New PM has good relationship with Irish counterparts
Published 12/07/2016 | 02:30
It was at a charity function in the Irish Embassy in London last January that many journalists first learned of Theresa May's off-beat sense of humour.
The then Home Secretary was guest speaker at a function hosted by Ambassador Dan Mulhall to honour the Journalists' Charity, which covers Britain and Ireland. She noted that the charity had a residential facility for journalists who had fallen on hard times.
Ms May said MPs at the House of Commons shared the concept of sheltering distressed colleagues. "But we just call it the House of Lords," she quipped.
Ms May is much more of a known quantity than her would-be rival, Andrea Leadsom, who exited the election for prime minister yesterday. She already has a good personal and working relationship with her Irish opposite number, Frances Fitzgerald, who has met her regularly in recent years both in London and via EU justice ministers' meetings.
"I have enjoyed working with Theresa in recent times and I look forward to her ongoing contacts with the Irish Government. It has all the potential to be a mutually beneficial relationship," Ms Fitzgerald told the Irish Independent.
Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan congratulated the soon-to-be prime minister and wished her well. "Ms May comes to the job at a time of great challenge for Britain, Europe and of course the entire island of Ireland," Mr Flanagan said.
Dublin officials preparing for the upcoming Brexit negotiations are apprehensive on a number of issues. The terms upon which Britain leaves the EU are central to Ireland's fortunes in trade, the border with the North, and the Common Travel Area between the two islands, which has existed since the foundation of the State.
In October 2014, both Ms May and Ms Fitzgerald signed an accord in the Irish Embassy that made it easier for Asian visitors to travel to both jurisdictions.
Ms Fitzgerald said Ms May took a keen interest in matters that Britain had in common with Ireland on justice and security. The new prime minister was seen as just nominally on the 'Remain' side in the June 23 referendum and did little campaigning.
Yesterday she made it clear that the referendum result must be honoured. But she has also suggested that it may be into 2017 before the UK uses its prerogative under Article 50 to trigger the exit talks.
Dublin officials are concerned about statements she has made about the need to repeal the Human Rights Act, which takes the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law. The ECHR operates under the aegis of the larger Council of Europe, which is separate from the European Union.
This rights declaration is also central to the Good Friday Agreement, as it underpins many of the rights guaranteed in the 1998 document. The Irish Government has already strongly opposed this change and officials now hope that more positive signals from Ms May could be nearer the mark.
Both Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the Irish administration enjoyed cordial and good working relations with outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron, who took office in May 2010, just 10 months before Mr Kenny was elected Taoiseach. Mr Cameron had a very arm's-length role in the North's ongoing fragile peace process but his work at crucial times was appreciated by Dublin. Both Mr Cameron and the Taoiseach agreed a tough stance in talks at Stormont in December 2015, which ended with compromises between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin. Officials must now work on building a new set of relationships as the personal element in politics is often quite important to the business outcomes.
Irish officials are pleased the UK leadership vote yielded an early result. But it comes as doubts are emerging about the Taoiseach's future.