Ambassador Mulhall’s remarks at BIPA’s Committee B, House of Commons, 27 February 2017
Let's be clear about this. The UK's departure from the EU is not good news for Ireland.
It creates uncertainty across the spectrum of our relations with our nearest neighbour. It will bring to an end a very productive partnership between our two countries that has served us well for the past 44 years.
There will be challenges for us in various quarters - with regard to trade, to North-South relations in Ireland, to Irish-UK relations when we will no longer be partners within the European Union, and to the future of the EU, which is of course of major concern to Ireland.
But we should be careful not to exaggerate the risks involved or to talk ourselves into a crisis.
Our efforts must be directed towards heading off problems and minimising potentially damaging impacts. And that is what we are doing - by highlighting Ireland's unique circumstances and exploring the various issues that arise for us bilaterally with the UK and with our EU partners and the European institutions.
A first principle of our approach is that the Good Friday Agreement, which has brought such benefit to the people of Ireland, north and south, must not be affected in any way by the UK’s departure from the EU. This is an international agreement whose provisions must be fully respected. The Taoiseach has said recently that he would ‘defend the Good Friday Agreement, in its spirit as well as its letter.’
Common Travel Area: The Common Travel Area (CTA) is not well understood, but it is a bilateral arrangement between Ireland and the UK which our two countries are committed to continuing. It provides for free movement of people back and forth across the Irish Sea and gives our peoples the right to live and work in both countries.
The CTA benefits both our peoples and I can see no move anywhere to change the way in which it operates. It does not appear to be an issue in Britain even for those who profess to want to 'control' the UK's borders.
Nor is there any move in Britain to change the special status enjoyed by Irish citizens here. It is governed by the Ireland Act of 1949. Furthermore, there is no pressure in Ireland to change the reciprocal rights accruing to British citizens in Ireland.
Until last year's referendum, Our EU partners were probably not well acquainted with the CTA, but we have been working to sensitise them to its importance for Ireland.
The border in Ireland: When it comes to the border in Ireland, we need to start by stating what it is we need to avoid and to take it from there. Both Governments have made it abundantly clear that they do not want to see a hard border in Ireland. The Taoiseach has said that we cannot accept any hardening of the border. Our EU partners have also been alerted by us to the importance of this issue. Any change to the current open border arrangements would be economically disruptive and politically risky.
It needs to be borne in mind that the free movement principle in the EU treaties governs the right of EU citizens to live and work legally in other member States. The vast bulk of EU nationals want to move legally so that they can live normal lives and access health and education services for themselves and their families. It is an illusion to believe that there are large numbers of EU citizens who will want to live illegally in the UK after Brexit and would seek to enter Britain through Ireland for that purpose. In fact there is some evidence that the threat of a changed status for EU citizens post-Brexit is already acting to discourage people from other EU countries from migrating to the UK.
Therefore in my view there will not be a significant problem with illegal movements across the Irish border or indeed between Ireland and the UK. Our two immigration services will continue to cooperate closely as they have always done to ensure the integrity of the external border of the CTA, but EU citizens will continue to enjoy full Treaty rights in Ireland.
The customs regime that will apply between the UK and the EU will be an important issue in the coming negotiations. But within that framework, the special circumstances that apply in Ireland will need to be recognised. The Taoiseach has described it as ‘a matter of vital national interest for Ireland that we not return to the days of a hard border’ or to ‘create a new one for the future’. This clearly applies to customs as well as to movements of people. Prime Minister May has said that ‘nobody wants to return to the borders of the past'. The only borders that existed in the past were for customs purposes and for security reasons. This implies that there is political will on both sides to find an appropriate solution to the border issues thrown up by the UK’s impending departure from the EU.
Ireland-UK relations: Ireland will remain a member of the EU because membership has brought great benefit to us, including by helping improve our ties with the UK. In the coming negotiations, we will be on the EU side of the table, but we will be looking towards a negotiated outcome that will serve to minimise disruption for Ireland, for North-South relations, and for Irish-UK ties.
Ireland will miss the partnership we have developed with the UK this past 40 years as we have tended to be on a similar wavelength on a range of issues. But let me be clear, Ireland has no shortage of allies within the EU and we have always worked hard on relations with our continental partners and will continue to do so.
We will also need to work hard on our bilateral ties with the UK, an area where BIPA may have a special role to play.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London