“concepts and terms like “special status” give rise to serious concerns for other EU partners about precedents that might be set elsewhere”

A much needed, for some, lesson in the real politik of negotiations with other EU states, in regard to the UK leaving the EU, from the Irish Government Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, in a Dáil written answer last week.

457.Deputy Darragh O’Brien asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if the need for a special status for Northern Ireland in view of Brexit has been placed on the agenda and discussed formally at any EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Charles Flanagan): In the immediate aftermath of the UK referendum on EU exit, the European Council agreed, inter alia, that there would be no negotiations with the UK in advance of the Article 50 application being triggered. Accordingly, the UK’s decision to withdraw from the European Union has not to date been an item on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC). Although formal discussions on Brexit have not taken place at the FAC, I have since June spoken at least once with each of my EU Foreign Minister colleagues on the issue of Brexit, over the course of more than 35 engagements; my programme of meetings continues in the weeks ahead.

Protecting the peace process and Northern Ireland is one of the Government’s four headline priorities in dealing with the UK decision to leave the European Union. The established framework for all engagement on Northern Ireland is the Good Friday Agreement. This has been strongly reaffirmed by the Government and the British Government following the UK decision to leave the European Union. The Good Friday Agreement is an international treaty, registered with the United Nations and it 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 long recognised and supported.

On 23 February, the Taoiseach held a very positive meeting with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at which the Commission President expressed his support and solidarity with Ireland in dealing with the challenges of Brexit, including to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and seek the maintenance of the open border. The Taoiseach will have a further round of meetings in Brussels this week, when he will meet with President Tusk of the European Council and Michel Barnier, Chair of the European Commission Taskforce.

On 30 January, the Taoiseach discussed with Prime Minister May the serious implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland and the imperative of retaining the open border on the island of Ireland. There will be a need for the British Government to reflect the unique challenges Brexit poses for Northern Ireland in the position they adopt in the negotiations with the EU27. I reinforced this message in my meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire in our meeting on 14 February.

The Government has been clear that there are entirely unique circumstances in respect of the island of Ireland that must be taken account of in the negotiations for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and the future EU-UK relationship. While the Irish Government is actively seeking recognition and accommodation of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, our extensive discussions with partner governments across the EU – including the UK – have made clear that 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 of those seeking a “special status” designation, 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. [added emphasis]

On 21 February, I outlined to the House the need for specific, effective, and realisable measures that could address the major issues of concern under Brexit, whether these relate 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 precedents and potential innovative approaches in this regard.

The Government will continue to work with our EU partners and EU Institutions and prepare comprehensively in support of our overall negotiating objectives.