Noel Whelan: Politicians have to up their game over Europe

Real engagement vital North and South at each and every stage of Brexit process


One week on Ireland is still struggling to come to terms with the outcome of the British referendum. The shock in Ireland is at the fact that British electorate could actually do this to themselves and to us.

In committing this wretched act of self-harm they have also inflicted serious damage on those of us closest to them.

The Irish national sense of bewilderment at what the British have done is compounded by the extraordinary political aftershocks in Britain.

The political and policy chaos has been such that it is literately impossible to determine (or rule out) what is going to happen next.

The Conservatives and the Labour Party are having simultaneous breakdowns. It is not at all clear when, by whom, how or even if , the British application to trigger the start of exit negotiations will be made.The disintegration of the UK is a real possibility.

The post-Brexit tumult could trigger a dramatic shift in Irish public sentiment towards the European Union.

In the Nice One and Lisbon One referendums the Irish, with a low turnout, voted initially to rejected treaties designed to allow for greater European integration. Notwithstanding those votes there has always been overwhelming public support in Ireland for our membership of the European Union.

Different place

We are in a different place now. We have, through no fault of our own, been put in a position where we will be forced to make unpalatable choices between our relationship with our next-door neighbour and our relationship with the rest of the street.

Our anger is initially focused at Britain for causing this breach, but Irish sympathies and Irish interests may shift.

Ensuring that this does not happen will require a paradigm shift in how both the Brussels institutions and the Irish Government deal with the Irish public on European issues. It is as much about how the Brexit negotiations are conducted over the next few years as it is about the ultimate outcomes.

This is the most important time in this country’s relationship with Europe since we joined. It is vital that the negotiations be open and transparent.

If the European Union forces Britain to pay a punitive price for exiting it could also end up collaterally imposing an unfair burden on Ireland. The issues at stake for Ireland around Brexit are complex and some of them are very sensitive.

They involve not only dry economic concerns like the way in which we will trade with Britain.They also touch on the rights of our children and other compatriots to live, work or study in the UK.

They also touch on the nature of borders and boundaries on this Island.

The European Union’s response to the Scottish request to be allowed to remain if England and Wales exit will also impact on Irish public opinion towards Europe.

The Government will need to avoid the usual tendency to shape our negotiation position in Civil Service-dominated conclaves, conduct the negotiations through the European commission in private and then presented the Irish and European parliaments and public with final drafts.

Getting this right requires more than just bulking up our diplomatic staff in London, Brussels and in European policy sections in Dublin. The approach needs to be broader and more inclusive.

There has to be a genuine effort to draw on the widest possible range of expertise.

It should seek to involve specialists on all the relevant areas where relationships will be affected, and to draw on Irish people who work or have worked in or around the European institutions.

It should reach out to those in the private sector and civil society who have particular understanding of our economic, legal and political relationship with Britain and with Europe.

The Government has wisely worked with Opposition leaders to ensure that the various European political groups appreciate particular Irish concerns.

Our MEPs should be integrated into shaping every aspect of Ireland’s response to Brexit.

Real engagement

Getting this right will require an upgrade in the capacity of our TDs and Senators to deal with European issues. It will require more than just occasional meetings of a poorly-resourced Oireachtas European Affairs Sub-committee.

Above all else, it will require real engagement with the public, North and South, at every stage of the Brexit process.

The Government should as a first step re-establish the Forum On Europe which existed between 2001 and 2009. This forum could supplement (not supplant) the role of the Oireachtas in shaping and raising media and public consciousness about the Brexit process. It could do much to excavate publicly the complexities, which surround Brexit for Ireland and Europe.

It may sound alarmist to some Europhiles but if Europe does not deal with the loss of Britain carefully and transparently it risks the loss of Ireland as well.

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