Sunday 20 August 2017

Taoiseach says referendum on united Ireland is not 'currently possible'

Enda Kenny speaks at an EU summit in Brussels (AP)
Enda Kenny speaks at an EU summit in Brussels (AP)

Sarah Collins in Brussels

A united Ireland is not on the cards any time soon, the Taoiseach insisted, after the subject came up at an EU summit Saturday.

A statement in the minutes of the EU meeting clarifies that Northern Ireland would be able to rejoin the EU as part of a united Ireland post-Brexit.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the move was “hugely important in order to dispel any doubt or any uncertainty” following the UK’s decision to quit the EU, but added that it did not mean a united Ireland was imminent.

“The only new thing here is Brexit, and it’s important to provide reassurance that it does not undermine any provision of the Good Friday agreement,” he told reporters in Brussels after the summit.

“To be clear: this is not about triggering any mechanism,” Mr Kenny added. “I’ve been very consistent in my view that the conditions for a referendum do not currently exist.”

The EU text points to a clause in the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that allows for a border poll to be called if a majority in Northern Ireland are likely to vote in favour of a united Ireland.

“In this regard, the European Council acknowledges that in accordance with international law, the entire territory of such a united Ireland would thus be part of the European Union,” leaders said in the minutes to their meeting, which will not be approved until June.

However, Greece raised concerns that the declaration - and a clause in the EU’s Brexit guidelines on Gibraltar - could set a precedent for citizenship claims from non-EU citizens.

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras, who recognised that Ireland has a “special status” in its common travel area with the UK, also asked for a clarification in the minutes that the Irish declaration did not “set a precedent for the relations of the EU with third countries”.

His intervention was thought to refer to Turkish citizens living on the divided island of Cyprus, where reunification talks have hit another impasse.

The united Ireland statement is not part of the EU’s official Brexit negotiating stance, which is contained in a nine-page document approved unanimously, without discussion, on Saturday.

In it leaders took what European Council president Donald Tusk described as a “firm and fair" stance, with red lines on citizens’ rights, the UK’s EU budget liabilities and the Irish border.

They say progress on those three issues is essential before talks can begin on a post-Brexit trade deal with the UK, which will be crucial for Ireland.

Those talks are unlikely to get going until next year, as agreement on citizens and the UK’s budget liabilities could prove fractious.

"It won’t all be as calm and as measured as today,” Mr Kenny warned reporters after the meeting.

European Council president Donald Tusk, who chaired the summit, called for a “serious British response” offering "real guarantees for our citizens”, while Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said the UK’s financial settlement with the EU would be “substantial”.

French president François Hollande said there must be “a price and a cost” for the UK leaving the bloc, which, behind closed doors, has been estimated at around 60 billion euros.

“It shouldn’t be punitive, but at the same time it’s clear Europe will defend its interests, and that the UK will have a worse position, tomorrow, outside Europe than it does, today, within Europe,” Mr Hollande said.

British prime minister Theresa May had accused the bloc of “lining up against” the UK ahead of the talks.

“The fact that the EU speaks in one voice is the most natural thing in the world,” said German chancellor Angela Merkel after the meeting. “We are not ganging up on Britain.”

Next week the European Commission will table more detailed negotiating “directives” that will be used during talks with the UK.

Those talks are unlikely to start until at least mid-June, after the UK election is over and a government has been formed.

Online Editors

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