Ireland and Brexit: Kenny says Government ready for worst-case scenarios

Taoiseach’s priorities are protection of the peace process and Irish-British trade

The Taoiseach with  Theresa May at 10 Downing Street. The prime minister, Kenny said, “was categoric about the retention of the Common Travel Area and no return to a hard Border”. Photograph: Reuters/Stefan Rousseau/Pool

The Taoiseach with Theresa May at 10 Downing Street. The prime minister, Kenny said, “was categoric about the retention of the Common Travel Area and no return to a hard Border”. Photograph: Reuters/Stefan Rousseau/Pool

 

Unlike the Scottish referendum, where he was studiously careful in his public utterances, Enda Kenny was always clear that a Brexit referendum vote was a cataclysm to be avoided, at all costs.

Now, however, the Taoiseach must work to ensure that the relationship between Ireland and the UK will change as little as possible in the wake of the decision by 52 per cent of British voters.

During the last government, Kenny worked hard to build a relationship with the Conservative prime minister, David Cameron. The warmth of such ties is sometimes exaggerated, but the two did get on well.

Cameron is now gone, replaced by the more reserved and less warm Theresa May. The building of relationships must begin anew. However, the prevailing view across the European Union was there can be no compromise on the principle of freedom of movement to accommodate UK access to the single European market.

Kenny says his priorities in the forthcoming negotiations are the protection of the peace process in Northern Ireland and trade between Ireland and the UK.

He says the EU was now in an unprecedented position, and that the impact on Ireland in particular could be profound.

Joined at the same time

“Here is a major country, a major economic entity, leaving the European Union. We joined at the same time in the 1970s. Ever since then, the applications have been to join the European Union. Now we have a major country that is leaving as a result of a vote by the electorate.”

“For us it is very particular because of our historic, social, economic and political connections with the United Kingdom. There are over a million Irish people living in Britain and we have a special relationship, which we want to retain.”

The Taoiseach says the Irish Government has prepared for the worst-case scenario with plans to deal with the situation in advance of Brexit and for the future relationship between Europe and the UK. “I was the first EU leader to go and visit the new prime minister in Downing Street,” he says. “She was categoric about the retention of the common travel area and no return to a hard Border.”

A unit was established in his department months in advance of the referendum to look at contingencies that might arise. A great deal of activity had taken place since the vote, with discussions at the British-Irish Council, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

Kenny says Irish public servants have travelled to London and British officials to Dublin to discuss in depth likely issues.

His first priority, he says, is the welfare of the people on the island of Ireland, and that involves measures to protect the economy, the Northern Ireland peace process and the Common Travel Area.

“That means, essentially, how do we protect ourselves here? How do we get to a point where we continue to have as close a relationship as we have now with the UK, and they with Europe, when this is done and dusted?”

On the question of the Border, the Taoiseach says remarks by Northern Secretary James Brokenshire about cooperation on immigration reflects the current position, which involves an exchange of information between the two immigration services in the fight against international terrorism.

Kenny says there have already been some losses in the Irish agricultural sector as a result of the changes in the exchange rate between the euro and sterling. With 43 per cent of Irish agricultural exports going to the UK, this is a serious problem.

On the positive side, he insists there is an understanding at European level that Northern Ireland was a particularly sensitive issue. At a very basic level, the peace funds and Interreg funds were important to Northern communities coming out of the conflict.

Crosshead The Taoiseach caused some controversy with plans to convene an all-island forum to discuss the problems faced by both parts of the island. The DUP rejected the plan, but Kenny will proceed nonetheless with the All Ireland Civic Forum. It will meet on November 2nd under his chairmanship.

“I believe that it is really important that we have all of the voices reflective of Ireland over a series of meetings,” he says. “ I am going to invite all of the political parties who wish to attend, and I don’t mean that I expect a grand standing performance from each of them. It is more of a listening exercise from political parties because we need to hear the voice of retail, the voice of trade, of commerce of the construction sector, education and all of these areas, North and South.”

As well as economic issues, the impact on cooperation in areas such as health and education need to be aired, he says.

“An agreement [was] signed to have specialist treatment for children for heart surgery in Crumlin Hospital in Dublin for the whole island of Ireland. We have 500 collaborations with British universities and institutes of technology for research and development, including those in Northern Ireland. That money is supposed to be paid only in EU countries. So what is going to happen there?”

Kenny is wary of pleading at European level that Ireland is a special case. Still, he is adamant that the very particular relationship between the two countries has to be taken into account.

One thing he is clear about: Ireland’s future is in the European Union regardless of what happens in the Brexit negotiations. “In the Fiscal Stability Treaty we linked our future with the future of the euro zone and the European Union,” he says, “And people in the Republic certainly understand the positive impact of Europe.”