Ireland must now fight to take a lead role in both the exit negotiations with Britain and the discussions on mapping out a future for the EU after the country leaves.
We have a lot to lose, especially in the areas of trade, movement of people, and of course the Northern Ireland border, so securing a key position in talks is essential.
This will depend on whether Taoiseach Enda Kenny can use his accumulated clout in Europe to hammer out the best way forward for Ireland.
After days of speculation, calls for calm, and vague statements, yesterday’s breakfast meeting of EU leaders was the first concrete sign of things to come in a Europe without Britain.
As EU leaders gathered for an early-morning meeting, one table setting had been removed as David Cameron was not invited. The 27 leaders met without him to discuss the Brexit fallout.
Afterwards, Mr Kenny stressed that he had reminded the leaders of the special relationship between Ireland and Britain.
He said the priority is to protect the “vital” national interest and he would “work very hard to see that they are protected and enhanced”.
Although Ireland is a nation of just over 4.5m in a Europe of 500m, we carry a rather large bargaining chip.
As one senior EU source said: “There is no agreement until everyone agrees and Enda Kenny should remember that.”
Although the Taoiseach is viewed as a leader on his last legs presiding over a weak and unstable minority government, in Europe many see him as someone with huge experience and insight.
Mr Kenny is akin to the nerdy schoolboy who goes to college and suddenly becomes the popular guy.
As Romanian MEP Siegfried Muresan said: “Enda Kenny is the prime minister who took a country from the brink of economic collapse and brought it back to healthy, sustainable growth and job creation.
“Winning the following parliamentary election is a lesson for the rest of Europe on how to reform a country, safeguard its finances and the future of the young generation, and still preserve the support of the people.”
He said Mr Kenny’s voice “now matters” in Europe.
This view was echoed by one senior official in Jean-Claude Juncker’s administration who said: “The Taoiseach is someone who has been around a long time. He is well-known in the EU and well respected.”
The official said Mr Kenny had earned respect for steering the country through the crash and subsequent bailout, and was then re-elected to power. “So when he talks on the issue [Brexit] he may well find that he will be listened to and when he makes any requests they may well be listened to as well.”
How far Mr Kenny went in setting out that stall at the EU leaders’ breakfast yesterday and how effective he will be in campaigning for a specific Irish deal remains unknown. A seat on any European Brexit taskforce or even a senior role to act as a “bridge” between the EU and Britain — which junior minister Dara Murphy suggested this week — is the position Mr Kenny has to get himself into to gain the most for Ireland.
The €1.2bn of goods and services traded between us every week, the 600,000 Irish-born immigrants in the UK, and the 499km border between ourselves and the North must be shop-front items in all negotiations.
Before leaving Brussels Mr Kenny was adamant that members are “well aware both of our relationship with Britain, the common travel area, and the fact that the peace process has been so important for Northern Ireland — for our relations north and south and between Ireland and the UK”.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved