Belfast Telegraph

Enda Kenny was a good friend of Northern Ireland...his successor as Taoiseach has big boots to fill

Whoever takes over as Fine Gael leader will play a pivotal role in the Brexit negotiations, says Alban Maginness

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is in Washington this week to present President Trump with the now-traditional bowl of shamrock for the St Patrick's Day celebrations in the US. It is quite extraordinary how this island can command such disproportionate support and attention at the very heart of the greatest power in the modern world.

It is also Kenny's farewell tour as Taoiseach, as he has informed his Fine Gael party that he will retire from office shortly after his return to Dublin.

Who takes over as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach will be important, as he or she will be crucially involved in the Brexit negotiations between the EU and the UK.

In addition, given the ongoing and seemingly neverending crisis here in Northern Ireland, it will be important to have a head of government who is familiar with our politics.

The two front-runners are Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar.

Both are extremely able politicians, but without much experience of Northern politics.

Coveney, at least, has a credible track record of taking a serious interest in the peace process and has a more intimate understanding of our situation.

Who Fine Gael chooses to occupy that position will be of great importance in the way our short-term politics will be addressed.

Kenny was not in the mould of Bertie Ahern and was not as hands-on as him, or Tony Blair.

Nonetheless, his contribution was crucial in consolidating the progress made here and encouraging further development of good relations, north and south, east and west.

His relations with unionist politicians were businesslike, but also warm. His concern for Northern Ireland during his lifelong political career was genuine and deeply-felt.

But his main preoccupation was to steer the Republic through the greatest financial and economic crisis to hit the south since independence.

With his Irish Labour Party colleagues, he did an outstanding job of stabilising the situation and bringing back the Irish economy from meltdown to the current vibrant state that will boast a growth rate of 5% this coming financial year.

A lot of this was achieved through harsh fiscal and economic measures which were unpopular and hurt many working people in the Republic.

Perhaps things could have been done differently and with more regard and sensitivity for certain vulnerable sections within society, but in general terms, the direction of travel was correct and ultimately succeeded in restoring the fortunes of the country.

The election last year was expected to reward Kenny for his successful turnabout of the Irish economy. Instead, he and Fine Gael were punished for their efforts. A bit like Churchill and his unexpected electoral defeat in 1945 after the defeat of Nazi Germany. History may judge Kenny more kindly.

His retiring now is perhaps the best time both for him and his party.

The next Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach will have a huge task ahead of him or her in achieving a negotiated Brexit, which will be least damaging to the Republic's vulnerable economy and which will be most beneficial to the economic and political interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

Striking such a balance will be difficult, as the Republic will only be one of 27 countries negotiating on a wide range of issues with the UK Government. What happens in these negotiations will determine and shape our politics for the next generation.

We need to remember that our mutual membership of the EU brought great economic and political benefits to Ireland, north and south. In effect, what was achieved was a de facto united economic Ireland, in which the free movement of labour, capital and services was achieved between both jurisdictions.

This was achieved in a most under-played fashion and, inevitably, brought both parts of the island closer together without any fuss, bother or any obvious political grief. It also provided a secure context for the Good Friday Agreement.

During the 1970s, 1980s and early-1990s, the Provisional IRA, still wedded to its chauvinistic ideology, remained ignorant of the significance of European membership and, by continuing its campaign of violence, created its unique version of a "hard border".

Such was the pitiful state of Sinn Fein's political thinking that it regarded the EU as being hostile to the interests of the people of this island.

Ironically, it was only in the 2000s that Sinn Fein suddenly realised its huge mistake and gave European membership "critical" support. Up until this time Sinn Fein and the DUP comfortably shared a common opposition to the EU.

Strangely, given its complexity and unpredictability, Brexit could push north and south further apart, or, alternatively, bring both parts closer together.

Certainly, if Northern Ireland suffers economically as a result of Brexit, there will be a very compelling economic argument for Irish unity.

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