May 23. 2024. 7:11

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Taoiseach’s first trip is to Brussels to meet Commission President


Ireland’s new leader flew to Brussels for his first overseas trip since his appointment as Taoiseach, meeting Ursula von der Leyen just days after he took office. The Commission President said she was glad to count on Ireland in what she described as the European Union’s “unwavering support” for Ukraine and for the EU’s efforts to “help restore stability in the Middle East”. She said she was also glad to see that Simon Harris is “so committed to Europe’s future competitiveness", writes Political Editor Nick Powell.

An early trip to Brussels is hardly unusual for a new Taoiseach. Irish governments -and for the most part the Irish people- have been the most reliably pro-EU from any of the three countries that joined the European project in 1973, in its first expansion beyond the original six founding states.

But the world changes and placing Ukraine so high in the priorities for discussion was something of an innovation. Simon Harris had already made President Zelenskyy one of the first world leaders he telephoned after taking office, taking the opportunity to “reassure him of Ireland’s unwavering support of Ukraine and its brave people as they continue to defend their country against the imperialist aggression of President Putin and to restore their sovereignty and territorial integrity” as he put it after making the call.

“Russia is posing a grave threat to all of Europe and the people of Ukraine are not only fighting for their freedom but are also defending our shared values as Europeans”, Simon Harris continued, “I offered any assistance Ireland can provide in supporting their efforts to achieve EU membership as soon as possible”.

Ursula von der Leyen would probably harm her chances of securing a second term as Commission President if she was quite so enthusiastic in the next few months about Ukraine’s path to EU membership. Her form of words about “restoring stability in the Middle East”, is also a reminder of the tightrope she walks. She hardly needs reminding that support for Israel has long been a non-negotiable element in German foreign policy.

Ireland, on the other hand, has consistently been the member state that has shown the greatest sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Although military neutral, “the Irish State has a proud history of peacekeeping and making our mark in the world”, as the Taoiseach put it when he was elected. “We Punch above our weight and we have a responsibility to bring our influence to bear on global issues like migration, climate, international conflicts and human rights”.

His rhetorical flourish that “we have built strong relationships with our European neighbours and will continue to work in partnership to uphold our shared values and objectives”, could at a push be seen as chiming with the Commission President’s more utilitarian phrase about his commitment to Europe’s future competitiveness.

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Although nothing was said afterwards about Northern Ireland and the consequences of Brexit, it’s hard to believe that it didn’t get mentioned in private conversation. But at least in public, some things are best left unsaid. The Taoiseach’s account of his early phone call to the leaders of the recently restored power-sharing executive in Belfast was noticeably a lot terser than what he’d had to say about his conversation with Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Day to day relations with the EU will be the political responsibility of Ireland’s new Minister of State for European Affairs, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill. Still in her first term as a member of the Irish Parliament, she’s spoken of as the rising star of the Fine Gael party, a role only very recently vacated by Simon Harris himself.

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