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Tony Connelly interview: ‘Growing up along the Border made Brexit personal’

He has been the go-to man in Ireland on all Brexit-related matters for the past five years, and RTÉ’s Europe editor Tony Connelly is in no doubt it is the most important story he has covered.

I think in terms of the detail — the complexity of it and the politics of it — it has been the biggest. Because even though I’m in Brussels, the vast majority of the coverage that I have done on that story is about the Irish angle to it and the Border, next to where I grew up,” he says.

Connelly’s family home in Derry was only a couple of miles from the Border with Donegal.

During his childhood, trips into the Republic involved passing through the heavily-fortified checkpoints, that were removed as part of the peace process.

This, he believes, gave him a special insight into the impact of the UK leaving the European Union.

“I know that when the Border was gone, it did make a difference to ordinary people’s lives in an emotional way.

“Some in the British press were saying during Brexit negotiations that concerns about Border checkpoints going back up was all invented, and it was all nonsense.

“But I knew from an Irish point of view that it was not trivial at all. It was important.” 

Connelly moved to Brussels in 2001 to take on the job of Europe correspondent for RTÉ. It’s a role he has relished.

“I think the idea was that I would be more of a roving correspondent, not doing so much of the European news stuff — because I was there with Seán Whelan. He was a very good policy expert journalist.

“So I think the idea was that I would be  out and about,  doing more of the human stories. And that was the case for a good while, for the first five or six years.

“They would send me to the Middle East and Africa and then to Ukraine and places like that. Lebanon.

“So I was getting a lot of that experience, which was great.

“But then in 2008 and 2009 the financial crisis hit, and at the same time Seán went back to Dublin. And that meant I was on my own in Brussels.”

Connelly, who was  appointed RTÉ Europe Editor in 2011, has reported on many big crises.

“There was the Irish bailout. Then the Greek debt situation. Then there were  the terror  attacks. And then there was the Syrian war. And then the refugee crisis. And then Brexit.

“I suppose the first sort of seven or eight years of my time in Brussels were all  very different. It was a lot more varied.

“But since around 2009, it’s just been these big stories that keep you working night and day. I’ve had to devote more of my attention to those ones, and they are the sort of stories that just consume everything in your path. They’re big.” 

Given the toxic nature of social media and the divisive views generated by Brexit, Connelly has come in for some abuse online.

“I’ve received a bit of abuse,” he admits, “but, to be honest, most of the stuff that is offensive and directed at me is not really about what I’ve reported.

“It’s about what the Irish Government’s position is, or the EU’s position. People can be very offensive, but it’s not really directed at me.

“I’ve made it an absolute fundamental principle that I don’t get into vindictive offensive arguments with people on Twitter. If people make offensive remarks, I just ignore it, or I’ll mute people or block them.

“If people ask me  a genuine question of why is this happening  or why aren’t they saying that, I do my best to explain it to people. 

“I think I’ve managed to keep my reputation as someone who’s just a reporter trying to report what’s happening.

“An awful lot of journalists do start to let their opinions flow on Twitter about a politician or a government — and I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing, especially if you’re a reporter and if your impartiality is important.” 

Does he ever get fed up talking about Brexit?

“I don’t really. Let me put it this way. I’ll be glad when it’s all sorted, when it comes to the Northern Ireland Protocol, because there’s lots of other things I would like to turn my attention to.

“But at the same time, it keeps me kind of prominent. I suppose as long as it’s not sorted, then I can’t afford not to pay attention — because each week I need to be bringing people up to date with every twist and turn.

“So, professionally speaking, it’s very enjoyable and fulfilling, and it’s a fascinating moment in history to be reporting on and witnessing.

“When it comes to Europe and Ireland, and Ireland and the UK, this is the classic ringside seat.”

The EU recently put forward new proposals in an attempt to break the deadlock over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The protocol was established as part of the Brexit deal to ensure that a hard Border for checks on goods was avoided between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Instead, checks are carried out on goods coming into Northern Ireland from Britain. Unionists claim this has created a border down the Irish Sea. 

All unionist political parties have spoken out against the protocol.

Connelly said there remains a lot of issues to be sorted as a result of the fallout from Brexit.

“The latest stage is that there’s going to be three weeks of negotiations now between the EU and UK over the protocol,” he says.

“After that, either there will be a deal or there won’t be a deal and the UK will probably trigger Article 16 — and then we’re into a whole other realm of unpleasantness. But if they do get a deal, a lot of people will be happy. 

“Certainly member states are saying, ‘We just need this to be sorted once and for all’.”   

With RTÉ’s US editor Brian O’Donovan leaving his Washington-based job at the end of the year, Connelly, as one of the organisation’s biggest names, had been touted as a possible replacement.

Interviews for the US job are expected to be held in the coming weeks.

However, Connelly is very happy in Brussels, where he lives with his Danish wife, journalist Rikke Albrechtsen, and their two young sons.

“I did go for the US job the year before I went to Brussels,  but I didn’t get it and  was quite disappointed,” says Connelly, who also has a teenage son living in Italy.

“But then I got the Brussels job and that’s been a fantastic experience.

“I’ve got small kids now in Brussels and I’m very happy to stay here and continue recording from Europe.

“Washington would be a brilliant professional experience no doubt, but it just doesn’t suit me for personal reasons at the moment.”

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