Whatever the shape of the next European Parliament and whatever the final outcome of Brexit, it is vital to Irish interests that we maintain and foster good relations with as many of our friends and neighbours as possible, in particular smaller nations that, by virtue of their limited scale, tend to have similar problems to us.
In the past few days, we have been given a unique opportunity to do just that. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already seen the value of direct contact with political leaders here, as she arrived in Dublin in jubilant mood after her Scottish National Party party took three of her nation’s six European Parliament seats.
Talks with the Taoiseach were, inevitably, dominated by Brexit but they also covered health policy, the citizens’ assembly and the economic links between the two countries. Sturgeon is a straight talker and she did plenty of it during her visit here, contrasting the support Ireland receives from our EU partners with the Scottish experience within the UK.
In no small measure what we’ve witnessed in the past three years of Ireland’s experience of being influential and being supported by the European Union, while Scotland has been treated rather contemptuously by Westminster, I think that starts to shape people’s opinion and demonstrates to people the benefits of being, yes, a small country, but an independent country within the European Union
She and her party are determined to make that happen for Scotland by holding another referendum on independence, whether Brexit happens or not. The latest polls suggest that it stands a reasonable chance of being carried, in which case, an independent Scotland will need friends and allies and who better than its Celtic cousin?
Next month, we will be given a further opportunity to engage directly with another EU nation by welcoming the Dutch royal couple who are to visit Ireland from June 12-14. During their stay, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima will divide their time between Dublin and Cork.
The Dutch have made no bones about the fact that the reason for the visit is to forge closer ties with Ireland in advance of Brexit. The king told Irish journalists in the Hague he hoped his visit would deepen ties with Ireland.
He said the UK would continue to be friends, neighbours and close partners with historic ties but that there would be a shift in northwestern Europe after Brexit and that closer relations between countries in the region would be needed. The Netherlands is one of the bigger small nations but the Dutch, too, recognise the value of alliances within the EU. King Willem-Alexander said he hoped Ireland and the Netherlands could act to reduce the shock of Brexit for the rest of the EU.
With a population of more than 17m, the Netherlands is one of the bigger small nations and its global influence is bigger still, honed over the centuries by a mercantile and explorative spirit. That makes close ties with the Dutch not just desirable but essential for Ireland.These are two opportunities that must not be missed.