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Brexit speech leaves Government in unknown territory

Inside Politics: How can Taoiseach answer questions that Theresa May cannot?

Brexit is the great unknown - and after Theresa May's speech yesterday, we are still mostly none the wiser.

The British prime minister’s speech on Britain’s exit from the EU was hailed as the first real insight into her thinking on the scale of the challenge and how she intends to deal with it.

But there was little in Ms May’s address that we did not know yesterday morning. The great unknowns remain unknown.

For Ireland, that is particularly difficult. As the Taoiseach noted in the Dáil yesterday, we stand to lose more from Brexit - especially a hard Brexit - than any other European country.

There is significant pressure for the Irish Government to outline its position on the common travel area and the implication of a hard Border.

But how can the Taoiseach or his officials answer the questions that Theresa May cannot?

Enda Kenny’s spokesman yesterday noted the 45-minute speech did at least offer some clarity “as to the what, although not the how” of what Theresa May will ask other European leaders to agree.

But the reality is the Government here cannot adequately prepare for Brexit when it still - incredibly - has no idea what it actually means.

Theresa May might be keen to retain an open Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but it also wants to stop free immigration by European citizens - and to pull out of the customs union that allows products to move freely between European countries.

Ireland should not be fooled into thinking our concerns will have any major bearing on the British government’s thinking, or the plans they will eventually pursue.

We also cannot be naive enough to believe the woes of Northern Ireland keep Theresa May awake at night.

Britain will selfishly guard its own interests and we would be delusional to think that our relationship with the British government - “special” as the Prime Minister might describe it - will impact Ms May’s plans.

Ireland’s participation in the EU has largely been defined and assisted by our closest allies. But it would an error of judgement to focus our attentions on the maintenance of that relationship.

Instead the Government must move to forging bonds within the European Union to ensure our interests are selfishly protected.

An unpredictable outlook

2016 was an unforgettable year in politics across the world. 2017 is unpredictable, to say the least.

This time last year Trump never stood a chance. Brexit could never happen.

But the impossible became reality, and for the large part, 2017 will be spent dealing with the consequences of 2016.

And a focused, combative response will be required from politicians here.

Domestically, the widely-predicted second election appears unlikely, as the Government has finally managed to settle in. Granted, it is a rather unproductive Government, but that suits them just fine.

The independent TDs in Government have found their feet. Shane Ross and his Independent Alliance colleagues seem quite comfortable with power. In fact, some have become so comfortable so quickly, that their political instincts will warn them not to go back to the electorate too soon.

Fianna Fail is still constrained by the political straightjacket it finds itself in. Micheál Martin is wise enough not to pull the plug on the minority Government with Brexit looming large.

His party also remains quietly confident that it will be back in power after the next election.

Therefore, an election feels far away. But events are a different matter. Nobody can predict what 2017 will bring.

We know it will bring a Commission of Investigation into the sale of Project Eagle by the National Assets Management Agency, a report into the handling of Garda whistleblowers concerns by the Garda Commissioner Noirín O'Sullivan, a final decision on water charges, a likely move towards a referendum on abortion, and public sector pay talks.

It is unlikely any of the above will trip us into an election. It will be the unknown that will have us back on the doorsteps.

In the meantime the Government and Enda Kenny in particular will use the events of 2016 as a shield to cling onto power.