The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier quoted from Seamus Heaney’s ode to Europe, ‘Beacons at Bealtaine’, and recalled talking peace with John Hume nearly twenty years ago, before indicating the border issue will be one of his three top priorities from the outset of talks with the United Kingdom.
Thirteen years ago the late Derry poet wrote the poem to celebrate the enlargement of the European Union on May 1, 2004, or ‘Bealtaine’ in the Irish calendar, when bonfires were traditionally lit to mark the beginning of summer.
Addressing the Oireachtas yesterday the Gaulist politician quoted a verse from the poem, which runs: “So on a day when newcomers appear; Let it be a homecoming and let us speak; The unstrange word, as it behoves us here; Move lips, move minds and make new meanings flare.”
Mr. Barnier went on to address fears over the potential creation of a hard border, the possibility of fresh customs tariffs and the prospect that the Good Friday Agreement could be undermined by Brexit.
“Many in Ireland fear the return of tensions in the North. Today, in front of these two Houses, I want to reassure the Irish people that in these negotiations, Ireland’s interests will be the European Union’s interests. We are in these negotiations together and a united EU will be there for Ireland,” he told members of both the Dáil and Seanad.
Ahead of a scheduled meeting with border dairy farmers today, he said he wanted to listen to their concerns and learn from their experiences.
“Some might be concerned about exports to the UK or the return of customs checks at the border while others might fear a return to the instability of the past.
“In Northern Ireland, lifting the border took time and it was only 15 years ago that checkpoints and controls totally disappeared, thanks to the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of violence.
“I was the European Commissioner in charge of the PEACE programme and I have not forgotten my conversations with Mr. John Hume and Mr. David Trimble on that point. I
“I understand the European Union’s role in strengthening dialogue in Northern Ireland and in supporting the Good Friday Agreement.
“European integration helped to remove borders that once existed on maps and in minds. Now, Brexit changes the external borders of the EU but I will work with Ireland to avoid a hard Border.”
In spite of these assurances Mr. Barnier warned that “the UK’s departure from the EU will have consequences” and that “customs controls are part of EU border management”.
However, he said the “Good Friday Agreement must be respected in all of its dimensions” and that nothing should be allowed to “put peace at risk”.
He also indicated that the border issue will be one of his main priorities from the outset of negotiations.
“I also made it very clear that the border issue will be one of my three priorities for the first phase of the negotiations, together with citizens’ rights and the financial settlement. We must make sufficient progress on these points before we start discussing the future of our relationship with the UK. The sooner this happens, the better,” he said.