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Check Against Delivery
Private Members Motion on Northern Ireland and the UK withdrawal from the EU
Statement by Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade
15 February 2017
I am pleased to have the opportunity to commence today’s debate for the Government and to put forward the Government’s Motion on the critical issue of Northern Ireland and Brexit.
The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union is a major strategic challenge for the island of Ireland and it concerns us all. We are facing acute challenges to our economy and trade prospects as well in relation to Northern Ireland and the Government is working in a structured and comprehensive way to address these. The Government is also determined and working in closely with our European partners to ensure that they understand the Common Travel Area and our right to continue its operation consistent with EU law notwithstanding the UK’s departure from the European Union, as well as to proactively influence the future development of the European Union, in accordance with our clear and consistent headline priorities for dealing with the UK’s exit from the Union.
Brexit is at the very top of our agenda and it has been since well before the referendum vote in the UK. It is on the top of the agenda in every Department across Government, and that’s doubly true for my own Department and the Department of An Taoiseach. The challenges of Brexit are multifaceted and so is our response. Across every government Department a substantial programme of work is underway. For the last eight months, I have been working closely with the Taoiseach in briefing governments in the EU on Ireland’s priorities and highlighting Ireland’s approach and position to partner countries outside the EU. I have had over 150 high level meetings and discussions. Most recently, last week I travelled to Brussels where I met with the EU’s Chief Commission negotiator, Michel Barnier, with the European Parliament’s representative, Guy Verhofstadt MEP, and with leading and influential MEPs in the Parliament. I had formal bilateral meetings with the Foreign Ministers of Italy and Finland. When I was in Brussels, the Taoiseach was in Warsaw holding bilateral talks with the Polish Prime Minister. The diplomatic programme undertaken by myself, the Taoiseach and government colleagues including Minister of State Dara Murphy, is buttressed by an intensive programme of engagements at official level where discussions with officials in the Commission and with Member State governments are ongoing.
At national level, an enormous programme of work is being undertaken. Ireland alone was in a position to publish a framework contingency plan on the day of the UK election result. The work right across government is intensive and it is relentless. This work is being coordinated and led by the Taoiseach. To the suggestion in the Fianna Fáil Motion of a Minister for Brexit, I would reiterate that the strategic challenge of Brexit is a job for the entire Cabinet, led by the Taoiseach. All Ministers in Government have a part to play, as indeed do all political parties, North and South.
As regards Northern Ireland, the Government has been clear that there are entirely unique circumstances that must be taken account of in the negotiations for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and the future EU-UK relationship. The Good Friday Agreement, an international treaty, registered with the United Nations, provides for a unique political and constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland, which is the foundation of the peace process. This is something the European Union as a whole has always recognised and been supportive of and I have received heartening support from my foreign ministerial colleagues.
It is worth recalling that the Good Friday Agreement, transformationally, recognises the “birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both”. This means that virtually everyone born in Northern Ireland can of right choose to be an Irish citizen, and therefore a citizen of the European Union, with all of the attendant rights and obligations of both. There is no parallel for this anywhere in Europe – a point I have been highlighting to all my colleagues. The Agreement also contains very important provisions on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The Government has been clear that Brexit causes no legal impediment to the mechanism set out in the Agreement for a united Ireland, in accordance with the principle of consent and this point is specifically referenced in the Government motion.
The European Union itself is first and foremost a peace project, and the EU has made immense contributions to our peace process over the last two decades and more. From my engagement with all of my EU counterparts, and with Members of the European Parliament, and senior representatives of the Commission and Council, there is deep appreciation of the EU’s role and contribution in support of the peace process and a wish to continue that support, regardless of the challenges and changes of Brexit.
At the core of both Opposition motions is a specific request for the Government to adopt a position whereby Northern Ireland remains within the EU with a special status post Brexit. The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union is patently not something that the Government, or anyone in this House wanted. The Government actively engaged and advocated for just the opposite during the referendum campaign, both in Northern Ireland and in Britain. Our task now is to face up to the unwanted result and outcome with all of the challenges that brings, in order to secure the best outcome from for the island of Ireland as a whole.
The cold reality is that, notwithstanding the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, concepts and terms like “special status” give rise to serious concerns for other EU partners about precedents that might be set elsewhere.This would risk undermining the Government’s efforts to specifically address and mitigate the very real impacts facing our island – and the people of Northern Ireland in particular - due to Brexit. While I entirely understand the rationale, the fact is that such a proposal would unnecessarily distract from work to secure arrangements which reflect the genuine uniqueness of Northern Ireland’s situation, founded in the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, as well as its geographic status as the only land border between the UK and the EU27.
Indeed the provisions of the Government motion clearly support and point to the need for specific, effective, and realisable measures that could address the major issue of concern under Brexit, whether this relates to the border, or to the citizenship, constitutional and human rights provisions of the Agreement, or otherwise. The Government will also be advocating for the continuation of the range of EU policy supports to Northern Ireland and the peace process, including in relation to EU funding and is looking at existing precedent and potential innovative approaches in this regard.
There are an array of difficult issues to address, perhaps the most difficult and concerning of all is the border. There has been much discussion and speculation about how this could or could not be achieved. The Government’s position from the beginning has been that the invisible border must be maintained. We are intensively engaged to deepen understanding and support for each of Ireland’s headline concerns with every one of our EU partners, including the United Kingdom.
As I have outlined already, over the last 8 months I have engaged intensively with my foreign ministerial colleagues throughout the EU - there isn't a foreign minister in the EU who is not aware of the central importance of the Good Friday Agreement and the staunch determination of the Irish Government, its co-guarantor, to make sure its principles and provisions are fully respected in any future EU-UK agreement and that none of the gains for the peace process are lost.
We have to be clear, however, that in relation to the border - and indeed in relation to many other areas – both the UK and the EU will need to compromise if we are to achieve the demanding objectives that the Government has set. The preservation of the invisible border is a shared goal of the Irish and UK governments. The Taoiseach set out to Prime Minister May very clearly on 30 January in Dublin the imperative of achieving that. There will be a need for the British Government to definitively factor into their own negotiating position with the European Union in the stated objective in relation to the border. I reinforced this message in my meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire in our meeting yesterday.
The Government will continue to work with our EU partners and prepare comprehensively in support of our overall objectives, including in relation to Northern Ireland, the peace process and all-island issues.
In this regard, there was very good work commenced through the North South Ministerial Council. A number of important common principles for dealing with Brexit on an all-island basis were agreed. It is essential that the indispensable work of the NSMC can recommence at the earliest possible opportunity, as the EU-UK negotiations are about to start.
The re-establishment of the devolved power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland as soon as possible after the upcoming elections on 2 March is critical in managing the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland. The Executive is responsible for politically representing Northern Ireland’s interests, including in relation to the upcoming EU-UK negotiations.
We must all be mindful that effective devolved Government, underpinned by a genuine spirit of partnership, is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for in 1998 and what they expect their politicians to deliver. After the election, it will therefore fall to the parties to form a power-sharing Executive and this will require the parties to find a way forward on issues which contributed to the calling of the election. The Government is of course always ready to support and assist the parties in any way we can. Our commitment as a co-guarantor of the Agreement is a constant one.
The Government Motion today sets out our overall strategy for protecting the gains of the peace process and working in the interests of the island as a whole underlines the work the Government has been undertaking in relation to Northern Ireland in the context of Brexit. Many of the elements of the motions proposed by both Opposition parties are covered in this ongoing work but are not listed in the Government motion so as to avoid an in advertent prioritisation of some and possible exclusion of others.
The Government’s Motion encapsulates our overall strategy and makes explicit reference to the Government’s commitment to ensuring that all provisions of the Good Friday Agreement are fully respected in any future EU-UK arrangements.
This is the avenue to securing our peace process and our all-island interests, and this is what the Government will continue to make progress towards, with the support and goodwill of all of EU partners.
I therefore commend the Government’s counter Motion to the House today.
Appendix – Government countermotion
To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:
- while the result of the United Kingdom’s (UK) European Union (EU) membership referendum of 23rd June, 2016, was not what the Government would have wished for, it respects the outcome of the democratic process in the UK and the decision of its electorate to leave the EU;
- recognising its value and benefits, Ireland will remain a fully committed member of the EU and continue to play an active role in the EU;
- the outcome of the UK referendum creates particular concerns in Northern Ireland, where a majority voted to remain in the EU;
- Brexit presents significant and unique challenges for Northern Ireland and the island
- of Ireland;
- Northern Ireland and the protection of the peace process are central concerns for the Government in the upcoming Brexit negotiations, in addition to the other stated priorities such as economy and trade, the Common Travel Area and the future of the
- the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), an international agreement registered with the United Nations, remains the foundation for all our engagements on Northern Ireland and remains in force whatever the status of the UK within the EU;
- the GFA, which was endorsed by the people of this island, North and South, includes the principle of consent and the possibility of a change in constitutional status in Northern Ireland;
- the Government, as co-guarantor of the GFA, has emphasised at every opportunity in extensive discussions on Brexit with all EU member state Governments (including the UK Government), with members of the European Parliament, the EU Commission and other EU institutions that the principles and provisions of the GFA must be fully respected in any future agreement between the EU and the UK; and the Government has clearly and repeatedly stated and demonstrated its commitment to working urgently and intensively with our EU partners, the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to see how collectively we can ensure that the gains of the peace process in the last two decades are fully protected in whatever post-exit arrangements are negotiated;
- recognises the progress that had been made through the North South Ministerial Council in scoping out the sectoral implications of Brexit for Ireland, North and South, and agreeing joint principles for moving forward, including:
- recognition of the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, bearing in mind its geography and history;
- ensuring that the treaties and agreements between Ireland and the UK are fully taken into account;
- protecting the free movement of people, goods, capital and services; and maintaining the economic and social benefits of co-operation on both sides of the border; and
further notes that:
- the re-establishment of devolved power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland as soon as possible after the upcoming elections on 2nd March, 2017, will be important in ensuring effective local political representation at this critical time in the Brexit
- the Government, as co-guarantor of the GFA, and its institutions will work to support the political parties in Northern Ireland in this regard;
- Northern Ireland is included in the EU’s list of negotiation priorities following an intensive diplomatic initiative by the Irish Government; and
- the Government remains committed to ensuring that the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland including all aspects of the GFA are fully considered in the upcoming negotiations and securing the best possible outcome for all of the people on the island of Ireland.”
— An tAire Gnóthaí Eachtracha agus Trádála.
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