Saturday 14 December 2019

Tea, sympathy and keeping calm are no good, we need a strong government

Taoiseach Enda Kenny addresses the media at Leinster House yesterday. Photo: Tom Burke
Taoiseach Enda Kenny addresses the media at Leinster House yesterday. Photo: Tom Burke
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

The only thing stopping Enda Kenny from physically offering his British counterpart tea and sympathy was the Irish Sea. The Taoiseach was "very sorry" for David Cameron's troubles but wanted the rest of us to remain calm despite the chaos swirling all around.

The now lame-duck Cameron and the limp Kenny had a "warm" 12-minute telephone conversation, where they discussed the closeness of the vote.

To be fair, very few envisaged this scenario and it appears that even fewer were actually prepared for it in the early hours of yesterday.

As a result, Mr Cameron quit immediately. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn faces a motion of no confidence.

And back in Dublin, Mr Kenny was facing the biggest political challenge of any Taoiseach since the Troubles while heading the weakest Government in Irish history.

Read more: Keeping Ireland's borders with Britain open a key priority, says Taoiseach

"I want to assure the Irish public that we have prepared to the greatest extent possible for this eventuality," said the Taoiseach.

But there was nothing reassuring in his contingency plan, which is basically to review, assess and analyse the situation.

The 'Plan B' suggests ideas like chasing new business in northern Europe, the US, China and India to offset any impact on exports.

It concedes that the Summer Economic Statement, which was agreed by the Cabinet just last Tuesday, is no longer worth the paper it is written on.

Why, having already moved its publication from spring to summer on the back of the delay in forming a new government, Finance Minister Michael Noonan couldn't hold off for another few days is hard to fathom.

And our embassies and consulates in North America are being "tasked with extensive communications and outreach" to remind everyone that the Republic of Ireland is not actually in the United Kingdom and continues to be a member of the European Union.

Not exactly the type of reassurance that would let you 'keep calm and carry on'.

People might have hoped for something a bit more tangible as the stock markets and sterling crashed.

At a brief press conference, the Taoiseach stressed that after more than 40 years of EU membership we have "built up strong bonds of partnership with all the other member states".

He will meet them at a European Council summit in the coming days and, not for the first time, Ireland will argue that we are a 'special case'.

We have caused Europe more than a few headaches with our demands, after rejecting the Nice and Lisbon treaties, but the EU proved itself flexible enough to keep us on side.

Now, as the UK, Ireland and the 26 other members begin to negotiate a Brexit, Mr Kenny must ensure that we are boxing above our weight again.

Read more: 'Explosive shock' as Ireland turns to 'Plan B' after Britain votes to leave EU

Our relationship with the UK emerged from war and bloodshed, we share the only land border with the UK and trade €1bn worth of goods every week.

The UK is also our closest ally, meaning that more than any other member we need to help stop Germany and France trying to exact retribution for this chaotic situation as the UK leaves.

"I will clearly set out our national position at that meeting and I will ensure that our particular national interests are fully respected as we prepare to enter the next phase of negotiations," Mr Kenny said. He then attempted to subtly flex a little muscle by saying the proper negotiations "may not commence for some months yet", adding: "We must take this breathing space... and use it wisely."

They might seem like the usual banal comments that politicians use to talk down the clock when they don't know what to say.

But it's hard to think that Mr Kenny's scripted statement wasn't a direct response to European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker, who, among others, called for the UK "to give effect to this decision of the British people as soon as possible, however painful that process may be. Any delay would unnecessarily prolong uncertainty."

Read more: Taoiseach has 12-minute phonecall with outgoing British Prime Minister David Cameron

Mr Cameron doesn't want anything to happen before a new prime minister is appointed, which could be as late as October.

But the other great unspoken is that as the leader of a shaky minority government living in the fantasy land of 'new politics', Mr Kenny can't negotiate a whole lot in Europe without first negotiating on home turf with Fianna Fáil.

Its leader, Micheál Martin, said Fianna Fáil will "do everything we possible can to support the national interests and to support the best interest of the Irish people".

Asked if he will give Mr Kenny free reign to engage in the process as he sees fit, Mr Martin replied: "I don't look at this in terms of party political interests or political point-scoring. I think it's important that everybody puts their shoulder to the national wheel now."

But this is a Government that can't even win votes in the Dáil. We have until October to strengthen our negotiation team - and the only way to do that would be by a general election.

Read more: It's 2021: Post Brexit Ireland looks like a very different place

Irish Independent

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