Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Downing Street Declaration – one of the key building blocks of the Northern Irish peace process which led to the Belfast Agreement of 1998. That accord, forged between prime minister John Major and the taoiseach Albert Reynolds, is widely held to be a masterpiece of calculated ambiguity.
In a memorable turn of phrase, the British government acknowledged that it had ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest’ in Northern Ireland – a formula first employed in Ulster secretary Peter Brooke’s Whitbread lecture of 9 November 1990.
To much of Nationalist Ireland, the Green-sounding language was enticing: the British were saying that they had no ‘imperialistic’ reason of State to remain in Northern Ireland. Rather, the essence of the British presence in Northern Ireland were the million British subjects who wished to remain part of the Union.
The implicit message of the Major government to nationalists was as follows: if you can then persuade the Unionists via peaceful means to accept a United Ireland, we will not stand in your way. But three decades on, in dramatically different geopolitical circumstances, does the United Kingdom have a ‘selfish strategic interest’ in Northern Ireland after all?
The Ukraine War and repeated Russian incursions into what used to be called the ‘Western Approaches’ – a Russian live fire exercise in January 2022 was seen off by courageous Irish fishermen – have highlighted the reemerging vulnerabilities of Western equities in the eastern Atlantic.
This clear and present danger is the logical outcome of Russia’s Sodcit operation – a military doctrine advocating sub-threshold warfare against adversaries’ critical infrastructure. As elsewhere in the EU, China constitutes the less acute but more pervasive long-term challenge – entailing the usual footprint of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) overseas activities such as Confucius Institutes in the education sector.
Ireland’s historic line is that it is a small neutral nation which is a long way away – and whose position in the world rests heavily upon its capacity for moral suasion.