Recent weeks have seen the evolution of a subtle shift in Ireland’s posture
A case of “political lovebombing”. The simultaneous visits yesterday of Prince Charles and Michel Barnier, chief EU Brexit negotiator, were in their different ways simply messages of support, assurances that Ireland’s preoccupations are understood. As Prince Charles told President Higgins, a message about sustaining “an enduring and mutually productive relationship between close neighbours”. Hear, hear, Barnier might have said.
“I have no doubt, despite current challenges, that our relationship will continue to endure and prosper,” the prince said, alluding as much to the post-Brexit reality, as to any Northern difficulties.
And Barnier reiterated in the Dáil the message of the last two summits, assiduously cultivated by Dublin: “I want to reassure the Irish people, in this negotiation Ireland’s interest will be the union’s interest ...We are in this negotiation together and a united EU will be here for you”.
Recent weeks have seen the evolution of a subtle shift in Ireland’s posture. From a sympathetic emphasis on getting a deal that the UK could live with that “benefited all”, now the subtext reflected in both Barnier’s speech and the Taoiseach’s response is very much about Ireland as one of the EU 27, negotiating with the UK. There will be many issues where, although Ireland still has a strategic interest in a deal being done with the UK, we will find ourselves on the other side of the table. Not least, one might surmise, on the UK Brexit bill. Who will pay for agricultural support?
The Taoiseach made clear, for example, that while we, like the UK, may have favoured a quick move to parallel talks on the future EU trading relationship with the UK, such talks can only begin after the European Council as a whole decides that “sufficient progress” has been made on the three preliminary “divorce” issues – the rights of citizens, the UK’s Brexit bill and Ireland’s border problem. London will not have been particularly happy with his clarification – the council’s involvement is an additional unwelcome hurdle.
Kenny will have been particularly pleased by Barnier’s supportive allusions to the Belfast Agreement in which, he reminded them, he had played a significant role in assisting with the EU peace package. And by the commissioner’s strong awareness of some of the detailed challenges that Irish-UK trade faces, both in terms of its scale, particularly in agriculture, and problems like the treatment of trans-shipped goods passing through the UK to EU markets.
There was also reassurance in the publication of a new poll yesterday showing again that some 88 per cent of Irish voters want to remain part of the EU, with only 16 per cent supporting an “Irexit”. Although never mentioned, Barnier devoted much of his speech to answering the “Life of Brian” question “What did the Romans/EU ever do for us?” No harm reiterating it.