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Brexit tensions highlight stakes

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 27/01/2016

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

The tetchy cross-border exchanges between senior members of the DUP and Taoiseach Enda Kenny over the UK's forthcoming referendum on EU membership are unfortunate, but demonstrate the deep sensitivity of unionists in Northern Ireland over constitutional issues.

While successive governments in the Republic have been deeply involved in creating and maintaining the current political arrangements in the province - and, indeed, are co-signatories along with UK Prime Ministers to the various agreements under which those political arrangements operate - unionist politicians are keen still to draw the line on what they regard as solely Northern Ireland responsibilities.

Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson did not mince their words in telling Mr Kenny that whether the UK decides to remain in or leave the EU is not his concern, and that he should not attempt to influence matters. Strictly speaking, they are entirely correct in that assertion, but their party leader Arlene Foster - as befits her role as First Minister - gave a more measured and nuanced response.

Mr Kenny, who along with his Minister of Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, has worked constructively in helping to preserve the Stormont administration at times of crisis, may feel somewhat bemused at the reaction to his comments that if the UK decided to leave the EU it would create serious difficulties for the province.

Of course, he had one eye on the economic implications for the Republic. Trade between the UK and the Republic amounts to some £750 million a week and naturally the Taoiseach would not want that endangered.

As Mrs Foster pointed out, Mr Kenny is entitled to not only hold that view, but also to air it. She is also correct to underline that any decision on the UK's future - and that of Northern Ireland - within the EU is solely a matter for the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

As the leader of a Eurosceptic party, it is clear that she does not share Mr Kenny's analysis of the issue but is prepared to await the outcome of the Prime Minister's discussions with the European Council next month. Mr Cameron is desperately trying to wring concessions from Europe, and will need to demonstrate some gains if he is to win over the sceptics. As this cross-border spat showed, EU membership is a very touchy subject, even before the real debate begins.

Belfast Telegraph

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