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Remarks by Ambassador Mulhall, House of Commons, 10 February 2016

Remarks by Ambassador Dan Mulhall
House of Commons, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Northern Ireland and the EU referendum, 10 February 2016

Thank you Chairman for inviting me, as Ambassador of Ireland, to contribute to your deliberations ahead of a fundamentally important decision on the UK's EU membership.

I would stress at the outset what has been stated repeatedly on this subject by the Irish government. We absolutely respect the fact that the decision is ultimately for the electorate of Britain and Northern Ireland.

Our role is to assess the consequences for Ireland, and in particular for our ties with Britain and for north-south relations in Ireland.

In this spirit of respect and friendship, we also believe Ireland has a unique perspective and indeed interest in this issue:

  • first, as a neighbour and fellow EU member state, with which we share a land border
  • second, as partners in transforming British Irish relations in recent years
  • and, third, with the British government, as facilitators and co-guarantors of successive agreements aimed at both securing peace in Northern Ireland and building sustainable prosperity.

In line with the terms of reference of your inquiry, I will focus these short opening remarks on what I see as four key forward-looking concerns regarding Northern Ireland.

And so, our first concern is a broad one that is not as quantifiable as the others. It is the fact that EU membership by both Ireland and the UK has provided a shared, valuable and reassuring context for the people of Northern Ireland, whether they consider themselves Irish or British – or both.

Indeed, close co-operation between our two States as partners in the European Union is explicitly referenced in both the British Irish Agreement of 1998 and the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
Our second concern can indeed be quantified - economics. It is estimated that Northern Ireland will receive over €3 billion in EU funding between 2014 and 2020. It seems very risky to put in jeopardy the advantages of EU membership and to forego such substantial funding without any guarantee that it will be supplied instead from another source.

These supports include funding for SMEs, research, the green economy and education, not to mention agriculture, sectors that all have a cross-border dimension or potential. EU membership also brings with it the valuable cross-border PEACE programme and the Interreg programme. The 2014-2020 programmes, which were negotiated during the last Irish Presidency of the EU, were both jointly announced by Irish and Northern Ireland ministers in recent weeks - €550 million in all, on both sides of the border, building crucial infrastructure and supporting peace and reconciliation.

Third, and inextricably linked with the economic point, there is trade and inward investment. We have a single, shared cross-border agency under the Good Friday / Belfast Agreement which promotes North-South trade – already amounting to €3 billion a year but with much greater potential assuming that no new obstacles are put in place.

Fourthly, we are concerned about the future of the border. Our open border is the biggest symbol of all, perhaps, of normalising and developing the full potential of north-south relations. The fact is that no-one can be 100% certain about what the impact on the border will be if the UK leaves the EU. That is something which would form part of the terms of a UK exit, something we will have to negotiate with all EU member states. Overall, I am confident that the EU will change for the better based on the current EU reform negotiations. The case I would put to you today is that ongoing EU membership means that the EU will continue:

  • to directly support us all in our work for consolidating peace and advancing reconciliation
  • to directly support infrastructure, education and research, including on a cross-border basis
  • to directly support farmers and food producers in both parts of Ireland and to provide certain access to the huge EU market for goods and services

Our overall assessment is that the issues you are considering are very serious for Ireland, for our relations with the UK and for Northern Ireland – and perhaps more so than anywhere else in the UK on account of the presence there of the only land border with another EU member State.

Prime Minister Cameron has generously acknowledged the support he has received from the Taoiseach within the deliberations of the European Council on this vital issue for Europe, for the United Kingdom and for Ireland. It is that same spirit of friendship and solidarity that informs the Irish Government’s approach to the specific question of Brexit and Northern Ireland.

We value the positive strides that have been made in recent decades in relations between our two countries and between north and south in Ireland. We want this mutually-beneficial process to continue and, in our view, the best way to achieve this is through continued partnership within the European Union.

Thank you for allowing me to make these opening remarks. I am happy to take your questions.