Departing Enda Kenny reiterates commitment to post-Brexit Anglo-Irish relations
THE UK's withdrawal from the EU poses "unprecedented political, economic and diplomatic challenges" for Ireland, outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said.
Attending his first formal engagement since resigning as Fine Gael leader, Mr Kenny told British-Irish Chamber of Commerce members that the forthcoming Brexit negotiations would be "complex and challenging for all parties".
He said over the past 18 months his government had been "proactive, concerted and strategic" in its approach.
The taoiseach, who resigned as Fine Gael leader on Wednesday, said the Republic was fully committed to EU membership but respected the outcome of the UK referendum.
"But while Britain and Ireland are taking different paths in terms of EU membership, we are also firmly committed to ensuring that our strong and unique relationship will remain constant – these two things should not be regarded as mutually exclusive," he said.
He said that while the relationship between Britain and Ireland had sometimes been fraught, in recent years it had become one of "close neighbours and friends".
"This has been exemplified by recent state visits between our two countries – something we would once have considered impossible," he said.
The taoiseach said he was hopeful the Stormont peace talks, which have been suspended because of the Westminster election, would continue to a successful conclusion.
"It is critically important to see devolved government restored and working effectively in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, not least in the context of Brexit," he said.
"My government has sought to protect the interests of the island as a whole in its extensive preparatory work on Brexit and will continue to advocate very strongly for Northern Ireland's interests to be protected."
He said the Dublin government had engaged with other EU member states to ensure the peace process was fully protected and that the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements were not undermined by Brexit.
Mr Kenny said the "hard work on this has paid off".
"The European Council has also confirmed that the EU treaties will apply to the entire territory of a united Ireland, in the event that this is realised under the Good Friday Agreement," he said.
"In doing this, the EU is continuing its commitment to supporting and protecting the peace process."
The taoiseach said that since the Republic joined the then EEC in 1973, it had "learned to step out of the shadow of our bigger neighbour".
"We are much more open to the wider world than we used to be," he said.
"Though the inter-linkages between our two countries persist, the extent to which Ireland has made its own mark is clear and will stand to us as we look to our continued future within a strong EU, of which the UK is no longer a member."
He said the partnership between Irish and British officials would continue.
"We understand each other and think alike on many matters of importance," he said.
"We have long-standing arrangements in place for detailed and meaningful bilateral consultation, engagement and co-operation on a range of policy matters – this will continue."
Mr Kenny said he wanted to maintain the "closest possible trading relationship based on a level playing field between the UK and the EU, including Ireland".
"But also be clear that Ireland's economic interests lie firmly in a strong and well-functioning EU with continued and unfettered access to the single market," he said.
He said he was encouraged by commitment to avoid a hard border and that his government would foster all aspects of the unique relationship that exists between Britain and Ireland.