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EU commitment on Brexit welcome

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EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier Photo: Reuters

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier Photo: Reuters

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier Photo: Reuters

The visit of the chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier was a largely promising affair during which he assured his hosts that the European Union would be there for Ireland during the challenges ahead. His visit and assurances are to be welcomed. Ireland has had a long and generally productive relationship with Europe since accession 45 years ago, when an overwhelming 83pc voted to join the then European Economic Community. Since then, living standards in this country have improved at an exponential rate, ranking Ireland above the OECD average in housing, personal security, health status, education and skills, social connections, subjective well-being, work-life balance, and environmental quality. By and large this country has had hugely positive engagement with Europe and it is positive that Mr Barnier has taken this occasion to reassure that the relationship will be protected during the forthcoming negotiations.

That said, since accession there have been several occasions when Ireland's relationship with Europe has been tested, not least during the recent economic crisis and banking bailout which saw the European institutions, and the International Monetary Fund, drive a hard bargain in return for support in what were unprecedented times. Perhaps more than on any other occasion, these events have placed a strain on relations between Ireland and Europe, to a point now that while the public is still enthusiastic about EU membership, a degree of scepticism has crept into the national discourse and psyche in general. For example, a recent opinion poll in this newspaper found that a significant 71pc felt that Europe had been good for Ireland. However, support for that view was still considerably lower than the level of support for Europe evident when the Treaty of Accession was signed permitting Ireland's membership within the European Communities.

Furthermore, the poll also found that barely half (51pc) believed the EU would respect Ireland's special position with the UK when the Brexit negotiations get under way in Ireland.The poll was conducted before Mr Barnier first said that the EU would pay great attention to Ireland during the first phase of negotiations. The priority given to Ireland's unique position at this early stage is a tribute to the diplomatic actions taken at government level since, and before the UK voted for Brexit. While Mr Barnier must and is taken at his word, it would be foolhardy for the Government to take its eye off the ball which, of course, is not the intention. The outcome of the Brexit negotiations will be the single most important issue on the agenda for this and future governments. The Government, therefore, must hold the European institutions to their positive word as the negotiations progress.

At this remove, it is difficult to see how issues to do with Northern Ireland, or indeed the Common Travel Area as well as inevitable economic adjustments, can be addressed without some form of new EU legal measures. It may be that new legislative acts will be required. Furthermore, the ratification process for whatever agreement emerges is similar to that adopted for accession treaties. While it is difficult to ascertain with certainty the status of the agreement which will emerge, it may be that Ireland will be required to support the agreement by referendum. Therefore, citizens here are well advised to keep a close eye on the negotiations as they proceed.

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