Lone-warrior Taoiseach will seek a 'soft landing' for UK
Published 29/06/2016 | 02:30
Two weeks ago in Belfast, Taoiseach Enda Kenny painted a picture of a lone warrior fighting for the future of these islands.
This trooper would be taking on geographical giants who surround themselves with tanks of bureaucracy.
He would be David taking on Goliath all on his own.
The warrior of whom he spoke was himself, Enda Kenny. The Taoiseach said a Leave vote would mean he would be the "only political representative from these islands at the European Council table".
"There will be nobody there - no voice at the most powerful table on our continent - to represent or speak for Britain, for Scotland, for Wales ... or for Northern Ireland," he said. "In a complex, modern world, we must always be at the table."
And so last night Mr Kenny entered the ring to begin what will be arguably the most significant battle of his political career.
The stakes are huge, the cards are stacked against him and the issues are vast.
It's clear that many in Europe want to punish Britain for walking out on a 43-year relationship at the whim of a Prime Minister who offered a referendum in attempt to overcome the rise of populism.
And while that might sound spiteful, there is a logic that says the UK needs to get a raw deal in order to prevent contagion.
Factions in France, the Netherlands and Denmark are all questioning whether they should follow Britain out the door, which would destabilise the whole union beyond the point of repair.
Europe needs to send out a message that countries are better inside than out and this makes the upcoming negotiations extra difficult for Ireland.
Our Government subscribes wholeheartedly to the European project and therefore needs it to be protected. But Britain is our biggest trading partner, we are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement and Irish citizens enjoy special status there.
All of which suggests that if Europe 'wins' in the negotiations, then we will lose out economically - but if Britain 'wins', the long-term implication is that the credibility of the EU is on the line.
Nigel Farage's loutish speech in the European Parliament yesterday did have some truth to it.
"If you were to cut off your noses to spite your faces and to reject any idea of a sensible trade deal, the consequences would be far worse for you than it would be for us," he said. So Enda Kenny's real aim is to get the least worst deal for Ireland.
Out of chaos he must build consensus.
The Government strategy is to act as a calm voice amid the whirlwind of machismo and promote the idea of a 'soft landing' for Britain.
"We're not siding with anyone. We'll protect our interest," said a source last night.
Asked whether the Taoiseach would 'bat for Britain', a spokesman said: "We only speak on our own behalf."
But he added that, where our interests "overlap", we'll take advantage of that.
The Irish Government doesn't buy the suggestions that nothing will happen until the next British Prime Minister invokes Article 50, which is the point of no return for Britain
Sources say informal negotiations will have to start on the terms of the Brexit over the summer if the two-year deadline for the UK's departure is to be met.
At the very least Ireland must use the next few days and weeks to reach out to countries that can be considered somewhat like-minded.
One minister listed the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Luxembourg and Denmark as countries that we should align ourselves with.
Mr Kenny will also look to exploit Fine Gael's membership of the European People's Party political group, which offers him the opportunity to network with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the heads of Romania, Hungary, Cyprus and Bulgaria.
"We need to work with our natural allies, but we need to work with Britain as well even if others are putting a gun to their heads," a minister said.
"Everybody needs a good deal here. We can all lose just as easily as we can all win."
But a lot depends on Britain's attitude too.
Clearly Nigel Farage and Co want free trade to continue, but will they agree to abide by EU regulations on the transfer of goods and services in a similar fashion to member states?
Mr Kenny can't allow a situation where Britain stays in the single market but can strip out some of the cumbersome EU rules such as the Working Time Directive, which gives employees minimum holiday and break entitlements.
Ireland may yet find itself seeking opt-outs on EU rules in areas such as energy and agriculture in order to maintain competitiveness against the UK.
"Whatever happens in these talks, Ireland cannot find itself disadvantaged. That simply can't be an outcome," a source said.
So, in the simplest terms, Enda Kenny must secure a deal that keeps Britain as close to the EU as possible while ensuring that the deal isn't so good that the UK gets to move on unscathed.
And at the same time he has to allow the big boys of Europe make an example of Britain while seeking to stop them getting too bruised.
The task ahead of the Taoiseach is absolutely enormous. He is only one person at the "most powerful table on our continent" - but he is carrying the weight of a nation.
What we want out of Brexit deal
Prevent hard borders being reintroduced
The Irish government and the Northern Ireland Executive agree that the return of border posts would have a negative impact on the economy, could stoke tensions and damage the peace process, and would be a massive drain on Garda and PSNI resources.
Protect €1bn of weekly trade across the Irish Sea
Any deal done on trade will have to be agreed at an EU level, meaning Ireland will be very much siding with Britain on this issue.
Some countries may seek to lock the UK out of the free market but Ireland would like it to get a tariff-free deal that continues the free movement of goods and services.
Preservation of the Common Travel Area
People travelling from Ireland to the UK are subject to minimal checks but questions have been raised about how this arrangement will exist post- Brexit given focus on immigration in the referendum debates.
Work rights for Irish citizens in the UK
Under EU rules, Irish people can easily live and work in Britain but this is now under threat. Ireland wants a special deal on this issue given our shared history.
Recognition of Ireland’s relationship with Britain
We are neighbours who after years of conflict recently became good friends.
Neither London nor Dublin wants the referendum fallout to set back relations.
The key argument here will be that both governments are custodians of the Good Friday Agreement and must therefore work closely together, despite Britain’s absence from the EU.
Keep Europe as united as possible
There is a political consensus among the main parties that Ireland should remain in the EU. The Taoiseach has said this is “profoundly in our national interest”. But that value will diminish if other countries follow Britain out.