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Ailish O'Hora: DUP could learn a lot from Hogan's Brexit bromance


Phil Hogan with Michel Barnier

Phil Hogan with Michel Barnier

Phil Hogan with Michel Barnier

On Friday February 24, 2017, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, and somewhat unlikely diplomat, Phil Hogan attended a funeral in Orleans, France.

But before the funeral, there was work to be done. Over a traditional French breakfast, at the four-star Empreinte Hotel, Hogan discussed Brexit, and specifically its implications for Ireland, with the European chief negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier. It was here that a timely bromance blossomed between Barnier, the former European Commissioner for regional policy in the early 2000s, and ex Fine Gael Environment Minister Hogan.

It is understood the two men also bonded over shared interests like agriculture and horse racing - Barnier had already gained a unique insight into the nuances of Irish life during his time as regional policy commissioner and he is also from a rural region in the east of France.

With Ireland front and central to the Brexit outcome cultivating as many friends and allies was and remains crucial. At the funeral, the great and the good of the French and European political scene came to pay their respects to Xavier Beulin, a former agribusiness executive and lobbyist who had died unexpectedly at the age of 59.

Not many can match the Irish for appreciating the complex level of communication and human interaction that occurs at a funeral as well as the diverse range of discussion, from politics to sport. So it was here that Hogan managed to meet and, discuss briefly, the issue of Brexit with a number of other senior European politicians including French presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron.

It was a unique opportunity to put the Irish case forward among key stakeholders even if some would consider Hogan an unusual diplomat given some of his comments when he was environment minister, particularly around Irish Water and the threat to cut water supplies to a trickle for those who refused to pay their bills.

But maybe there's something in the water in Brussels.

Earlier that month, Hogan facilitated a meeting between Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan and five other European Commissioners, including the Budget Commissioner, in a bid to deepen their understanding of Brexit issues that are specific to Ireland.

The meeting took place at the Berlaymont building in Brussels, Belgium. And so far, it appears, the firm but softly approach and cultivation of relationships seems to be working for Ireland, although it will take a long time before we see the final outcome. It is becoming clearer also that changing tack following last year's Brexit vote in the UK has worked in Ireland's favour.

Just after the referendum result, from a diplomacy perspective, it looked as if Ireland was hitching its cart to the UK.

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It is understood that at the time directly after the referendum result, the big temptation was to talk exclusively to the UK.

But there seems to have been a realisation around Christmas-time by senior diplomats and politicians that alienating other member states and institutions would be detrimental to the Irish case.

This was a very significant turning point and seems like a sensible one - after all, decisions on our future will be taken in Brussels and not in London.

There are lessons here for our Northern Irish cousins. While Sinn Fein seems to have better grasped the enormity of the potential damage of Brexit to the Northern Irish economy, the Democratic Unionist Party needs a wake-up call, although it seems to have been listening more intently in recent weeks.

Like the Republic, the North is not directly involved in Brexit negotiations so alienating itself would not appear to be a clever tactic.

For example, the shooting down of the proposal by Taoiseach Enda Kenny for an all-island forum by DUP leader Arlene Foster - it was not her finest diplomatic moment.

Instead, sensitive language and relationship building could be very useful background tools in helping get the tone of the actual negotiations to a better place as highlighted by the Irish approach.

Barnier said during the week that he would "pay particular attention to Ireland." And the Taoiseach seems to have hit the jackpot with the so-called "Kenny text" whereby European leaders recently approved the guidelines for negotiations on Brexit, including a commitment to protecting Irish interests as well as a guarantee that the North could rejoin the EU as part of a united Ireland.

While the signals are positive, we, as an island, have to accommodate the best results possible for ourselves post-Brexit. Certainly shooting ourselves in the foot at this juncture wouldn't be wise given the amount of tough groundwork that has been done.

There are also lessons to be learned from the increasingly nasty mud-slinging between UK Prime Minister Theresa May and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Soon after Barnier's comments that particular attention would be paid to Ireland, European sources reminded us that details on Irish negotiations would have to wait until there was a functioning government in Belfast.

And that would appear to be as subtle a warning as possible for the North to get its house in order.

Having said that, it is heartening to hear of a softening of the DUP approach more recently, with representatives visiting Brussels more regularly.

Whether it was a lack of a realisation of the potential impact of Brexit on the North by the DUP or not, with the UK heading out of the single market the customs union should remain a central consideration for everyone both north and south of the Border.

So maybe a focus on the customs union aspect of Brexit might be a way to focus some minds too - it is our one glimmer of hope.

This is because the customs union requires that its members impose no tariffs on goods traded with each other while it also imposes the same duty on goods of non-members.

One solution, if it could be made politically and legally tenable, would be that the island of Ireland would be taken as one entity with Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union and with the border running down the Irish sea.

This may well not be palatable for many of our northern neighbours but showing that they are capable of a mature debate around proposals and that they are willing to intensify dialogue would also be a better approach.

Reminders of the damage Brexit can do to both the Irish and Northern Irish economies are coming at us hard and fast every day now.

One of the most recent warnings came from the Central Bank of Ireland, which has estimated that under a hard Brexit, Ireland could lose 40,000 jobs over 10 years and gross domestic product could take a 3pc hit.

Barnier will be in Ireland next week for a number of engagements and who knows what kind of diplomatic opportunities could arise from that.

DUP cousins take note - who says a leopard cannot change its spots?

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