Thursday 22 February 2018

France's declaration of support is a boost - but tough talks loom

Taoiseach Enda Kenny awaits the arrival of French President Francois Hollande yesterday. Photo: Frank McGrath
Taoiseach Enda Kenny awaits the arrival of French President Francois Hollande yesterday. Photo: Frank McGrath
John Downing

John Downing

It was a very short visit but it may yet prove very valuable to Ireland.

François Hollande was unambiguous in his public recognition of Ireland's special problems after the United Kingdom's voters decided on June 23 to leave the EU. There is a marked contrast between his comments and what German Chancellor Angela Merkel had to say after a meeting with the Taoiseach in Berlin on July 12.

"It's difficult to give guarantees at this point of time," Ms Merkel said when asked to ensure Ireland would not be 'sidelined' in the negotiations. She laid more emphasis on the need for all the remaining 27 EU member states to be treated equally in working out a post-Brexit world.

It was another way of saying all member states have their own worries about this. Irish officials have been busy trying to play down Ms Merkel's lack of public enthusiasm for the Irish case by highlighting her natural caution.

Many of those same Irish officials were yesterday stressing the value of President Hollande's comments. But let that pass for now.

The point is that Ireland is just starting out on a long and arduous route of pushing its case. France's understanding and friendship could prove invaluable.

Ireland, as one of the EU's smaller member states, has long benefited from coat-tailing France on farm policy. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ireland was boosted by France in its successful quest for regional and social fund grants.

True, we must not get carried away here. Critics will recall Enda Kenny emerging from an EU leaders' summit in Brussels back in June 2012 trumpeting how Ireland was "a special case" for retrospective bank debt forgiveness. None of the EU allies, including France, was able to help Mr Kenny advance things beyond that summit declaration which proved ambiguous and not much use.

Let's also note President Hollande's response yesterday when asked about Ireland's 12.5pc rate of company tax. He said this was not in any way linked to Brexit negotiations - he did not say efforts to harmonise EU taxes would go away.

But that of itself was encouraging and Ireland's marathon tax battles are for another day. In fact, Brexit may relegate that issue to the background.

The good nature on display in Dublin Castle where the president addressed 800 French people living in Ireland told a lot about the quality of French-Irish relations.

Mr Hollande spoke for 15 minutes without notes and with a fluency and brilliance which banished cynicism. He noted that the French community of 20,000 people in Ireland was among the world's biggest overseas French groups. France is the fourth biggest investor in Ireland and links between the two nations date back centuries, with Ireland's national flag inspired by the French tricolour.

The importance of Irish people's expressions of solidarity and support for French people, in the wake of all the recent brutal terror attacks, came home to all present. Both France and Ireland support liberty, freedom of thought and the rule of law. Mr Hollande appreciated Ireland's swift and clear statements of support and sympathy.

The biggest doubt on the value of Mr Hollande's declarations of understanding and solidarity for Ireland relate to the future of France's own internal politics. There will be both presidential and parliamentary elections in France next April and May, which could also bring profound change.

As with many other countries, French politics is in ferment. There may well be a dividend for Marine Le Pen's Front National.

It is too early to make even tentative predictions on the future shape of France's government as the key parties have yet to pick their lead contenders. But we can say it will be very difficult for President Hollande to persist, given the unpopular policies he and his colleagues have been obliged to pursue.

Back with Ireland's case, Mr Kenny, his ministers and officials have to continue to lobby and try to influence people in all 27 capitals. They must stick doggedly to Dublin's role as co-guarantor of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

After a difficult month following Brexit, there are signs of better things for Ireland. But the battle has not even begun.

Irish Independent

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