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Sovereignty and Brexit: Irish pragmatism or UK obsoletism?

Mr Pól Ó Duibhir, a retired Principal Officer in the Department of Finance, had ongoing involvement with both EU and Northern Ireland during the course of his career. In this blog, he expresses the view that the political attitude of the United Kingdom (UK) toward the Brexit process, which has also characterised how the UK has negotiated with the European Union (EU), was already discernible in the early years of engagement with the EU PEACE Programme.

The Lead Up and UK Sovereignty

Brexit is very much an act of self-harm by the UK, which also involves a lot of collateral damage to the EU, and particularly to the island of Ireland. How did this come about?

A book entitled Great Britain or Little England explains the choice facing the British people at the beginning of the ‘1970s, when they had to decide whether or not to join the then European Economic Community (EEC), together with the Republic of Ireland and Denmark. The idea of sovereignty as ‘do what you like, to who you like, when you like’ had been fostered in the British consciousness over a long period, but after the Second World War and the end of colonialism, it seemed obsolete. Hence, the UK, despite its refusal to do so in earlier attempts, finally decided to voluntarily “pool” its sovereignty with the other members of the EEC. It can't be stressed too often that the pooling of sovereignty is in itself a sovereign act. Michel Barnier has pointed this out many times in the course of the Brexit negotiations.

In the lead up to the Brexit Referendum, that obsolete conception of sovereignty saw somewhat of a wake-up call. Despite being members of the EEC/EU, the British public were subjected for years to a barrage of negative ‘fake news’ drummed up by, among others, the current Prime Minister when he served as the Brussels correspondent for Britain's right-wing Daily Telegraph. The EU Commission had actually felt obliged to set up a web page addressed to the UK countering the fake news claims of the period. Unfortunately, these rebuttals do not appear to have been taken up in any systematic way by the UK press, at least not to the extent of countering the fake news claims in the consciousness of the British people.

Irish Sovereignty

The reciprocal of UK sovereignty is Irish sovereignty. Common membership of the EEC marked the end of the UK regarding Ireland as a wayward child to be tolerated only up to a point. Achieving Irish independence from the UK has a long and often bitter history. Even after the formal achievement of independence in 1922 the state was still spanceled by the nominal overlordship of the British monarch. Although this was gradually shed in the 1930s and 1940s, Ireland was still seen as ignorable by the British and this applied in particular to Ireland's claim to involvement in the governing of Northern Ireland.

Nonetheless, the outbreak of the conflict in the North coupled with Ireland's membership of the EEC was to gradually change the British perception of Ireland. There were limits to this, as evidenced by the UK's shock during the Brexit negotiations, when it found the 26 member states firmly lining up behind Ireland on the question of the location of the whole island of Ireland-EU/UK single market border.

The Irish themselves were not surprised at this shock. Up to 1973 much of Ireland had, at least, an inferiority complex born of centuries living under the contempt of the London government. The EEC changed all that radically, at least for people who were to be involved in EEC affairs. Ireland

had a rotating Presidency very soon after joining the EEC and in this context the UK was nothing special. Ireland was now chairing a group of member states and seeking compromise as an outcome. The UK was just another player. This was a game changer.

‘Our UK Money’

Something which became obvious in the course of the operation of the EU PEACE Programme for Northern Ireland, initiated by the EU in 1994, was that the UK and Northern Ireland authorities' view that their EU budget contribution and their status of ‘net contributors’ entitled them to special treatment when it came to observing the rules and resisting the interference of the EU Commission in how they spent ‘their’ money. This very narrow view of the EU budget contribution did not, needless to say, take any account of the huge benefits of membership, which they enjoyed as a result of this budget contribution.

That attitude was again to be seen when the UK was shocked at being presented with a financial bill on its way out the door during Brexit. The UK press, with no public contradiction by the UK government, presented the bill as punishment, or a fine, for leaving the EU.

Ireland and Northern Ireland Statehood

There was an anomaly in a lot of Ireland's dealings with Northern Ireland in the framework of all the four PEACE Programmes. It was significant that Ireland was a full EU member state, attending COREPER I and ECOFIN, while the North was a subsidiary administrative area of the UK, the other full member state in the process. This led, on occasions, to the interests of Northern Ireland being championed at EU level by the Irish government. This relationship was not formalised, but operated at an informal level. The UK government's view of subsidiarity clearly surfaced in public in the course of the Brexit negotiations, where the regional governments of Scotland and Wales were not consulted. Northern Ireland, or rather the DUP in Westminster, played instead a central role for a period.


It is possible to draw some very broad conclusions from the above reflection. The UK's view of sovereignty has not changed since the days of Empire, despite membership of the EEC/EU, and this has been a major obstacle for it achieving a least damaging form of Brexit. It was the greatest weakness of the Remain campaign that they failed to challenge Leave’s definition of sovereignty and explain that the reality of Brexit meant throwing control away, not taking it back. In the 1960s, Britain vividly experienced the drawback of having no control over the European market and too small a domestic market to provide a secure base for its manufacturers. This goes for services and data as much as for goods: ‘sovereignty’ in this context means having influence not only of regulation in your domestic market, but in the markets you sell to and buy from. Only membership of the EEC would enable Britain to defend its national economic interests effectively. Hence, It was less a case of giving sovereignty away than, by sharing it, extending our sovereignty to mainland Europe.

On the other hand, the Irish view of sovereignty has been more pragmatic allowing it to benefit from EU membership and, unlike the UK, initiate preparations for Brexit as early as the referendum or even before. Unlike the UK, which kept its people in the dark about the reality of Brexit, Ireland participated in the total transparency approach which was upheld by Michel Barnier throughout the negotiations, understanding that, ultimately, real sovereignty means having a seat at the table, a voice in the debate and a vote on the outcome.

The views expressed in this blog reflect that of the author(s) and not necessarily that of IACES.

"european union" by suttonhoo is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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1 comentario

Pól Ó Duibhir
Pól Ó Duibhir
07 mar 2022

I would just add a point about the Protocol which I have not touched on in the Opinion Piece.

Brexit was ideologically driven and very little, if any, thought was given to the practical consequences of leaving the EU. One area that was completely ignored was Northern Ireland. Without the North, the UK could have made a clean break with the EU. In fact, had the restoration of an economic land border on the island of Ireland been acceptable to the EU, including Ireland, there would have been no problem. But that economic border had been abolished over the years, thanks to the UK and Ireland’s common membership of the EU, and elements of an all-Ireland economy have been emerging…

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