Opposition parties urged the protectionist move last night amid fears thousands of jobs are at stake after British prime minister Theresa May revealed some details of her Brexit plans.
Her admission that Britain will leave the single market, and possibly the EU customs union, has raised the prospect of tariffs being slapped on Irish exports and disruption to Irish trade.
While Ms May said there was no desire to return to the frontiers of the past in the North, TDs in border counties expressed the most concern as the consequences of her speech sunk in.
Ms May said she wanted the common travel area between Ireland and Britain to remain. She also prioritised delivering a “practical solution” to the question of a border with the North.
However, her 12-point plan will see Britain leave the single market, which allows free trade and movement in the EU. Ms May’s confirmation Britain may not remain a full member of the EU customs union after Brexit and instead negotiate its own trade deals with countries also worries businesses.
Danny McCoy, CEO of employers group Ibec, said these changes could seriously disrupt Ireland’s trading relationship with the North and Britain.
“This is an extremely aggressive move by Britain and Irish business will have to reflect on a new reality,” he said.
In the Dáil, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin cited Enterprise Ireland and ESRI research, which warns up to 25,000 jobs could be at risk from a hard Brexit and of a big drop in wages nationally.
Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe also admitted that Brexit was “the defining challenge for Government”.
While Mr Kenny told the Dáil he welcomed some clarity from Ms May, he pointed to Ireland’s difficult campaign ahead in Europe to get special concessions over Brexit.
Small firms called for special financial assistance for businesses and for Brussels to agree to exemptions here.
“The uniquely negative implications for Ireland must be heard at EU level,” said Small Firms Association director Patricia Callan.
Border county TDs let their “deep concerns” be known, especially given Ms May did not signal the North would be a special case.
Former minister and Louth TD Fergus O’Dowd said he was “very worried” for the future of the region, as exiting the customs union would establish a new trading border on the island of Ireland.
“We should have a one-island economy, but this profound decision means we have new economic partition here, which could not have come at a worse time, given the instability in the North,” he told the Irish Examiner.
The matter is set to dominate tonight’s Fine Gael party meeting, where border TDs will want assurances from Mr Kenny that everything is being done to neutralise the impact of Brexit.
However, opposition demands for a Brexit minister were shot down by the government, with Mr Kenny’s spokesman insisting the taoiseach would negotiate.
Mr Kenny will travel to the World Economic Forum in Davos today, where he is expected to press EU representatives for Ireland to get a deal from Brussels once Brexit negotiations begin.
Mr Kenny has also asked Downing Street if Ms May would speak to the Dáil about Brexit when she visits Dublin this month, following a request by the Greens.
European Council president Donald Tusk warned Ms May’s hard-line Brexit plans were “surreal” and a “sad process” that must not break up the “united” EU.