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18 September 2019

From backdoor to backstop: Ireland’s shifting relationship with Britain and Europe

England’s “Irish Question” first emerged in the Middle Ages and has returned to haunt the present Brexit crisis. But is the European Union making a promise to the Republic of Ireland that it will be unable to keep?

By Brendan Simms

At the height of the Suez crisis, which dominated British and international politics in late 1956 and brought about the downfall of Anthony Eden, the prime minister’s wife Clarissa complained that she felt as though the Suez Canal was flowing through her own drawing room. Today, as the “Irish backstop” is furiously debated, it sometimes feels as if the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic runs through every sitting room in the country. In these politically divided times, it is worth exploring how England’s “Irish Question” emerged in the Middle Ages, and how fears of an Irish “backdoor” into England evolved into concerns that the Irish backstop might drag the UK back into the EU in all but name.

London’s principal focus over the past 600 years has been mainland Europe. This, as Winston Churchill once remarked, was “where the weather came from”. European powers such as France, Habsburg Spain, Germany and the Soviet Union have posed mortal strategic threats. Ever since the Reformation, Europe has also been the source of ideological challenges from Counter-Reformation Catholicism, through continental absolutism, revolutionary France, Tsarist autocracy and Nazism, to Eastern Bloc communism.

All this had major implications for England’s relationship with the three other nations of the British Isles. There was a fear that because of its geographic proximity, Ireland might serve as a backdoor for pretenders to the English crown. In 1460, for example, Richard of York used the country as a base from which to launch his unsuccessful attempt to take the throne. In 1487 another claimant, Lambert Simnel, was crowned in Dublin and backed by the Irish parliament before his ill-fated expedition to England. Four years later, Perkin Warbeck began his own failed campaign to seize the English throne in Ireland. In the 17th century, James II and his English Jacobite supporters attempted to use Ireland as a base from which to regain power.

Ireland also functioned as a backdoor to England for London’s European rivals. As the Spanish officer Captain Diego Ortiz de Urizar, who visited the country in 1574, put it, “he who would England win, with Ireland must begin”. Six years later, a papal-backed force of Spanish and Italian mercenaries landed at Smerwick in County Kerry on the south coast of the island. In 1601, another Spanish force landed in Kinsale on the south coast. In the 17th century, Louis XIV mounted a major expedition to Ireland, and in the century after that both Bourbon and revolutionary France saw Ireland as a theatre of war against England (or Great Britain, as it had then become). In 1796 a substantial force of men under French revolutionary General Hoche never arrived, but two years later a much smaller contingent under General Humbert made landfall at Killala in County Mayo on the west coast. Scotland posed a similar and sometimes even greater challenge to England. Its close diplomatic relationship with France was dubbed the “Auld Alliance”.

Against this background it is unsurprising that patriotic or separatist elements in Ireland believed, as the 19th-century statesman Daniel O’Connell later suggested, that “England’s difficulty” was “Ireland’s opportunity”. In the late-16th- and early-17th-century rebel lords such as the Great O’Neill in Ulster looked to Spain for help against the English. The same is true for the Catholic Confederacy in the 1640s, and later in the century Irish Catholics supported James against William of Orange. The 1798 republican rebellion against British rule was also launched in expectation of French support.

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None of these European alliances much helped the Irish cause. The Great O’Neill was crushed at Kinsale in 1601 alongside his Spanish allies. Cromwell smashed the Confederacy in the late 1640s. William of Orange defeated the Irish Jacobites at the Boyne, and French help did not save the rebels in 1798 from disaster at the hands of crown forces.

Finally, England hoped to use the resources of the other three nations in support of its European objectives. Wales, which was conquered in the Middle Ages and fully integrated into the English state in the mid-16th century, was the least of London’s problems. Scotland and Ireland posed far greater difficulties. Much of Ireland remained beyond English control. Despite a regnal union between England and Ireland, and then Scotland and England, political, financial and strategic integration between the kingdoms was incomplete. Though they shared a monarch with England, both countries retained separate parliaments.


London responded to these challenges in two ways. The first was a policy of straightforward coercion, to ensure that there would be no separate sovereign Irish polity, at least not in the “Pale” around Dublin and the south-eastern ports from which an invasion of England might be launched. In the late 15th century, after the Simnel and Warbeck escapades, London promulgated “Poyning’s Law”, which asserted the supremacy of the Westminster over the Dublin parliament. It was primarily designed to ensure that no pretender would have the legitimate backing of the Irish parliament.

All this acquired an ideological dimension after the Reformation, when the defence of the Protestant succession and parliamentary liberties in England seemed to require the suppression of Catholicism in Ireland. This sentiment underpinned the 17th-century plantation of Ulster – when people from Great Britain colonised the northern province of Ireland – the 18th-century “penal laws” against Irish Catholics, and a general policy of repression. The Irish did not enjoy easy access to the English and colonial markets. In short, England was determined to limit Irish sovereignty on the grounds that what happened in Ireland would not stay in Ireland.

English strategists were also constantly thinking of better ways to shut the backdoor in Ireland and Scotland, and mobilising the resources of the four nations and the three kingdoms. The act uniting England with Wales under Henry VIII showed the way, by incorporating the principality and giving it parliamentary representation at Westminster. London now turned to the other two nations. In 1560, Elizabeth I’s chief adviser William Cecil wrote of the need to “increase” England through “united strength, by joining the two kingdoms [England and Scotland], having also Ireland knit thereto”. This remained a central English aim over the next 250 years.

It took two major European wars to create the United Kingdom. In 1707, during the struggle against Louis XIV’s France over the Spanish Succession, Scotland and England established a parliamentary and defence union, as well as a single market and customs union, in a new state called Great Britain. In 1801, as Britain battled Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion, Great Britain and Ireland came together on similar terms to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Lord Camden, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, wrote in 1797 that this was the only way to ensure that Ireland would be “an advantage” to England “instead of being a point dreadfully vulnerable in all future wars”, while Edward Cooke, the under-secretary for Ireland, argued that “supposing there were no other reasons which rendered the union of the sister kingdoms desirable, the state of Europe, and especially [the growing power of] France, seems to dictate it”.

If the driving force behind union was the strategic interest of England, it was also intended to empower the Scots and Irish. Scotland retained important reserved rights in the fields of education, the Church and the legal system. The union gave the two smaller nations much-coveted equal access to the English and colonial markets and, once Catholic emancipation had been realised by the early 1830s, Irish representation at Westminster on more or less equal terms. This arrangement served to constrain English power, because a free-standing English state without participation from the other three nations would still have dominated them, economically and politically. In effect, if England was separate and sovereign then none of the three other nations could be. The United Kingdom was thus not a nation state, because the English and Scottish nation states ended in 1707, but a union of nations.


Over the next 300 years or so, this United Kingdom was an ordering power in Europe, central to almost every war and peace settlement. It watched jealously over the “balance of power” in the 18th century and was central to the defeat of Napoleon at the start of the following century. In the 1850s, it helped to administer a stinging rebuke to Tsarist Russia during the Crimean War. During the First World War, the British empire was the guiding spirit behind the struggle against the German Reich. For better or for worse, the Irish were part of this ordering project, helping to liberate Spain from French rule by 1813, and northern France from that of the Germans by 1918. Throughout this period, fear of the “backdoor” persisted in London, but at a much lower level than previously. The leaders of the iconic 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin did invoke their “gallant allies in Europe”, that is the German Reich, but it availed them little.

The geopolitical circumstances during the much more successful war for Irish Independence in 1919-21 was unlike that of the earlier confrontations. It took place not at a time of threat for Britain, but at the peak of its power on the Continent after victory in the First World War. The IRA had no allies in Europe, indeed it had severed all such connections after the US entry into the war in 1917 so as not to antagonise Irish-Americans. The Irish rebels also gave Bolshevism a wide berth, so that there was no fear of their collaborating with the new threat from the Soviet Union. Sick of fighting a guerrilla conflict, London felt safe enough to allow the establishment of a separate state in most of Ireland from 1921, retaining only the use of three southern treaty ports in time of war; Lloyd George defended the treaty as one that ensured the “security of our shores”.

The establishment of a separate Irish polity, therefore, took place at a time when it was safe for Britain in Europe. England’s security was Ireland’s opportunity.

Easter Rising: the 1916 rebellion was followed by the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922 – a time when Britain’s power in Europe was at its height. Credit: Chronice / Alamy

The creation of the Irish Free State sundered the geopolitical unity of the British Isles. It partitioned Ireland, because six counties of Ulster remained part of the UK. It also divided the British Isles. Now only three nations were bound together in a common project in Europe and the world; most of the fourth nation was going its own way. The reduced British state was henceforth known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In 1923, the first customs posts to go up along the intra-Irish border were those of the Irish Free State.

Despite the loss of most of Ireland, the United Kingdom continued to be an ordering power in Europe. It played a central role in the Second World War, from start to finish. It initially stayed aloof from the European Economic Community (EEC), but joined in 1973, and since then has done much of its “ordering” in Europe through the structures of what is now the European Union. The European map of today, and the character of the EU, owes much to British policy, be it the defence of the Continent through Nato, the establishment of the single market or the eastern enlargement.

Ireland remained neutral in the fight against Nazism and the Cold War. This posed problems for Britain, especially in the war at sea, where the three treaty ports, which had been surrendered to the Free State in 1938, were sorely missed. That said, the Irish leader Éamon de Valera kept the IRA down and Hitler out; the backdoor was kept shut. De Valera thus continued the trend of uncoupling British-Irish relations and mainstream nationalism from European geopolitics. He made no attempt to take advantage of either the Nazi or the Soviet threat to pursue an agenda in Northern Ireland. Nor did his successors when the “Troubles” erupted from the late 1960s. The IRA, by contrast, did seek help from the Soviet Union, but that relationship had little operational bearing on the conflict, and played a subordinate role in British strategic thinking about the problem.

During this period, the Irish of the 26 counties had moved from being an unwilling participant in the British Isles union project, and a co-owner of the European balance of power, to being independent but geopolitically irrelevant in their own right. This gave them much greater control over their own immediate destinies. They could run their own affairs within certain legislative parameters, and stay out of wars, at least so long as they were far away, and shelter as a free rider under the British security umbrella. At the same time, they also remained within the British economic orbit, symbolised by parity between the Irish pound and pound sterling, but had lost any parliamentary input into the making of the rules that governed the British economy.

The relationship was so lopsided that when the UK applied to join the EEC in the 1960s, Dublin had to follow suit, withdrawing its application after De Gaulle’s famous veto, before finally following Britain into the community in 1973.


Britain was an ordering power in Europe, not one of the ordered. The British claimed independence for themselves, and depending on the circumstance, protected or suppressed that of others. Having one’s cake and eating it, often at great cost, is thus the nub of the history of Britain in Europe. It reflects the fact that the British role in Europe is, historically, not a function of European integration but a privilege won for them by their ancestors and justified by their continuing contribution to the management and defence of the European order.

This experience contrasted markedly with that of mainland Europe, which showed itself too weak to prevent German and later Soviet aggression on its own. The European project was designed to remedy this deficiency by containing Germany, and mobilising its and the rest of the Continent’s considerable resources for the defence of the common interest. Member states forged ever closer bonds through the single market, the euro, the Schengen area and the common foreign and security policy, though they refused to establish the political union necessary to underpin these endeavours.

Unlike the United Kingdom, which is a true union of nations, the EU, despite its name, is still essentially a confederation of nation states. This suited the Irish, because it enabled them to participate on an equal basis in the European economic and political project without being obliged to compromise their military neutrality. They became like continental Europeans in their instinctive assumption that their prosperity and security was something the EU had “given” them.

Most importantly of all, the EU seemed to provide a framework for “normalising” Anglo-Irish relations. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement established a power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland, based on the consent of the local parties and the support of Dublin, London and Washington. The EU had little to do with it, but money from Brussels was instrumental in funding reconciliation programmes.

Membership of the EU eventually boosted the Irish economy, while the establishment of the single market and customs union in 1993 brought down the barriers set up 70 years before. Relations with London were close – the Queen visited Ireland in 2011 with great fanfare.

Then came the Brexit vote in 2016. This had major implications for the European order. The British would take almost a fifth of the EU’s economic capacity (equivalent to the combined economies of the 18 smallest member states) with them after leaving. Their huge budget contribution was at risk. Plans for a security union would be put in doubt by the imminent loss of the EU’s most important military power. It was also a huge psychological and political challenge, because other discontented countries, such as Italy, might follow.

Once the shock had worn off, the EU decided to take a tough line. It was determined that the British would not get a better deal outside the Union than inside it. The idea that the UK might “have its cake and eat it”, as Boris Johnson suggested, was rebuffed. There would be, so the rhetoric ran, no “cherry-picking”. If Britain wanted to stay in the single market it would have to accept free movement of workers, whether or not it was in the EU. Likewise, if it stayed in the customs union, it would be subject to rules it had no role in making. Theresa May’s government accepted the EU logic, and, in effect, its claim to act as the arbiter of the European order.

The consequences of this for the Irish Republic were profound. It raised the spectre of a customs infrastructure along the Irish border, erected either by the British or, worse still, by Dublin at the behest of the EU. For the first time in the history of their state, the inhabitants of the 26 counties would have to choose between two rival ordering systems in Europe, that of the UK and that of the EU.

When initial attempts to establish clarity abut the overall EU-UK relationship failed, the Dublin government embarked on a high-risk strategy. The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced that he would not “design a border” for Britain. Instead, he persuaded Brussels to demand that whatever economic arrangements the UK chose after Brexit would not “force” the Irish to erect a customs boundary on the border to “defend” the single market.

The reason for this request was not economic, since trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK was much greater than the commerce between north and south, but political. It represented a major ordering demand of the EU over the United Kingdom – exactly the sort of thing Brexit was designed to avoid. The EU made this demand partly because it could not conceive of any other way of avoiding a border, partly to prevent the British from using Northern Ireland as a way back into the single market, and partly to box them in during the negotiations. It was a good opportunity to show, as Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council put it, that there was a “special place in hell” for Brexiteers who had made promises they could not keep.


To widespread surprise, the May government soon accepted the EU’s “sequencing”, which included the requirement that the Irish border be resolved before any discussion on the future trade relationship began. This was partly a result of the disastrous 2017 general election, which had produced a hung parliament and left the Conservatives dependent on the votes of the DUP, the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland. The vote was widely interpreted as one for a “soft” Brexit; many wanted to remain. In the meantime, Britain had failed to parlay its defence contribution to the Continent into any kind of negotiating advantage with the EU, and having triggered Article 50, the clock was ticking.

The result was the most one-sided deal in British history. In addition to various other EU demands, the UK agreed to the famous “backstop”. No matter what the economic arrangements between the EU and the UK would be in the future, if there was to be a customs boundary, then it would run along the Irish Sea, that is between the six countries of Ulster and the rest of the UK, and not along the border between the two parts of the island of Ireland. As this arrangement, which violated the commercial clauses of the Acts of Union, was not acceptable to the DUP, London announced unilaterally that there would be no new regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and the UK unless the Stormont parliament agreed otherwise.

This produced the “UK-wide backstop”, which meant that unless an economic deal were agreed, the entire UK would remain within the customs union, and Northern Ireland would stay in the single market.

The withdrawal agreement was based on two threats. First, the risk of a renewed outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland following the establishment of customs infrastructure on the border. Second, and more important, the EU threatened that unless Britain agreed to the backstop the UK would “crash out” without a deal, or prospect of a trade deal, with all the economic dislocation that might entail. Brussels garnished all this with assurances that it would not “abandon” the Irish.

The European Union had taken control of the process, and demonstrated that it was the ordering power not only over the Continent, but in economic terms also in Britain, Brexit or no Brexit. “The EU is the dominant power in Europe,” Brigid Laffan, director of the Robert Schuman Centre at the European University Institute, argued, “and no state can escape its power and reach.” Varadkar, for his part, appeared to have played a blinder. He had brought the power of the European hegemon to bear on the UK. Britain was trapped in a customs union over which it had no say and could exit only by leaving Northern Ireland behind. The Irish, who would participate in setting the rules, would now have a greater say over important parts of the British economy than the British themselves. Varadkar appeared smiling at a press conference with Juncker, who was brandishing a card from a family in Dublin that stated, as it subsequently emerged, that “for the first time ever Ireland is stronger than Britain”. There was rising talk of a “border poll” and even of a united Ireland.


There were two problems with this outcome. Firstly, far from defending the Good Friday Agreement, the backstop actually violated both its letter and spirit. In 1998, London and Dublin committed themselves to respecting both the unionist and the nationalist identities in Northern Ireland. If having a customs boundary violated the identity of Irish nationalists by separating them from their compatriots in the south, then by the same token having such a boundary in the ports of Northern Ireland automatically violated the British identity of Ulster unionists because it separated them from their fellow Britons in the rest of the UK. More fundamentally, the backstop was not agreed to by the unionists, but simply imposed on them by the EU at Dublin’s request. As one of the architects of that accord has pointed out, it violated the principle of consent which lay at the heart of the agreement.

Second, the withdrawal agreement was at odds with Britain’s history as an ordering power. It threatened to turn the UK into a vassal state of the EU, at least with respect to key parts of its economic life. The British could escape this straitjacket only by leaving a part of their territory – Northern Ireland – under the sway of a foreign ordering system. For the first time in history, Britain was going to be ordered by Europe. At the same time, it was expected that the UK would, through Nato, continue to do more than any other European state to defend the Continent, while the Irish Republic would do nothing whatsoever to defend eastern European and Baltic states that were showing “solidarity” with it over the backstop. It appeared that Dublin had carried off the ultimate act of cherry-picking. One way or the other, the previous pattern of Anglo-Irish geopolitics seemed to have been reversed. Irish security had been bought at the price of British vassalage.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the withdrawal agreement failed to make it through parliament. The reasons for this were varied but they all had a common root. The “deal” simply did not reflect the view the British had of themselves. Remainers argued that full participation in making the rules by staying in the EU as a member was preferable to leaving on such terms. Brexiteers claimed that regaining full sovereignty, even at the price of a no deal, was better than accepting indefinite vassalage. The DUP objected to being edged out of the economic ordering system of the UK.

Most of those who voted for the agreement did so with a heavy heart, often under huge pressure. The defeat of the withdrawal agreement was also a reminder of the dynamics of participation in these islands. Had the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland remained part of the UK, for example, there would probably have been no Leave majority in the 2016 referendum, since most of the electorate there would have voted Remain. Had the withdrawal agreement been passed, it would have boosted the Irish nationalist narrative that a separate sovereign presence in Europe is of more value than minority in the UK parliament. As it is, the unionist argument that Irish (or at least Ulster) interests are best represented at Westminster seems to have been vindicated.


A colossal clash of ordering systems now looms. The Irish Republic has been not so much caught in the crossfire as ridden to the sound of the guns. For the first time in the history of the state, it has placed itself firmly on the side of a European coalition battling the UK over an issue of existential importance. Ireland, in short, has once again served as the backdoor to England: for elements in Brussels who want to reverse Brexit, or to reduce it to “Brexit in name only” in order to punish the UK and deter others; and for Remainers, who are the new Jacobites using Ireland as a staging ground to restore the rightful cause in England. (If Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement were their main concern, they had three separate occasions on which to vote for the backstop.)

Nobody can know how all this will end. It is possible that Brexit will be derailed by parliament or through an election. It is also possible that either London or Brussels will back down. The overwhelming likelihood, though, is that there will be a no-deal exit in which disruption is certain, confrontation probable and conflict possible. Leaked documents suggest that Brussels believes that the UK, buffeted by economic headwinds, will come back to the table “in six weeks”, that is the middle of December, at which point it will simply have the backstop served up again like an uneaten dinner. That also seems to be Varadkar’s expectation. In short, the EU believe that the conflict will be over by Christmas.

Such an outcome cannot be ruled out, but to anyone familiar with British history, the latent strength of the present-day UK, and the profound structural weaknesses of the EU, it seems unlikely. A prolonged clash is more probable, in which the gulf between Britain and the Continent will only deepen. Ireland will be caught in the middle. It will be forced to erect a customs boundary at the insistence of the EU, nearly 100 years after the Free State put up the first posts following independence.

The economic fallout will hit Ireland as much as or more than Britain. The harsher Brussels is towards London, in fact, the worse it will be for Dublin. Britain’s difficulty will be Ireland’s catastrophe.

It is often said there will be no victors in such a struggle and at one level that is true, just as it is true for all wars. But like most wars, this contest will have a winner and a loser, because both Brussels and Dublin have defined criteria for success and failure so precisely and ambitiously. After the dust settles, there will either be no customs boundary, because the UK remains within the customs union; or a boundary in the Irish Sea, in which case Dublin and Brussels have won; or there will be one along the Irish border, in which case they have lost. If that happens, then Varadkar’s strategy will have failed as surely as that of the Great O’Neill did at Kinsale, and that of the United Irishmen did in 1798. We will then find out whether there is a special place in hell reserved for those Europeans who have made the Irish promises they cannot keep.

Brendan Simms is a professor in the history of international relations at Peterhouse, Cambridge and an NS contributing writer. His most recent book is “Hitler: Only the World was Enough” (Allen Lane)