Kenny comment on Border poll aimed at Europe, not North

Pat Leahy analysis: chief tactic to retain open border is stressing importance of peace process

Taoiseach Enda Kenny drinks a glass of water during a news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, last week. Mr Kenny said German chancellor Angela Merkel is ‘clearly aware of our situation’ with regard to the Border with Northern Ireland and the post-Brexit relationship with EU. Photographer: Bloomberg

Taoiseach Enda Kenny drinks a glass of water during a news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, last week. Mr Kenny said German chancellor Angela Merkel is ‘clearly aware of our situation’ with regard to the Border with Northern Ireland and the post-Brexit relationship with EU. Photographer: Bloomberg

 

Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s declaration yesterday about the possibility of a future Border poll was less about sending a message to Northern Ireland than it was about sending a message to Europe in advance of the UK-EU negotiations on Brexit.

As Britain prepares for the complex negotiations with the EU that will be triggered by a formal declaration under article 50 of the European treaties, the Irish Government - like others in Europe - is seeking to maximise promotion of Ireland’s vital interests.

The strategy is to maintain the present open border, the Common Travel Area and as much of Ireland’s trading relationship with the UK as possible, if necessary through special arrangements within the ultimate EU-UK agreement.

The chief tactic to achieve that - which emerged in the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs in the fortnight after the Brexit vote - revolves around stressing the importance of the Northern peace process.

Ireland will insist that any negotiations must take account of the special position of Northern Ireland, its unique relations with both the rest of the UK and with Ireland and the need to protect the gains of the last couple of decades.

The Government believes that stressing the importance of Ireland’s trading links carries much less weight with other EU countries than one that insists upon protecting the peace process.

“Trade is fine but the peace process is unique,” says one person familiar with high level discussions on the subject in Government.

And talking about a border poll immediately focuses attention on the peace process.

It is immediately recognised as a “brand” throughout Europe and EU support for the process - often funding programmes and projects established in tandem with the process - is viewed in Brussels as one of the success of the EU. Irish officials sometimes express surprise as the strength of the sense in EU institutions that they have been a player in the peace process.

But it is real enough, and now the Irish Government will seek to use it to protect the process, but also to protect the Ireland-UK relationship that underpins it.

In time, this may lead the Irish to seek special arrangements in the ultimate EU-UK agreement which covers Brexit and life after it.

So it was with this in mind - rather than actually prompting moves towards a Border poll - that the Taoiseach raised the issue of a future border poll in Donegal yesterday.

The MacGill summer school, held annually in the Donegal village of Glenties, is week of political debates and arts events that usually marks the end of the political season before politicians and the people who work for them take their summer holidays in August.

End of term

There’s often an end of term feel for the politicians who make the journey from Dublin to speak at its debates, a sense that they can speak more freely. But the Taoiseach - although he was departing from a prepared script circulated to journalists beforehand - wasn’t speaking off the top of his head.

Nor was he just responding to the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who had also spoken about the possibility of a Border poll in the future at the summer school the previous evening.

Rather he was pursuing a deliberate strategy of putting the peace process and the North-South relationship at the forefront of the Irish Government’s negotiating concerns as it faces into a period of profound - and possibility lengthy - uncertainty in relations between its two most important external partners, the EU and the UK.

Mr Kenny brought a similar message to Berlin last week when he met the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, according to high level sources who have been briefed on the two leaders’ conversations.

He will make the same point to the French President Francois Hollande when he visits Dublin on Thursday.

Even the clumsy proposal of a North-South Brexit Forum, without consulting a clearly annoyed First Minister Arlene Foster, was part of the same effort: to embed the need to protect the peace process in all Brexit conversations and negotiations.

So what of the substance of the question about a Border poll? The Good Friday Agreement is clear - the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland “shall” call a poll - but only if it appears likely that the North will vote to join the Republic.

The Taoiseach emphasised yesterday - though understandably this got less coverage today - that these conditions did not exist at present. The tone of his remarks afterwards to journalists suggested that he did not see it arising for quite some time.

The new Northern Secretary James Brokenshire also ruled out a referendum when he spoke yesterday.

“There is a clear constitutional settlement in relation to the Border poll and it is also clear to me opinion does not support a change,” Mr Brokenshire said.

Tough negotiations and difficult decisions will have to be reached about Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Republic, Britain and the EU long before there’s a Border poll.

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