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Ministerial address at the Centre for Cross Border Studies Annual Conference

Ireland, Minister Charles Flanagan, Northern Ireland Peace Process, Speech, Northern Ireland, Ireland, 2017


Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan T.D.

Centre for Cross Border Studies Annual Conference

23 February, 2017


***Check against delivery***

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is a great pleasure to be back in Armagh. I was pleased to visit the Centre here in October, and I would like to thank Ruth for the invitation to address you today.

The Centre for Cross Border Studies has a fine reputation for encouraging the development of North-South co-operation and I very much welcome this timely conference on, what I must say, is a very appropriate theme. It also builds on your valuable work carried out before last June’s referendum.

“Building and maintaining relationships”: this is perhaps the most important thing we can do as we face the challenge of Brexit: relationships between communities; relationships on our island; relationships between our islands; relationships with our European neighbours. This has been at the heart of the Irish Government’s response to the referendum result.

Many of you here today will have read or listened to the Taoiseach’s speech at the Mansion House in Dublin last Wednesday and some of you will have been at the All-Island Civic Dialogue last Friday, where cross-border representation was very strong indeed. As was clear on those occasions, for many in the North there is deep concern at the prospect of being removed from the EU. We must all rise to these challenges and work together to secure the best possible outcome for the island as a whole.

That’s not to suggest that we underestimate the scale and complexity of the unique challenges which a UK departure from the EU poses for everyone on this island. We do not. The UK’s exit from the EU will be a complex and lengthy political negotiation, involving all EU Member States and EU institutions as appropriate. But the Government has clear objectives:
• Minimising impact on trade and the economy
• Protecting Northern Ireland and the Peace Process
• Maintaining the Common Travel Area
• Influencing the future of the European Union

We will continue to work with our EU partners and prepare comprehensively in support of our overall objectives, including in relation to Northern Ireland, the peace process and all-island issues. 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.

Over the last 8 months I have engaged intensively with my foreign ministerial colleagues throughout the EU. There isn't a foreign minister in the EU who is not aware of the central importance of the Good Friday Agreement and the determination of the Irish Government, its co-guarantor, to make sure its principles and provisions are fully respected in any future EU-UK agreement and that none of the gains of the peace process are lost.

The Good Friday Agreement, an international treaty, registered with the United Nations, provides for a unique political and constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland, which is the foundation of the peace process. It recognises the “birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves -and be accepted -as Irish or British, or both”. This means that virtually everyone born in Northern Ireland can of right choose to be an Irish citizen, and therefore a citizen of the European Union, with the attendant rights and obligations of both. There is no parallel for this anywhere in Europe – a point I have been highlighting in my contacts with my EU counterparts.

The Agreement also contains very important provisions on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. It is part of the Government’s responsibility to ensure that all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement are fully accommodated in any new arrangement between the EU and the UK. The Government has been clear that these arrangements should cause no legal impediment to the mechanism set out in the Agreement for a united Ireland, in accordance with the principle of consent.

I feel it is important to say here, given the debates at present around the phrase “special status for Northern Ireland", that the Irish Government is very actively seeking recognition and accommodation of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, north and south. Our extensive discussions with partner governments across the EU – as well as the UK - have made clear that formal concepts and terms like “special status”, while they might sound appealing , actually 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 blanket negotiating demand would not achieve positive traction across the EU 27 nor with the European institutions in Brussels; it would unnecessarily distract from the detailed and painstaking 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. It must also be acknowledged that the idea of ‘special status’ does not enjoy widespread support across the political parties here in Northern Ireland, nor indeed in London.

The Government will therefore maintain its focus on pursuit of specific, effective, and realisable measures that address each of the issues of concern under Brexit.

The Taoiseach made the government’s priorities crystal clear last week – and I quote from his speech:

“I will defend the Good Friday Agreement, in its spirit as well as its letter. The Irish Government will oppose a hard border, argue for free movement on this island, seek EU funding for cross-border projects and protect the rights of EU citizens, whether from North or South”.

The support of our EU partners for creative but concrete solutions is imperative. As well as in Belfast, Brussels, London and EU capitals, our work in pursuit of these goals is also happening on the ground. I am very pleased that my Department, through the Reconciliation Fund, has been able to support the Border People Project, coordinated by Annmarie here in the Centre for Cross Border Studies. Cross border work such as this is crucial for the border economy and for the island as a whole to benefit from the gains of the peace process.

I have seen first-hand how the constant ebb and flow of people crossing the border is vital to the all-island economy and society. Up to 30,000 people cross the border for work or study each day. Countless others cross to shop and socialise. At the three main border crossings in the North West alone, there are an estimated 326,000 cross-border journeys each week. InterTrade Ireland has estimated the total value of cross-border trade in manufactured goods and services at over €6 billion euro.

These three statistics alone are a stark reminder - if one were needed - that UK’s decision to leave the EU poses a serious challenge for this island, both economically and socially. The re-establishment of any type of border controls, or indeed any customs arrangements, would clearly be a retrograde step. The Taoiseach has discussed the imperative of the open border with Prime Minister May in Dublin on 30 January and I have reinforced these issues in my meetings with the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire.

I can assure you that the retention of the open border we enjoy today is one of the benefits of the peace process which my Government colleagues and I are so determined to secure as part of the EU-UK negotiations.

Building and maintaining relationships, and working in a spirit of co-operation, North and South, is key to mitigating negative impacts of Brexit for our people. Under our Programme for a Partnership Government we are committed to advancing that co-operation, particularly through the cross-border bodies and the North South Ministerial Council.

We can already see how North South cooperation is delivering real benefits across the island. Last week the Health Ministers from North and South visited the North West Cancer Centre at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry. I can think of no better example of the benefits of co-operation than this jointly-funded radiotherapy unit- which can literally be a matter of life or death for those who avail of its services. Another partnership in the North West worthy of imitation elsewhere to strengthen relationships across the island is that of the local authorities in Donegal, Derry and Strabane supported by a North West Development Fund to which my Department has allocated €2.5 million.

Our shared membership of the EU and relationship with its institutions has of course hugely supported cross-border co-operation in the most practical of ways. EU funding helped deliver the motorways on which I drove here today. European funds have also delivered an important upgrade to the Enterprise train service, providing much needed top-quality North South connectivity.

Significantly too, programmes such as INTERREG and PEACE have been a key element of the European Union’s continuing commitment to the process of peace building and reconciliation and support for the Good Friday Agreement. These programmes alone delivered nearly €3.5 billion of investment in Northern Ireland and the Border Region over the last quarter of a century, with more than half a billion Euro to be invested over the period 2014-2020. I’ve already confirmed our Government’s commitment to seeking continued access by Northern Ireland to relevant EU programmes such as PEACE and INTERREG after the UK leaves the EU.

In the aftermath of the referendum on 23 June 2016, it became clear how much relationships really would matter in the months and years ahead. The NSMC Plenary in July 2016 provided an immediate and opportune platform for the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to agree on how to work closely together to optimise North South planning on Brexit.

The subsequent Plenary in November, here in Armagh, agreed on a number of important common principles for dealing with Brexit on an all-island basis. It is worth stating these principles which are shared by the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive:
• Recognition of the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, bearing in mind its geography and history;
• Ensuring that the treaties and agreements between Ireland and the UK are fully taken into account;
• Protecting the free movement of people, goods, capital and services; and
• Maintaing the economic and social benefits of cooperation.

I very much hope that the new Northern Ireland Executive will be in place soon after the Assembly election on 2 March and that dates for the next NSMC Plenary meeting will be agreed as soon as possible thereafter so that North/South Ministerial engagement can continue on the shared challenge of Brexit.

In terms of relationships between the islands of Ireland and Britain, this conference is rightly also looking at that East-West dimension and other devolved administrations. We must all plan for maintaining relationships in a post-Brexit environment and with that in mind my government has also taken care to engage with the administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh - I know you’ll be hearing from Minister Russell from Scotland tomorrow.

The British Irish Council too, a body established under the 1998 Agreement, has always done low-key but valuable, practical work in specific policy areas. However in the context of the UK decision to leave the EU, BIC summit meetings have also been very valuable in simply bringing together the leaders of member administrations within the Council. This has strong political value and helps build relationships. I have no doubt that June’s summit here in Northern Ireland will be another interesting meeting.

Parliamentary links are coming more to the fore, such as the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly and the North South Interparliamentary Assembly, while visits in all directions by parliamentary groups are always important occasions.

Only today, Hilary Benn MP and the House of Commons Brexit Committee are in Dublin, meeting the Good Friday and EU Committees in Leinster House as well as the Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and EU Affairs Minister of State Dara Murphy.

Ladies and gentlemen,

With negotiations set to begin shortly, everyone in Northern Ireland can be assured that the Irish Government is firmly resolved to secure the best possible outcome for everyone on the island of Ireland. We are focused and determined to ensure that the terms of the UK’s departure do not destabilise the peace process in Northern Ireland. We want the best possible political, economic and cultural relationships on and between these islands.

We do not underestimate the task ahead. It will not be easy. All of us gathered here today from all parts of the island - from Government, the political world, academia, and from the business and community sector will have to work together to try to ensure the best possible outcome for all our people. The Centre for Cross Border Studies will have an important role to play in the work that lies ahead. I wish you all the very best for the remainder of the conference. I have no doubt that there will be interesting discussions to be had. I’m only sorry I cannot stay for the full conference but I look forward to a full report my officials to inform our ongoing work.