the United States’ various foreign policy initiatives (to say nothing of the wars).

In exchange, that country’s septuagenarian leadership sends emissaries to rap Britain on the knuckles for trying to maintain its own territorial integrity.

Yes, there has always been an Irish-American lobby with the sort of enthusiasm for the republican struggle that only five and a half thousand of miles of ocean between you and the bombs can really engender.

So it’s not surprising to find a US Congressman, Brendan Boyle, demanding that the UK to ‘implement fully’ the Northern Ireland Protocol, when pretty much every party actually involved has conceded that it needs to change. (At least Brendan doesn’t venerate terrorists, like his brother.)

But even the official American delegation scarcely robed itself in neutrality. This is what Richard Neal, the Chairman of Congress’s Ways and Means Committee, had to say:

‘Thank you, @trussliz for your hospitality and frank discussion regarding our duty to protect peace and stability on the island of Ireland.

‘I urge good faith negotiations with the EU to find durable solutions for post-Brexit trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.’

Why ‘the island of Ireland’? Is the British mainland not a party to the ‘peace and stability’ which has attended the end of the Troubles? Perhaps the names of Warrington, Brighton, Manchester, Hyde Park and Bishopsgate aren’t seared into the American consciousness.

It seems to escape a lot of people that the Belfast Agreement is not an ‘island of Ireland’ issue. It is a treaty between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, one of whose principle effects is to recognise and affirm Northern Ireland’s position in the UK.

There is of course an island-of-Ireland dimension: unification. At least inasmuch as it will require a positive vote in both Northern Ireland and the Republic to bring it about. 

But outwith that specific section, the Agreement does not mandate that either dialogue or solutions be exclusively all-island in character (although it suits plenty to forget this if it means they can pretend an invisible land border is a treaty obligation, which it is not).

Yet the problem is deeper than a poorly worded tweet. The real question is: why are the Americans here at all?

Neal appears to believe that the United States is a ‘guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement’. But it isn’t, not least because the legal position of ‘guarantor’ simply does not exist. (That means the EU isn’t one either.)

Even if there were a formal role in Northern Ireland for an impartial umpire from another nation, America is perhaps one of the countries least suited to play that role. 

Its interest in Ireland stems entirely from the influence of the above-mentioned Irish American community, a chunk of which spent the Troubles handing round collection tins for the IRA. Its leaders have a woefully skewed understanding of what the Belfast Agreement entails. Joe Biden jokes about banning the colour orange from his house and met Gerry Adams, according to the latter, to discuss ‘UI’ as he prepared for the presidency.

And none of this is new. Go back a century, and you will find Woodrow Wilson offering long paeans to Irish nationalism and urging the British to crack down on the troublesome unionists who might seek to defy efforts to build an independent all-island state.

Diaspora politics are what they are, and Biden is free to make as many crass jokes as he pleases. (Although this homeopathic quality of ‘Irish blood’ only seems to apply if you’re a nationalist. Someone like me, an Irish citizen who lived and studied in Dublin but supports the Union, is invariably ‘English’.)

But such conduct is obviously unsuitable with sending a ‘Special Representative’ to Ulster and posing as a fair-minded arbiter of a hard-negotiated deal between two communities. The US is not fit for its fictions.

So why do we tolerate it? Why must we be subject to pictures of our Foreign Secretary grinning and bearing it whilst our ‘most important ally’ jets over to try and kick the legs out from under her negotiating position?

Perhaps it is simply that many Boomer politicians simply haven’t updated their political scripts since the glorious 1980s. But to others, the myth of the ‘special relationship’ may simply offer to right-wingers what EU membership offered to progressives: a way to avoid facing up to the UK’s diminished state capacity.

Tobias Ellwood rowing in behind Nancy Pelosi’s nonsense interpretation of the Belfast Agreement makes sense if we consider that this country’s Armed Forces are, at this point, not really independently deployable, especially in a large-scale conventional conflict. Aris Roussinos wasn’t wrong to describe them as America’s Gurkhas: ‘a highly motivated, loyal auxiliary force’.

That means that if Ellwood wants to live out his martial fantasies about putting troops on the ground in Ukraine – yes, he was one of those – then it can only happen if we’re a cog in the American machine. If that means kowtowing to the imperial metropole at the expense of one’s own outlying province, so be it.

Britain and America are, alas, united by a common language. Like the poisonous light of a dying star, the US’s increasingly toxic and dysfunctional discourse bathes these islands in its full and terrible glare.

No government decree will stop protestors advancing on unarmed British police absurdly wailing ‘hands up, don’t shoot!’, or our politicians offering their wholly irrelevant opinions on Roe vs Wade. 

But what a sufficiently bold government could deliver is an ‘Atlantexit’ – a reset of Anglo-American relations which sets aside the delusions of the special relationship and the servile relationship that has arisen from them. 

Relations would still be friendly, but they ought to be based on a clearer understanding of the UK’s separate strategic interests, and involve clear trade-offs for the Americans between undermining this country and the support they can expect from it on the world stage.

Truss could start by publicly reminding Neal that there are no external ‘guarantors’ of the Belfast Agreement, that the US would not be fit to be one even if they did exist, and handing the ‘Special Representative’ his passport.

America has a special relationship. It is with the Republic of Ireland. It’s time British politicians accepted that.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.