Cameron put a sharp focus on equality between our islands
Published 02/07/2016 | 02:30
David Cameron only visited the Irish Republic once - in May 2011 during the official visit of Queen Elizabeth. He tried to keep the Northern Ireland political parties at arm's length for most of his six-year tenure as British Prime Minister - only warming to the Democratic Unionist Party in late 2014. That was six months before the May 2015 general election, amid a realisation he may need their votes to return to Downing Street.
Yet there are good reasons for dubbing Cameron a "Friend of Ireland" and someone who left British-Irish relations in a better condition than he found them when he first took office in May 2010.
He was the first British leader to stress the equality of relations between the two islands after more than 900 years of sometimes very fractious relations. In fact there was little-noticed seminal moment in November 2010, which passed amid all the tumult of that time as Ireland was forced into the EU-IMF bailout.
In London David Cameron, only prime minister for a bare six months, found himself under pressure over potential UK costs for EU bail-outs. But he batted those away as he also stoutly defended the principle of extending a bilateral loan of Stg£3.2bn to Ireland.
"If you look at the Irish economy, Ireland is an enormously important trading partner with Britain. It's a fact that we actually export more to Ireland than we do to Brazil, Russia, India and China combined," he told the Westminster parliament.
"Stability in the Irish economy and success in the Irish economy is very much in Britain's interest," he argued. He and his Chancellor David Osborne also stressed that Britain would make on the deal and that Ireland was a good risk. No British bilateral loans were given any other EU bailout state.
Most people were well aware that Ireland exports some €5bn of farm produce to the UK every year. But few on either island realised how important Ireland was to Britain as a market.
Like the leaders of most large countries, the smaller neighbouring state was rarely a focus of attention for David Cameron. But in conversations with a large sweep of officials and politicians who were close to interactions between London, Dublin and Belfast during the "Cameron years," none had anything negative to say about his attitude and work on British-Irish relations.
The good professional and personal relations between David Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny proved a boon. Kenny is more than 15 years older, and they did not form links via the EPP Christian Democrat group, where the Taoiseach forged many useful contacts with other EU leaders as a regular attender since his election in 2002.
In a foreshadowing of more recent events Cameron came into the Conservative Party leadership in May 2005 on a promise that he would withdraw his party from the EPP, and form a new pan-conservative alliance in the European Parliament.
But the visit of Britain's Queen Elizabeth in May 2011, just two months after Kenny was elected Taoiseach, proved an ice-breaker. Though it was Cameron's only official visit to Dublin it had an impact on him.
Dr Martin McAleese, who sat at the same table at the official banquet in Dublin Castle, later recalled David Cameron was clearly emotional during the Queen's historic speech. The Kenny-Cameron relationship built from there with agreement that the two would hold an annual summit.
The first of these was held in 2012 and continued each year. Officials on both sides hope that the practice can be maintained with Cameron's successor.
Kenny and Cameron had also agreed that the two would visit the World War I sites where so many men from the various traditions on the two islands were slaughtered. This visit happened in December 2013.
Cameron was astonished by the extent of the Irish involvement and he joined Kenny in laying a wreath at the Irish Peace Park in Messines, which was jointly opened by Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese in November 1998.
In a very poignant moment both leaders also stood in silence at the grave of Major Willie Redmond, a brother of Irish Party leader John Redmond, at Locre, in Flanders. This "lonely grave" is outside the official cemetery in honour of Redmond's expressed wishes which were a protest at the execution of the 1916 leaders.
People associated with the joint visit recall it as "a great day" - one which really helped build relations. It was given a personal significance with Cameron paying tribute to his great-great uncle, Captain John Geddes, who fell at Ypres in 1915, one of five Cameron relatives to perish in the 1914-18 slaughter.
Christmas 2014 saw both Kenny and Cameron again make common cause as they abruptly left talks in Belfast, wearied by a lack of progress on budgetary issues and other outstanding matters related to the peace process. Officials speaking for both leaders defended the action which led on to continued talks and a final "Stormont House" deal on Christmas Eve, in a process chaired by US envoy Richard Haas.
The incident put the focus on Cameron's attitude to the North's peace process which he came to with some suspicion from day one. It had been established by Labour and Tony Blair, it was 20 years since another Tory leader, John Major, tried to make advances here, and he was aware of Sinn Féin's suspicion of the Tories.
Cameron had always stressed his willingness to do what he could to help in overcoming the various problems. But he was also wary of an apparent inability among the North's politicians' to make compromises without outside supervision from London, Washington or wherever.
It must also be noted that these marathon 11 weeks of talks happened as Cameron was trying to coax his own MPs to defend tough welfare cuts in Britain. And in the event he came up with additional funds which allowed Sinn Féin argue they could leverage some Stg£2bn in extra spending.
So, was Cameron better than Blair for Ireland? The short answer is "No."
But most people would argue that the comparison is totally invalid and unhelpful to the understanding of British-Irish relations, now at their best since the Irish State's foundation. Blair was a political gambler and his gambles on Northern Ireland worked out. Blair's success, and his excellent relations with former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, laid the foundations.
But Cameron took things on and did much good work. His stronger legacy may be his implicit acknowledgement that there is now a relationship of equals between Britain and Ireland.