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Keir Starmer is ‘in love’ with Ireland. It will take more than that to repair the relationship

Things are looking up for Anglo-Irish relations. But Ireland’s diplomatic model has to work just as well with Tories as with a well-disposed Labour. Otherwise the country is reliant on the whims of personality

Fourteen years of Conservative rule have left the United Kingdom weary and bored. On July 4th – save some kind of catastrophic incident – Labour will be anointed and Keir Starmer will get the keys to Number 10 Downing Street. So it is time for the customary reading of the tea leaves: how exactly does Starmer plan to govern? What happens if Labour – mere weeks into power – plumb unexpected depths of unpopularity? In Dublin, naturally, one question looms far larger than any of Starmer’s impending domestic worries. What will this new era mean for Ireland?

Starmer has promised “respectful engagement” with the Republic, adding that he was “acutely aware of the issues at play”.

Since 2016 the Anglo-Irish relationship has been in somewhat of a rough patch. This is such a truism that it hardly bears repeating. But we can quickly cast our minds back over the past eight years: the backstop; the behaviour of the DUP in Theresa May’s awkward parliament; the European Research Group; the protocol; the decision to renege on the protocol; Leo Varadkar dragged through the British press with all the vitriol usually reserved for actual criminals. What a time! But all things come to an end. Starmer could easily be the man to clean up all of the mess left by the Tories.

He likes Ireland, personally. That is a very good start. We cannot forget the commanding heights of the Conservative intellectual project and their obvious contempt for the place. Priti Patel in 2018 threatened Ireland with food shortages if the country refused to comply with her party’s Brexit demands. The former Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley – of all people – revealed that she did not know that that nationalists did not vote for unionists and that unionists did not vote for nationalists. None of this is evidence of a group that thought particularly highly about its neighbour. And of course it was supported by the right-wing press, who were far looser-lipped about their prejudices than the actual politicians.


Meanwhile, in 2023 on a visit to Belfast Starmer said: “After we were married, my wife and I took our first holiday here, because I wanted to show her Northern Ireland, the people and communities that I’d met, I was in love with this island and that love has stayed with me.” He had spent five years advising the Police Service of Northern Ireland as a lawyer; he knows the island – north and south of the Border – well. Irishness is baked into his team too: Morgan McSweeney – Starmer’s closest aide, Labour’s campaign manager – is from Cork. Knowledge, affection and interest in the country are encoded into the DNA of Starmer’s Labour. A counterfactual history of Brexit executed under their watch would be very interesting.

Patrick Maguire – the Starmer whisperer in The Times of London – contends that Starmer’s time in Northern Ireland (2003-2008) has informed his mode of politics writ large. Approaching a state such as Northern Ireland – only recently at peace, a long distance from actual reconciliation – required a pragmatism that was shorn of passionate intensity. This is a Labour Party compelled by bureaucratic realpolitik. A cynic might say there is an absence of obvious principle in Starmer. A fan would describe him as adaptable.

But this is precisely the energy that the Anglo-Irish relationship needs to mend and heal after the mess of the Brexit years. Though in this process Ireland should be careful to remember that it was not a faultless saint between 2016 and now. The country is not a mere victim of Tory disdain, but instead was an active and willing participant in the mutual tanking of the relationship. Owning up to this would be a good first step. Nonetheless, it should be easier to do so with Starmer. This process is as much about goodwill as it is about any kind of concrete policy; and it is clear that by the end of the Conservatives’ reign there were no vestiges of goodwill left to excavate. The most important thing about Starmer is that he is a fresh start – that he has personal affection for Ireland is a bonus.

But there is a problem much deeper and more existential for a country such as Ireland. The grá of one man is not a sustainable substitute for a serious diplomatic relationship. Ireland can rest easy for now that a friendly face is coming into Number 10. But there has to be a plan – a mode of respect, a well of good intentions – that endures no matter the personal feelings of the prime minister and his aides. The Brexit years exposed a troubling reality: yes, the relationship was robust enough to survive, but it was a lot shakier than perhaps anyone in 2015 might have been able to predict. Ireland’s diplomatic model has to work just as well with Tories as it does with a well-disposed Labour. Otherwise the country is exposed, reliant on the whims of personality.

But this is all, for now, good news. The wounds can close and the oldest and closest neighbours can be friends again. But Ireland should make hay: who knows what looms after Starmer?