Does Britain have a strategic interest in Ireland?



The question of whether Britain has or has not a strategic interest in Ireland is not an academic question or one that is best left to political spin-doctors: it is far too important for that. The peace process has witnessed Sinn Féin accept British declarations of strategic neutrality with respect to Ireland. Thus, having abandoned the orthodox republican analysis, which holds that British interference in Irish affairs remains the primary obstacle to the attainment of national liberation and that the unionist veto is nothing more than an anti-democratic subterfuge through which Britain justifies its interference in Irish affairs, Sinn Féin now believes that unionism – and not the British state – is the major impediment to unity. But are such British declarations of strategic neutrality genuine? Is the British state is engaging in political duplicity? Is it in fact concealing a strategic interest in Ireland? And does this strategic interest outweigh the political whims of unionism? And what are the implications of any ongoing British state interest for Sinn Féin’s analysis and its vision of a constitutional path towards Irish unity?

The unity of this article resides in the belief that Britain has a strategic interest in Ireland. Evidence will be highlighted to support this analysis and – at the same time – undermine the current Sinn Féin analysis of British state policy in Ireland. However, at the outset, it is necessary to chronicle the vital importance which the debate surrounding Britain’s strategic interest in Ireland assumed during the formative stages of the Irish peace process.

The Sinn Féin narrative would have us believe that 1990 was the year in which the Provisional leadership entered into direct dialogue with the British government, and that these negotiations culminated in the 1994 PIRA ceasefire. However, in 1986, during Tom King’s tenure as ‘Northern Secretary’, Gerry Adams opened an indirect channel to the British government via Fr. Alec Reid. These communications continued under Peter Brooke’s term of office [1989-92]. From the outset, British strategic concerns were central to this ongoing dialogue. In August 2000, as part of his research into A Secret History of the IRA, Ed Maloney interviewed Tom King. During the interview, King recalled an occasion in the spring of 1987, when Fr. Alec Reid presented him with a republican questionnaire concerning British government policy on Ireland. King knew that Gerry Adams was the author of the questionnaire. Within weeks Adams received his reply in an unsigned, undated, twelve paragraph and one-thousand-word statement. This response set the agenda for the entire peace process and created the template for the negotiations that subsequently led to the Belfast Agreement.

The first item on Adams’ 1987 questionnaire: ‘What is the nature of the British government’s interest in Ireland?’ The British government replied that it ‘has no political, military, strategic, or economic interest in staying in Ireland’ and that ‘the political and security situation……is due to the historical, political, religious and cultural divisions which separate the people of the nationalist tradition from the people of the unionist tradition in Ireland. These divisions are at the root of the conflict there and not any self-interested dominion policies of the British government.’

Maloney concluded that British intelligence wrote the reply, as King informed the author that he never actually saw the finished draft. Maloney commented: ‘aspects of the diplomacy suggest that it embraced a strong “need to know” element of the sort that usually indicates an intelligence role rather than the conventional duties of a mainstream government department.’ The lingering suspicion is that the document represented a British intelligence ‘sting’ and that it was written with a view to strengthening the hand of those within the Provisional leadership who wished to divert the republican movement down a constitutional path.

In 1989 Peter Brooke replaced Tom King as ‘Northern Secretary’. Towards the end of his first year in office Brooke reinforced the perception given in the initial replies to Adams’ questionnaire when giving a speech in his Westminster constituency, he famously declared: ‘the British government has no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.’ In an interview given to the Press Agency shortly after this speech, Brooke stated: ‘There has to be a possibility that at some stage debate might start within the terrorist community. Now, if that were to occur, then you would move towards a point, if in fact the terrorists were to decide that the moment had come when they wished to withdraw from their activities, then I think the government would need to be imaginative in those circumstances as to how that process should be managed.’

During a June 2000 interview with Ed Maloney, Brooke stated that: ‘The 1989 interview was based on a mixture of what I had heard from John Hume, MI5, and military intelligence and finally what I heard about [Fr.] Reid. What Reid was saying to us was that there was an opportunity here to end it, and one of the aims of what I said in the interview was to communicate my attitude to Sinn Féin.’ Obviously, Hume and Reid believed that if Brooke publicly declared that the British state has ‘no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’ then this would enhance the prospect of a PIRA ceasefire and advance the Adams/McGuinness unarmed strategy. This was the precise approach that King and Brooke adopted between 1986 and 1992.

But are these declarations of neutrality a genuine and accurate reflection of British strategic concerns? Does Britain have no strategic interests in Ireland? Or were King, British and British intelligence simply attempting to mislead the Provisional leadership? Let us put to one side the speeches and interviews of politicians and instead focus our attention upon official documents and reports which outline British strategic thinking about Ireland.

In the aftermath of World War II British Foreign Office officials assessed the post-war strategic importance of Ireland. The Attlee government approved their findings which concluded that ‘as a matter of first-class strategic importance Northern Ireland should continue to form part of Her Majesty’s dominions……it seems unlikely that Britain would ever be able to agree to Northern Ireland leaving Her Majesty’s jurisdiction……. even if the people of Northern Ireland desired it’.

In 1951 a British Commonwealth Relations Office document, highlighting the vital strategic importance of Ireland, concluded: ‘Historically, Ireland which has never been able to protect herself against invasion, has been, as she is today, a potential base of attack on the United Kingdom. It is more important that a part of the island, and that strategically well-placed, should, and of its own free will, wish to remain part of the United Kingdom and of the United Kingdom defence scheme.’

In 1982 Vice-Admiral Sir Ian Gough, the former Royal Navy commander for NATO’s North Atlantic area placed his strategic appraisal on record. Gough stated that ‘the sea above the continental shelf, and the airspace above it, constitute the north-western approaches to NATO in Western Europe. To the north and the west, soviet forces would have to make the lengthy transit from the North Cape, and if their target was transatlantic shipping, that transit would be increased by 500 miles or more if the shipping were to be brought in via the south of Ireland. Indeed, the strategic importance of Ireland in any scheme of protecting shipping in the approaches to the British Isles can hardly be exaggerated. The current unrest in Northern Ireland…therefore, has serious implications for allied strength and unity.’

When confronted with these imperialist declarations, proponents of the view that Britain has no strategic interests in Ireland make two points. Firstly, they retort that any previous Soviet threat was greatly exaggerated and that the termination of the Cold War invalidates Gough’s analysis.

Obviously, the Soviet Union is no more, but what about a current Russian threat to the so-called NATO alliance? In 1997, an alternative post-Cold War perspective on British strategic interests was offered by G.R. Sloan, the Deputy Head of the Strategic Studies and International Affairs Department at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. Sloan argued that during the Cold War Ireland ‘became strategically more important because of the perceived need for defence against the Soviet Union which occupied half of Europe.’ In support of this Sloan cited the British government’s 1949 Ireland Report which asserted that: ‘So far as could be foreseen, it will never be to Great Britain’s advantage that Northern Ireland should form part of a territory outside His Majesty’s jurisdiction.’

Sloan contends that the ending of the Cold War has not spelt the end of potential threats to British security. In fact the post-Cold War geopolitical order has resulted in a potential increase in the strategic importance of Ireland: ‘The collapse of the Soviet Union merely means the lack of only one ideological challenge to democratic capitalism. Outside the west religion still inspires universal claims and genocidal loyalties; the passing of the European wars of religion has not ended religious wars. Nationalism remains deep-rooted even in the placid and industrial societies of Western Europe. In societies born in poverty from the debris of empires great and small, the national cult retains all its primitive forms. The future is not an object of knowledge, but it has been shown that with respect to Ireland, geopolitical patterns of the past have relevance for the future.’ Ireland lies squarely within the British and American sphere of influence. Hence the strategic justification for partition. In its absence, a united Ireland remain disengaged from any NATO alliance. Therein resides the threat to British strategic interests in the region.

Sloan argues that it is essential for the British government to continue to engage in what he describes as a ‘unique geopolitical dualism’ which is ‘premised on the assumption of being able to differentiate between a strategic policy which was enunciated for the purposes of political consumption in Northern Ireland, to send a signal to the Republican Movement’ and the necessity to consolidate British sovereignty in Northern Ireland and thereby ensure ‘the continued membership of Northern Ireland in the NATO alliance’. The Deputy Head of Strategic Studies at the Britannia Royal Naval College concludes: ‘Given the current preferences of the British government with respect to Northern Ireland, this most recent geopolitical dualism looks likely to underpin British strategic policy for some time to come.’

During the formative stages of the peace process the Dublin government regularly pointed to Peter Brooke’s “neutrality” speech in their discussions with Sinn Féin, while the SDLP repeated it ad nauseam. However, what is perhaps most astonishing is ‘the willingness of republicans and most of the left to believe British claims of a disinterested and neutral position in relation to the political framework in Ireland.’

In 1992 Martin McGuinness stated: ‘I don’t buy a lot of the previous notions about British strategic interests. Personally, I believe they’re here because they wish to uphold the right and support the position of unionism within the six-counties, rather than any strategic or economic interest.’

This acceptance of British strategic neutrality is a profound error of judgement. Adams may point to Brooke’s declaration in an attempt to reassure his supporters of Britain’s neutrality with respect to future political arrangements on the island. But as has been shown, these declarations are duplicitous and misleading: a fact which has profound and fatal implications for the ability of the Sinn Féin peace strategy to realise traditional republican objectives. One is left with the disturbing conclusion that the Provisional leadership has conveniently consumed what G.R. Sloan refers to as a ‘unique geopolitical dualism’ which in lay terms amounts to traditional British political duplicity.

Despite over three decades of repeated declarations to the contrary, Britain does have a strategic interest in Ireland. As Craig, McNulty and Flannigan point out are we to believe that Britain has spent £45bn since 1979 to protect the ‘democratic rights’ of one million unionists out of goodwill alone? And are we to believe that Britain injects and annual subvention of between £5-10bn each year out of the goodness of its heart? That it has conducted a brutal and dirty war which has tarnished its international reputation out of some sense of loyalty to the unionists and that these facts by themselves are a demonstration of its neutrality? As with many popular prejudices and positions adopted out of political convenience, they are impervious to objective evidence, reason, and political logic.

By Paul Maguire

This article is republished with the permission of the author.