Brexit is the ‘chess game of our lives,’ says Emily O’Reilly

British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly hears ‘frictionless, seamless’ border is possible

European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly has described the ongoing Brexit negotiations as "the chess game of our lives".

As the second round of formal talks got underway in Brussels on Monday, Ms O’Reilly told a gathering of British and Irish parliamentarians in Kilkenny she had yet to see any sign of what a “soft border” might look like.

She said her work was focussed on allowing people to see who was attempting to influence EU-UK negotiations.

“You will all have observed the heightened activity of legal firms and all sorts of consultancies as they try to grab a piece of the Brexit cake for themselves in a world where - at least at the moment - there is much that seems chaotic and bewildering,” she said.

“The EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier is being transparent in relation to his meetings but influence is attempted to be peddled at all levels and in every member state with a stake in the outcome of these negotiations.”

Ms O’Reilly told members of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly the transposition of EU laws and regulations into the UK legal framework was an area “ripe for lobbyists”.

She said people deserved honesty at every stage of the process.

“Many people’s individual lives, the lives of their families and the future of their businesses depend on what is happening today in Brussels and what will happen over the next period of time.

“At the very least they have the right to know to the greatest extent possible what is being negotiated on their behalf,” she said.

“We are all involved in the chess game of our lives.”

Earlier, Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government John Paul Phelan told the assembly it was no secret that the outcome of the Brexit vote was not what Ireland would have wished.

“Sadly, whether we like it or not, for Ireland the horizon is now clouded by the prospect of our closest partner leaving the EU. Our ambition at this stage is to make the best of what is, from our perspective, an unfortunate situation.”

Mr Phelan said it would be vital for Ireland that the UK and the EU successfully forged a special relationship after the UK ceased to be a Member State.

Ireland had a big stake in a Britain that was prosperous, outward-looking and on good terms with its neighbours.

Minimise disruption

However, he said such a result would not be easy to achieve.

“Although Ireland will do everything we can to facilitate continued good relations between the UK and the EU, an agreeable outcome to negotiations is not within our gift.”

Mr Phelan stressed Ireland would be part of the EU team in the UK-EU negotiations.

“We will of course have our own interests to protect and we want the negotiations to arrive at a sensible set of arrangements between the UK and the EU that will minimise disruption for us.”

Meanwhile, British Ambassador Robin Barnett said he acknowledged and understood Ireland was particularly affected by the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union.

He said much of the last year had been spend seeking to understand Ireland’s specific concerns.

“We get that the ability to move and trade across the border is an essential part of daily life for people and business North and South.”

He said nobody wanted a return to the borders of the past. A “frictionless and seamless” border was possible.

Mr Barnett said the relationship between the UK and Ireland did not need to be defined by Brexit.

He said he often read that the UK had “pulled up the drawbridge” after the Brexit vote, but nothing could be further from the truth.

“Far from being isolationist, the UK remains truly internationalist.”

Established in 1990 as a link between the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Houses of Parliament, the assembly now includes members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, as well as representatives from the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey.

It meets twice a year to promote co-operation between political representatives in Britain and Ireland.

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan is Acting Features Editor of The Irish Times