Tuesday 21 May 2019

Enda can't just settle for blithe pledges that all will be well after Brexit, he needs to fight our corner

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald Picture: Collins
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald Picture: Collins

Liz O'Donnell

Taoiseach Enda Kenny's feisty declaration that he has no intention of vacating the stage is timely. Persistent rumblings by cheerleaders of those eager to replace him as party leader do nothing to reassure citizens that matters are under control. This unusual minority administration has enough to be getting on with, keeping itself together on a weekly basis, without the distractions of a destabilising leadership heave.

This untrammelled pursuit of leadership is a male preoccupation. Currently, the frontrunners are viewed as Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, both high-profile and competent males. There is scant mention of Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, who by any measure is every bit as qualified to be leader should a vacancy arise.

The Taoiseach links his intentions to remain on with the challenges of Brexit for Ireland. These are growing ever gloomier as time passes and the dysfunction of British politics is exposed. When this period of British history is written, it will not be glorious. The folly of David Cameron initially being bounced into the Brexit referendum by the forces of ultra-nationalism within and outside his own Conservative party; the insanity of allowing some cabinet ministers to campaign against the government position to remain in the EU and ultimately the shocking loss of the referendum on the day is probably the biggest calamity in post-war British politics.

The chaotic Tory leadership contest and the sight of both main political parties equally in disarray has been alarming to witness. The Brexit referendum campaign had unleashed terrible and mean-spirited instincts; intolerance of migrants and refugees and a rejection of all the progressive values associated with EU membership.

Undoubtedly Ukip and the right-wing red-top media greatly influenced voter sentiment, piling on pressure on politicians to adopt populist and little Englander positions. In victory, that sentiment has hardened and even coarsened.

After such upheaval, small wonder that dealing with the substantive issue of Brexit has been neglected. Only now is the new prime minister viewing the full panorama of doom which faces her government in giving effect to the Brexit vote. Decoupling the United Kingdom from the institutional and legal frameworks of decades of European membership is a massive administrative task for government.

Theresa May must by now be realising that the simple yes/no question of Brexit or Remain is beset by the multi-layered complexity of a thousand options. Did the British electorate really mean to exit the single market completely when they voted to leave? One might assume so, but many business people are now seeing the dangers which that hard Brexit poses in terms of the probable loss of thousands of manufacturing and financial services jobs, banks hightailing it out of the City of London, relocating to other capitals and a tumbling currency, to cite just a few.

The clamour for a greater role for parliament in all of this is, in my view, essential. The prime minister would be wise to concede this demand. After all, she has shown convincing Brexit credentials so far. But it is certainly arguable that the manner, extent and detail of Brexit would benefit by having a comprehensive parliamentary scrutiny of the various pieces of legislation to ultimately give effect to it. Regrettably, the performance of some of her ministers charged with Brexit to date has been woeful and at times "shambolic", as Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin remarked last weekend. To date, there has been little serious regard by UK ministers to the fallout for Ireland - north and south - apart from blithe assurances that all will be well.

Our own Government needs to be more assertive in this regard rather than passively accepting blather about Ireland's "unique situation". The first prime ministerial meeting with the political leadership of the three devolved administrations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales this week looked like a choreographed set-piece. It was only the start of a whole pile of trouble for the UK prime minister.

Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster managed to present a superficially united front on the Border issue, but on wider economic issues they need to find common cause with the Irish Government in order to engage with Brexit minister David Davis. In fact, being offered a direct line to a Brexit minister seems underwhelming compared to the structures set up by the Good Friday Agreement, which carry more clout deriving from an international agreement.

The Border with Northern Ireland is only one issue of many. On Irish trade and agriculture, EU Commissioner Phil Hogan was forthright on the current state of affairs. Reiterating the severity of the UK's decision to leave the EU on Irish agriculture, he noted "53pc of Irish beef, 57pc of cheese and 78pc of live animals are exported to the UK… these three sectors account for almost half of Irish agri-food exports to the UK, the full value of which is €5bn annually. Half of agri-food imports into Ireland worth €4.3bn come from the UK and 52pc of agri-food exports from Northern Ireland come to Ireland".

His conclusion was that we were in "no man's land" despite all the analysis and big talk since the vote.

The Taoiseach is right. With so much uncertainly and upheaval in Irish-Anglo and EU relations, imminent public service unrest, and regular skirmishes in the Dáil intended to destabilise the already feeble Government, a "steady hand on the tiller" is needed. But he needs to up his Government's game on Brexit and be more ambitious for Ireland. No country is in greater peril.

Despite claims of Brexit-proofing the Budget, this amounted to no more than a rainy day fund based on aspirational growth rates which may not be realised.

Stock Exchange chief Deirdre Somers is critical of Government strategy thus far. She wants to see a "cohesive business strategy to win business" and fears that "we risk being beaten by European rivals to financial market opportunities arising from Brexit" because of political sensitivities.

The Taoiseach has experience and enjoys good standing in Europe; he also needs to demonstrate a greater sense of urgency and strategic self-interest in Ireland's official response as we navigate the economic mayhem presented by Brexit.

Irish Independent

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