03 February 2017

Speaking at the Labour Party’s Spring Economic Seminar in the Mansion House, spokesperson on Finance, Joan Burton TD has said that there is a need for a special status for Ireland in Brexit negotiations, with a separate component or strand within the talks that deals only with the Ireland-UK matters.

In her speech, Deputy Burton said:

“There are huge economic reasons why Ireland has to have a special place at the Brexit table. There are also political considerations that arise from the Good Friday Agreement. This necessitates an all Ireland/all Island approach.

The Taoiseach is sleep walking Ireland into a position where we will be in a side room when UK-EU talks get going, just one small country among 27. One EU negotiator, former commissioner Mr Barnier from France will carry out the negotiations behalf of all member states.

The final agreement will be between the UK and the remaining EU states, including Ireland. Ireland will be small fry easily dominated by the Franco-German alliance and other alliances among the 26 states.

I’ve no doubt that the 26 remaining countries recognize Ireland’s particular difficulties and interests but that is no guarantee that the ultimate agreement will protect our position. It simply has to be understood that a country adjacent to the one that wishes to leave the EU is in a special position and ought to have a particular place at the talks.

It doesn’t help that we have a Government of National Confusion in charge with little or no authority in the Dail and subject to endless disagreements inside the Cabinet.

It is the UK’s declared intention to exit the single market and that alone will produce great difficulties for trade between Ireland and the UK. And then there is the enormous problem of a physical border reappearing on this island, should Britain leave the customs union, as now appears likely.

The facts of life are that there is a vibrant all Ireland trade with some products produced in the North and processed in the South and vice versa. Failure to accommodate this could have the most serious repercussions for business’ North and South.

Brexit is casting a long shadow over all serious debate in Leinster House and among people everywhere in Ireland, North and South. Brexit is one of the most serious challenges to face Ireland ever. In historical terms we have begun to emerge from a deep and difficult economic recession and have begun to achieve a level of economic equilibrium and progress again.

A Hard Brexit / bad Brexit could put all of the sacrifices and hard won gains of our people in severe jeopardy.

There is an old diplomatic saying that countries don’t have friends, they have interests. That is very evident at this moment. I believe the Taoiseach has to look for a way that places the specific interests of Ireland at the centre of the talks between the UK and the EU.

That can be done in a number of ways such as the creation of a separate component or strand within the talks that deals only with the Ireland-UK matters, “THE IRELAND-UK STRAND”. Then of course, Mr Barnier will have a central role in such a framework but so will representatives from the UK and from Ireland, North and South.

We also need to beef up our own resources to deal with the challenges. We have very good, very fine diplomats but we also have to expand our expertise both legal and commercial in trade, customs and the movement of people.

Ireland has risen to major challenges before, holding successful EU presidencies and the negotiations for the Belfast agreement and the Peace Process.

I have closely questioned the Taoiseach in the Dail on Brexit on many occasions. I know his intentions are well meant but at times he seems adrift and insufficiently prepared.

Pats on the head by Angela Merkel may be nice for the Taoiseach but they do nothing to secure Ireland’s vital strategic interests. We need to guard against a false sense of security on the assumption that the bigger countries, whether Britain or other larger EU members states will look after our interests. We must fight our corner.

All of the evidence points to a hard Brexit, a difficult Brexit. In Dublin this week, the Taoiseach and UK Prime Minister Theresa May canvassed what I call the “lycra option” – “a friction free and seamless” Brexit. We must ensure that this “Lycra option” does not turn out to be a scratchy straight jacket to squeeze and strangle our hard won economic progress.

It’s not good enough to have Ireland’s vital and unique interests merged in with general European concerns after the UK triggers Article 50 in March.

A line has been crossed now that the British Prime Minister has opted for a hard Brexit strategy. The people get it. The Taoiseach needs to get it too. He needs to act for Ireland and to speak clearly for Ireland.

It’s time to get real, Enda.

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