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Launch of CER policy brief

"Ulster's fight, Ulster's rights? Brexit, Northern Ireland and the threat to British-Irish relations"

by Dr. Edward Burke


On 22 November, the Embassy hosted the launch of the policy brief entitled "Ulster's fight, Ulster's rights: Brexit, Northern Ireland and the threat to British-Irish relations" with the Centre for European Reform. Following an introduction from Ambassador O'Neill - available to read below - Dr Edward Burke, Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Nottingham and the author of the policy brief, presented the conclusions of his paper. Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, a public law specialist with Doughty Street Chambers, responded. Carolyn Quinn, journalist and host of The Westminster House on BBC Radio 4, moderated a discussion between Dr Burke and Ms Gallagher, which included Q&A from the audience.

A podcast of the discussion is available to listen to here.

The policy brief is available to read in full at


Ambassador O'Neill's opening remarks


Ladies and Gentlemen


The 10th of April 2018 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the multi-party agreement and international treaty that paved the way for an end to thirty years of conflict in Northern Ireland.

In his paper, Dr. Burke poses the question: "Does Brexit now threaten the fragile compromises that have (mostly) kept the peace for almost 20 years?" 

As we approach a critical juncture in the negotiations on the UK exit from the EU, this is a question that goes to the heart of why the Irish issues have been accorded such priority by the EU27 during the first phase, alongside the financial settlement and citizens' rights.

A great distance has been travelled over the last two decades in securing peace in Northern Ireland and advancing the totality of relationships across these islands. Despite occasional stresses and strains, great progress has been made in normalising political relationships in Ireland.

Indeed, it was in this building in 2004 that the first formal meeting between the leadership of the DUP and the Irish Government took place.

The provisions of the Good Friday Agreement relating to North/South cooperation have also made a significant contribution to the improvement of peoples' lives on the island. As have the institutions dealing with the wider East-West relationships, particularly the British Irish Council and the British Irish Parliamentary Association.

We want to ensure that this process of normalisation and of co-operation – to mutual benefit - can continue in a dynamic way. For this to be sustained, maintaining a land border that is, for all practical purposes, open and invisible is absolutely essential - politically, economically, socially and symbolically.

Ensuring that the achievements of the last 20 years of peace and cooperation are not damaged and that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is fully protected are fundamental objectives - not just for Ireland but for the EU as a whole. I know that this is also true of the British Government, who fully share the same objectives.

Genuine progress has already been made on some fronts in the Brexit discussions, including the maintenance of the long-standing Common Travel Area and the reciprocal rights it confers on Irish and British citizens.

But – in regard to the land border - we have yet to find the flexible and imaginative solutions which are needed.

We certainly welcome the British Government's stated objective of avoiding physical border infrastructure.

However, to ensure the outcome we all want to see, we still need more assurance from the UK Government and that is a negotiating focus of these current intensive weeks ahead of the December European Council.

Every detail cannot be resolved at this stage, but what is needed is a firm commitment from the UK that the final outcome will maintain the openness and invisibility that characterises the border today – with its 300-crossings along 300 miles - and that such an outcome will respect Ireland's position and related responsibilities as an EU Member State.

As our Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade said when he visited London earlier this month, "with enough will, determination, creativity and imagination, such progress can be within reach".

The Irish government is working towards clear goals. We want to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, maintain the open border and the continuation of the Common Travel Area.

We are also very anxious to ensure an orderly and well managed exit by the UK from the EU – a no deal cliff edge is in nobody's interest. And – once we get to phase 2 of the negotiations - we will work hard for as close as possible an EU-UK relationship, not least in trading terms. The closer we can make a future EU-UK relationship, the easier it will be to sustain a close bilateral relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom.

I am conscious that the issue we discuss is a sensitive one and that it is all too easy to view it through the prism of orange and green. We must resist that impulse. Finding an effective solution to the issue of the border should not be reduced to a binary constitutional issue.

Doing so, will actually restrict the space for the flexibility and imagination we need to find a solution. The Good Friday Agreement provided the principles and the mechanisms to govern the constitutional status of NI – we should respect that accommodation and not conflate it with the immediate and urgent priority of managing Brexit.

Tonight's gathering, therefore, could not possibly be more timely. I look forward to hearing the views of our speakers, and I encourage you all to participate in what I hope is an informed and engaging discussion.