Thursday 19 September 2019

'We’re in for a very difficult time' - Helen McEntee says Boris Johnson should see our Border for himself


Challenging: Helen McEntee, left, stands on the Republic side of the Border with her French counterpart Améile de Montchalin in the North. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Challenging: Helen McEntee, left, stands on the Republic side of the Border with her French counterpart Améile de Montchalin in the North. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Boris Johnson should visit the Border in Ireland "as soon as possible" so he understands the "complex situation" on the ground.

That's the view of Europe Minister Helen McEntee, who is no stranger to showing foreign dignitaries around the seamless frontier with Northern Ireland.

Mr Johnson, meanwhile, hasn't always shown a great understanding of how the post-Good Friday Agreement Border in Ireland works.

He famously compared it to the congestion charge zone in London.

Separately, he was caught on tape dismissing the Irish question around Brexit, claiming: "It's so small and there are so few firms that actually use that Border regularly. It's just beyond belief that we're allowing the tail to wag the dog."

Ms McEntee doesn't think it would be helpful to respond to that particular outburst, but she does say it's "not in dispute" that there's significant cross-Border trade.

And she believes Mr Johnson would benefit from a visit to the Border - and an expected meeting in Ireland with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar could provide an early opportunity.

"I would hope at this stage that he has been to the Border, whether it's been in the last six months or six years," Ms McEntee says.

Boris Johnson. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Boris Johnson. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

She says her European colleagues have taken the time to see the "very complex situation" for themselves.

"You can almost physically see a penny drop as to just how challenging this is," she says of the visits, such as the one by her French counterpart, Amélie de Montchalin, recently.

On Mr Johnson, she says: "If he hasn't already been...then absolutely it would be important for him to do so in terms of a visit with the Taoiseach. It would be good for that to happen as soon as possible."

There has been dismay on this side of the Irish Sea at the hardline approach to Brexit taken by Mr Johnson since he was appointed prime minister, as he has threatened to pull the UK out of the EU on October 31 with or without a deal.

Ms McEntee concedes that if Mr Johnson follows through on his rhetoric, "we're in for a very difficult time".

Mr Johnson still harbours hopes of renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement struck by his predecessor Theresa May - specifically scrapping the backstop aimed at avoiding a hard Border in Ireland.

Ms McEntee said that Mr Johnson and his Cabinet "know full well" that the EU won't change its position on the backstop. She adds: "I'm not sure why this approach has been taken unless they think that Ireland and the EU is going to cave. But that certainly is not going to be the case."

She says both Mr Johnson and many of his ministers actually voted for the Withdrawal Agreement on at least one of the three occasions it was rejected in the House of Commons.

Ms McEntee said: "The ball is back in the court of the UK. They are the only ones that can prevent a no deal from happening.

"The only way to leave in an orderly fashion is to ratify the deal that he and many others in his Cabinet have already approved and signed off on.

"That's what will be said to him be it by the [European] Commission, the Council or by the Taoiseach," she added.

Ms McEntee is "absolutely" confident that incoming Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will continue the EU's solidarity with Ireland when she takes office on November 1.

On the subject of Ms Von der Leyen, was her request for male and female candidates for her Commission team from each member state not a missed opportunity for the Taoiseach to show his gender equality credentials?

The Government's only nominee is outgoing Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan.

Ms McEntee insists Mr Varadkar was right to stick with Mr Hogan, arguing that adding another name could have undermined his nomination. She said other countries are nominating women, adding: "I think that we probably will see a 50:50 split."

A gender-balanced Cabinet is something Ms McEntee wants to see in Ireland in the future. But she said the lack of maternity leave for TDs is a deterrent to women putting themselves forward for election.

Earlier this month it was revealed that Labour Party rising star Deirdre Kingston - who is expecting her second child - quit her bid for the Dáil due to the lack of maternity leave.

A private members' bill to allow female TDs to take maternity leave was introduced by Fianna Fáil's Niamh Smyth last year, but it has yet to become law.

Ms McEntee said the Government isn't rejecting the bill, but may make amendments.

She said TDs of both genders who have young children find it difficult to juggle long Leinster House hours with family life. But she agrees there should be maternity leave, saying: "If we can give that six months or five months... I think that would encourage more people to get involved in politics."

Irish Independent

Also in Business