Sunday 15 December 2019

Ireland 'will have a Plan B' if UK opts for Brexit

Foreign Affairs Minister says he believes minority Government can last three years plus, writes John Downing

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan in his office at Iveagh House, Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan in his office at Iveagh House, Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
John Downing

John Downing

Charlie Flanagan will not be in Stade de France tonight to cheer Ireland against Sweden. Instead, he's bound for the Middle East lending Irish support to yet another effort to revive peace talks.

But if things go to plan he just might join Irish peacekeepers on the Golan Heights to see the big game.

The Euro 2016 championship has occupied much of his time in recent weeks. But he says it is secondary to the big item on his desk: the British "remain or leave" referendum vote on EU membership in precisely 10 days from today.

Last week, he was in Manchester and Liverpool meeting Irish business and community leaders and later this week he is due in London. But is there any point to all this?

"I don't want to over-egg the Irish involvement here. Irish voters comprise something less than 10pc of the total vote. But the opinion polls are narrowing. It could be on a knife-edge," he says.

"This referendum will be won or lost in the regions of England, especially the North of England, where there's a recognised Irish presence," the Foreign Affairs Minister adds.

Again, he stresses the "measured tone" of Ireland's campaign involvement.

"We are a friendly neighbour with a friendly, neighbourly message about EU membership benefiting people on both islands. It is being well-received for the most part."

He goes back over what he describes as the "compelling economic arguments" with €1.2bn in two-way trade each week between Britain and Ireland. Both nations joined 43 years ago and were allied on many EU issues.

But he dwells longer on the EU's importance to Northern Ireland, with huge support for the region and a big, underestimated impact on building the peace there.

"Issues which could not be resolved in Belfast, Dublin or London, were often times discussed at EU level, bringing an international dimension to the peace process which remains important."

Will the Border, which he describes as "invisible" suddenly become visible if the British opt to leave the EU? Come to that, does Ireland have a "Plan B" to deal with the fallout of a British voters' "Leave Vote" on June 23?

On the Border, he frankly says: "No one can tell. It would be an EU border in that eventuality. It would have to be negotiated."

"Plan B" is in similar unchartered territory. He stresses the hope that the "Vote Remain" side can win provided they continue to campaign with conviction. But the Irish Government is preparing its strategy.

"We won't just suddenly wake up on June 24, with votes all counted, and find Britain has left the EU. There is a special unit in the Department of the Taoiseach coordinating a whole-of-government approach. It involves agriculture, trade, ourselves and virtually all the departments will be impacted. Negotiations will take two years or more and we will defend Ireland's special interests," he said.

The European football championships in France are very special this time he argues. "It is the first time a team from the North as well as the Republic has been involved. In all we have 100,000 fans from both sides of the island travelling."

He goes over the advice to the fans, which he has large chunks of off by heart. "The main point is to exercise caution, carry ID at all times and be prepared for queues, delays and random searches."

"Cooperate with the French authorities and remember the emergency number is 112. Emergency calls can be dealt with in English if required."

So, what does he make of this "new politics?" Can the minority Coalition last and can it get things done?

He is guardedly positive. "It's no bad thing to redress the imbalance that has been there for many years between the parliament and the executive. It is our first attempt at government by consensus. We need a government-led administration that is Dáil friendly," he says.

He pays generous tribute to new chief whip, Regina Doherty, who will have a pivotal role in keeping things moving. But he does have reservations.

"We have 40pc of the membership of the Dáil who don't want to serve in government and have opted out of power and authority. It has brought the 'politics of protest' into the Dáil chamber in unprecedented numbers."

"I believe it will last three-plus years. It has to last three-plus years if we are to copperfasten the hard-won economic gains." He is encouraged by Fianna Fáil signals that they want to make Government work and believes they will deal with health and housing.

We talk about the Fine Gael party leadership. Sixteen years ago he was cited as a potential leader - but that is long past, he says.

Enda Kenny's conciliatory skills are vital to this new Cabinet as they were to the last. He concedes that the Taoiseach has said he will not lead Fine Gael into the next election.

But Flanagan won't speculate on whether this means dividing the job of Taoiseach and party leader to facilitate campaign preparations. In fact, he won't speculate on the leadership issue, now seen as a contest between ministerial colleagues Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar.

We ask: Are you backing Leo or Simon? "I'm backing Enda. The party leadership issue cannot be allowed to disrupt the Government's work. We won't allow that."

Irish Independent

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