Saturday 17 August 2019

'Warm words' shared as Enda and David ponder a perilous prospect

British Prime Minister David Cameron welcomes Taoiseach Enda Kenny to 10 Downing Street in London yesterday. Photo: PA
British Prime Minister David Cameron welcomes Taoiseach Enda Kenny to 10 Downing Street in London yesterday. Photo: PA

Lise Hand

The Taoiseach and the British prime minister bustled into the White Room in 10 Downing Street for what the media were informed would be 'warm words'.

Now, while in Ireland, 'warm words' could be construed as a bit of a barney involving jackets being held and invitations to step outside being issued and accepted, but in British Political Speak it means that the pair would say some nice things about each other in front of the press, before the formal pow-wow began.

Enda and David were both a bit out of breath, having evidently hustled as speedily as the wheezing press posse up Byzantine flights of narrow stairs within what to be honest is a somewhat bockety house.

In fairness, the two leaders were having a busy day. They had both addressed a big business conference in the morning. The prime minister had been first on stage, followed by the Taoiseach - a sequence which prompted Enda to point out when they spoke in the White Room, "It's not often a British prime minister gives a warm-up for the Irish Taoiseach".

David grinned, he knew his guest was only slagging. For both he and Enda are singing quite harmoniously from the same hymn sheet these days. Except for the fact that the prime minister has less Irish than Queen Elizabeth, the Taoiseach would probably call him Dáithí just for the craic.

For looming large in the minds of both men is the perilous prospect of Brexit, now that Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum before the end of 2017 on whether Britain should stay in the EU game or take their ball home.

It's a tricky proposition for both of them and requires a delicate balancing act. For the Taoiseach has to tread a careful path between backing Cameron's call for wide-ranging EU reform, while also protecting Irish interests, and also between supporting Britain staying in the union while not interfering with a referendum outside his jurisdiction.

But that tricky balance is nothing compared with the high wire upon which the prime minister is now poised. He's about to embark on a mission to wring sufficient concessions on reform from 27 EU heads of government to mollify the increasingly suspicious ranks of Eurosceptics ahead of the referendum. But with polls showing a dramatic falling-off of support for staying in the EU, time is of the essence for Cameron, who seeks to secure concessions before the next leaders' summit in December.

In a sign of how this battle is heating up in Britain, David found himself being heckled by two (very polite) anti-EU protesters as he addressed the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in the morning.

The two chaps stood and chanted "Voice of Brussels CBI" as he put his case to 700 business delegates. But the prime minister wasn't mithered. "Come on, guys, if you sit down now, you can ask me a question rather than make fools of yourselves by just standing up and protesting," he suggested mildly. But the pair just quietly departed.

Onstage, David walked and talked, as he put his case to the crowd - admittedly he was preaching to the mostly converted. He told them that while he wasn't "firing the starting gun" on the campaign for the referendum, which could be held as early as next summer, he wanted to "debunk some of the duff arguments out there".

He said: "Some people seem to say that Britain couldn't survive outside the European Union. I don't think that is true. The things I want fixed are big and important changes - if I can achieve them, you will see me campaigning vigorously to stay in a reformed Europe; if I can't achieve them, I rule nothing out."

Then the Taoiseach picked his way carefully through the diplomatic landmines. "While the choice on whether or not to stay in the European Union is for the British people alone to take, its continued membership is good for Ireland and for relationships on these islands," he told the audience.

"I have also seen how the union could do better. I share the view that we need to look critically at what we do at EU level and how we do it," he said, adding, "Ireland will be open and pragmatic when it comes to sensible proposals to improve the EU. In general, where the UK seeks reasonable and achievable adjustments, we will be sympathetic and supportive".

Later, during their warm words, David told his pal: "I'm grateful for the support you've given today."

He'd do well to keep in with Enda. For when it comes to running - and re-running - referendums he'll never beat the Irish.

Irish Independent

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