There was a lot of fuss around Leinster House this week in anticipation of the arrival of EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, writes Juno McEnroe.
Fresh flowers were out, security was increased and the best ties and dresses were worn. But his visit will probably be not so much about what Irish citizens and parliamentarians learnt from the erudite EU official but more what he took away himself.
Barnier was left in no doubt about Irish needs. Irish negotiators will be hoping that it will be these concerns, doubts and demands that will hang on the Frenchman’s mind when he does battle with Britain on behalf of the 27 member states during the Brexit negotiations in the months ahead.
He was following in the footsteps yesterday of only a few non-Irish parliamentarians who have addressed the Dáil — they include the late South African leader Nelson Mandela, three former US presidents, and former European Parliament president Martin Schulz.
Barnier, a former French cabinet minister, went to great lengths to praise Ireland’s progress, history and position in the EU project: “The European Union has helped Ireland become what it is today. And Ireland has complemented and strengthened our union.”
He said Irish people are “hard working and open minded”. There was a touch of ‘ah, those little pixie heads’, as one comedian has remarked about Europe’s opinion of Ireland at times. Nonetheless, Barnier left an impression that he would do us no wrong.
Indeed, he suggested Ireland could be at the centre of relations for the EU going forward: “I am convinced that Ireland will play a major role in these changes. As a centre for innovation. As a strong and sustainable agri-food producer. As a bridge across the Atlantic. As a supporter of the future relationship that we need to build with the UK.”
We never knew we mattered that much. But this was more than just plaudits. A key win for Ireland in recent weeks was agreement by EU leaders that Ireland’s concerns, namely for the peace process, would be prioritised before future relations between the bloc and Britain are negotiated. Furthermore, the North would automatically join the EU again after Brexit in the event of a vote for reunification. The Good Friday Agreement was untouchable, EU leaders agreed.
Barnier noted the importance of talks on trade once Britain exits, and said the more important issue — no matter what — is peace across the island of Ireland: “We first must make sufficient progress on these points, before we start discussing the future of our relationship with the UK. The sooner this will happen, the better.”
Party leaders also shared opinions with the EU official.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny emphasised that a “flexible and imaginative” approach is needed for the Brexit talks.
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams said Ireland should get a veto on any final Brexit deal.
Labour’s Brendan Howlin warned of the impact on our energy and communications connections, mostly linked to Britain, after Brexit.
Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin emphasised that some special status or legal structures will be needed to protect the North and the common travel area between Britain and Ireland.
Barnier will today visit the border area where no doubt the realities of Brexit for citizens there will be made known to him.
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