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Sunday 19 November 2017

'We need to beef up our Brexit team' - Bertie Ahern

Bertie Ahern. Photo: Frank McGrath
Bertie Ahern. Photo: Frank McGrath
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has called on the Government to "beef up" its Brexit team by appointing a special envoy to Europe.

The former Fianna Fáil leader believes a senior business person or ex-prime minister with expertise in trade negotiations and a high profile in the EU would be an ideal candidate.

Speaking exclusively to the Farming Independent, Mr Ahern stressed that appointing a permanent Brexit delegate in Brussels, and a Brexit Minister in Leinster House, will be essential to protect Irish agriculture going forward.

"I agree with the idea of a Brexit Minister at cabinet level, where everything is co-ordinated by one person, but from a negotiating position you can't have that person going back and forward.

"There should be another person specifically appointed to look at trade issues based in Brussels permanently," he said.

Mr Ahern said the role would involve liaising with Michel Barnier, former French foreign minister and the EU's chief negotiator on Brexit, talking to EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and communicating with representatives of the 27 member states.

"Negotiations on Brexit will be a hell of a task and if anyone thinks that it can just be done by individual ministers having a bit of spare time, that won't happen," Ahern insisted.

"It is massively important for us - 17pc of our exports go to the UK but when you look at agribusiness, it's 50pc plus, so how Brexit affects agriculture in the Republic and Northern Ireland is massive," he pointed out.

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"The 17pc in lots of ways cloaks the real problem: the real problem is for farmers, primary producers of our perishable items, the co-ops and the agri-food sector. I just think we really have to work to protect our position and that won't be easy without having someone in Brussels full time," he said.

"It could be a former prime minister, former minister, former commissioner or former attorney general - a big heavy- weight experienced at negotiating. It would be a clear benefit if the individual was well-known and carried respect in Europe."

When asked if he would consider the position himself, he said, "Whoever it is, is a matter of indifference to me. I think we should just do it."

However, he suggested that Catherine Day, former secretary general of the European Commission and honorary president of European Movement Ireland, should be considered for the position.

Eddie Punch, general secretary of the ICSA is also urging the Government to appoint a special envoy in Brussels to ensure that the voice of Irish farmers is central to negotiations.

"We need someone with sufficient political gravitas and with a strong profile in Europe," he said. Today the ICSA, and representatives from 30 other farm organisations from across the EU, will discuss Brexit with UK Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom at the House of Commons in London.


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