Friday 30 September 2016

Taoiseach must look North if he is to influence UK debate on EU status

Published 10/11/2015 | 02:30

The DUP has maintained its doubts about the European project from the UK’s accession in 1973. But these doubts have been tempered by cash, especially when it comes to farm and regional funding
The DUP has maintained its doubts about the European project from the UK’s accession in 1973. But these doubts have been tempered by cash, especially when it comes to farm and regional funding

The Government took some stick for saying absolutely nothing about Scotland's referendum on independence in September 2014.

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But now the wisdom of that stance becomes clearer as the Taoiseach took the first practical step towards trying to influence Britain's forthcoming "in or out" referendum on European Union membership.

Ireland has three very valid reasons for a strong, but measured and courteous, intervention in the forthcoming debate ahead of a vote we expect sometime in 2017. Firstly, the UK is the biggest export market for Ireland with significant trade also coming in big Irish imports from Britain.

Secondly, the reality of the border with Northern Ireland closely enmeshes both Britain and Ireland's EU status. Thirdly, Irish knock-on implications for changes to Britain's EU status augment Ireland's general right as a member state to speak its mind on this issue.

But the need to always tread carefully with interventions in a neighbour's political business shows how difficult a challenge this one is for the Taoiseach and the Government. We must also face the reality that British voters are unlikely to weigh Irish concerns too heavily in their decision, and that Ireland carries only so much weight at EU level as one of the smaller member states.

All that said, Mr Kenny merits a "so far so good" rating for his first foray into the debate on British soil yesterday. It was good tactics to begin in the business world of the Confederation of British Industry, and the courtesies of tone and tenor were ably maintained in his script.

The Taoiseach also wisely directed his key arguments towards the fate of Northern Ireland in all of this. The political influence of Washington in the North's peace process often overshadows the huge EU contribution to help underpin the fragile peace. This in turn also overlooks the obvious fact that the level of funding - €2.4bn for the seven years 2007-2013 alone - comes because Britain and Ireland are both EU member states.

But the time has come to also see how the North's two big political parties can be influenced to take a stand in favour of EU membership. Sinn Féin has come a long way since sharing Maggie Thatcher's Euro antipathy in the early 1990s, and this issue will be a real test of the party. We will need to see it unequivocally urge a Yes to EU membership in the North.

Similarly, the DUP has maintained its doubts about the European project from the UK's accession in 1973. But these doubts have been tempered by cash, especially when it comes to farm and regional funding.

It is time for Dublin to consider some unlikely allies. For once, the real answer may be North of the border.

Irish Independent

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