THE Irish government will clearly state that it opposes Britain leaving the European Union, it emerged today.
Following his surprise British election win, Prime Minister David Cameron will forge ahead with plans for a referendum on EU membership inside the next 18 months.
Mr Cameron promised during the election to re-negotiate Britain's membership and reduce the EU's role in national affairs. British citizens will get the right to vote on the outcome of these marathon talks before the end of 2017.
But while Ireland stayed totally silent throughout Scotland's referendum on independence last September, the Irish Government intends speaking up strongly on the planned EU vote across all of the United Kingdom.
"I have been very clear all along that as a friend, neighbour and major trading partner, we in Ireland believe the UK should stay in the European Union. This has been clear in the regular exchanges both I and the Taoiseach have had with our British counterparts," the Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan told the Herald.
"Now that the election is over, our engagement with them will continue."
Irish officials say the UK accounts for €12bn of exports of Irish goods and €17bn worth of services each year. Ireland buys €26bn worth of goods and services from Britain each year.
An EU British exit - so-called "Brexit" - could see a return of the border with Northern Ireland which de facto disappeared after the 1992 EU Single Market. Ireland could also stand to lose an important like-minded ally within the EU and a valuable forum for equal meetings outside of Dublin and London which have helped transform British-Irish relations over the past generation.
Mr Flanagan said Ireland's contact with Britain at EU level had been a big help in brokering cooperation and ultimately building peace in the North. He also said EU regional and farm aid to the North had been very important in economic developments which underpinned the peace process.
The Irish Government has set up a special unit to oversee the British membership unit.
The unit, based at Government Buildings in Dublin, is headed by a newly-appointed assistant secretary and includes experts from the Foreign Affairs Department.
Negotiations in Brussels are expected to begin on the issue from next week. The issue will top the agenda when Taoiseach Enda Kenny travels to an EU leaders' summit in Brussels late next month.
Victory by David Cameron's Conservatives in one of the most unexpected upsets in British political history has been accompanied by an almost unprecedented electoral bloodbath of dozens of high-profile figures.
Within hours of Cameron securing a majority in defiance of all forecasts, the leaders of three of the other major parties all quit after voters decisively rejected their policies at the polls.
Ed Miliband resigned as leader of the main opposition Labour Party, although he remains a member of parliament.
Nick Clegg, one of the few Liberal Democrats to survive in parliament, stepped down as party leader after what he described as catastrophic results.
Nigel Farage of the anti-EU UK Independence Party also stood down as party leader, keeping a promise he made should he fail to win a parliamentary seat. Although UKIP did better than ever before, winning almost 4 million votes, it only captured one seat.