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Irish Ambassador's remarks at the HofL EU Committee Brexit: UK-Irish relations inquiry

Ireland’s Ambassador to Britain, Dan Mulhall, appeared before the House of Lords Select Committee on the EU at their Brexit: UK-Irish relations inquiry.

Irish Ambassador Dan Mulhall’s opening remarks at the House of Lords EU Committee, 6 September 2016

It is a pleasure for me to be here this afternoon and I am glad to have this opportunity to set out our Government's views on the important topic you are examining - the implications of Brexit for Irish-UK relations.

When I addressed this committee on 27 October last on the possibility of the UK leaving the EU, I spoke about the potential for negative implications for Northern Ireland and for our relations with the UK. I pointed to significant risks for Ireland, including in relation to our bilateral trade and the loss of an important ally in EU negotiations.

In February 2016, I spoke at the House of Commons' Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's enquiry into the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland and North-South ties in Ireland. At that time, I set out our concerns about the uncertainty a Brexit would create in terms of trade, the border, and overall north-south cooperation. I stated the Irish government’s view that the best way of preserving the benefits of the strong Irish-UK relationship was through a continuation of our shared membership of the EU.

During the months leading up to the June referendum, I made a number of public statements as did members of our government. Our purpose was not to interfere in the domestic politics of this country but to highlight Ireland’s specific concerns as a friendly neighbour of the UK's with which we have an intensive and mutually-advantageous set of relationships.

The concerns we have today - in the aftermath of your referendum result - derive from those we expressed before June the 23rd. Ireland will continue to be a member of the EU and we accept that at some stage in the coming years the UK will no longer be an EU member. This will represent a new era for both our countries and for our bilateral relations.

As the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charles Flanagan, acknowledged when responding to your referendum result, this will be a challenging time for the UK, for the EU and for Ireland - but this is a challenge which we are determined will be met. He stressed that Ireland will remain in the EU and in the Eurozone, and we will also do everything necessary to protect our political, economic and people-to-people links with the UK.

Over the summer months, the Irish government has engaged extensively with all EU partners, with Minister Flanagan having spoken to each of his 27 EU counterparts to set out our national priorities. The Taoiseach has met with Prime Minister May, Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande and other members of the European Council. Tomorrow, European Council President Donald Tusk will visit Dublin while Secretary of State David Davis will be in Dublin on Thursday.

As Taoiseach Enda Kenny said when he met PM May in July: “We want the upcoming negotiation process to end with a prosperous and outward-looking UK which retains a close relationship with the EU. This is in all of our interests. “

Our current focus is on the implications of Brexit:

-for our economy;

-for our ties with the UK, which have undergone a positive transformation during the decades we have spent as partners within the EU;

-in particular for Northern Ireland and North-South relations in Ireland;

-and, for the overall balance of the European Union.

Let me briefly elaborate on this set of concerns.

Our two economies are deeply interconnected. Any damage sustained by the UK economy will be damaging also to ours. The UK is the most important market for Irish goods and services and we are Britain's number 5 export market. We want this mutually-advantageous relationship to continue.

This means that we have a huge interest in minimising barriers to trade between us and would therefore like to see the UK retain a close trading relationship with the EU.

We will want to see our relations with the UK continue along the positive path that has characterised the last three decades since the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, but we will have to work harder on a bilateral basis as we will no longer be partners in the EU.

In particular, we will want to see the Common Travel Area arrangements continue in the future as these have worked to the benefit of both our countries over many decades. Irish people made a huge contribution in so many walks of life here - for example there are more than 60,000 Irish-born Directors of UK companies - and I am sure that there will be a strong mutual interest in continued free movement between our two countries to the benefit of our peoples.

Our concerns about Brexit are most acute when it comes of Northern Ireland.

As our Foreign Minister, Charles Flanagan, has said, “the fact that Ireland and the United Kingdom shared a common EU citizenship provided a space for reconciliation that transcended the zero-sum equation of British or Irish sovereignty. The Irish Government does not underestimate the sense of disquiet now felt by many people in Northern Ireland at the prospect of the loss of their connection to the European Union.”

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was a huge achievement for both our countries. The open border in Ireland has come about because of the combined effect of the peace process and EU membership.

The current border arrangements are of benefit to both parts of Ireland and to all our communities and need to be preserved, with the avoidance of a hard border. I am encouraged by the statements from Belfast and from the government here in London, most recently by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union in his statement yesterday, that this view is shared by all of us. But I would stress that we need to work hard on this in the negotiations ahead to find practical ways to achieve this, not least in regard to any customs arrangements which could form a barrier to the further evolution of economic ties between north and south in Ireland.

Any effort to control the free movement of people across the Irish border, or indeed between Britain and Ireland, would be very damaging indeed and I trust that no one would want to contemplate such a step

I hope and trust that the particular circumstances that apply in Northern Ireland will be front and centre when it comes to the working out of the UK's future relations with the EU.

When the UK does leave the EU, Northern Ireland will be in the unique position whereby almost all of its residents are entitled to citizenship of an EU country, Ireland, and we must be alert to the particular circumstances those EU citizens will find themselves in.

Our two countries need to work together closely in the coming period with the aim of preserving the benefits of the unique, unprecedented degree of friendship that has evolved between us. Minister Flanagan has said that the Irish Government will continue to work intensively with the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to see how best collectively we can work to ensure that the gains of the last two decades are fully protected.

In our discussions with other EU partners, we have found them very much aware of, and sympathetic to, Ireland’s particular concerns.

Finally, we regret very much that the departure of the UK will affect the EU itself, including in regard to its global role. The balance of views within the Union, in particular in regard to issues such as competitiveness and trade, will be altered. Another priority for Ireland and for like-minded countries will be to mitigate these effects

I welcome the efforts of this committee to highlight the specific Irish dimension to the coming Brexit negotiations which we in Ireland will be following with a particularly keen interest as your debate about this country's future direction evolves and intensifies in the period ahead. I look forward to continued engagement with this Committee in the period ahead.

Thank you for your attention.