- Theresa May’s government pledges to put the Northern Irish peace process at the heart of Brexit talks in a position paper. Challenges the EU to match its commitment to upholding the Good Friday peace agreement and Common Travel Area. Ireland’s largest business group slams the paper as “unhelpful” and lacking in detail.
LONDON – The UK government has pledged to put the Northern Irish peace process at the heart of Brexit talks and prevent the return of a hard border between the UK and Ireland, in a position paper published on Wednesday.
In the paper, which can be read here, the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) vows to protect the rights of UK and Irish citizens and prevent the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Britain leaves the customs union in March 2019.
Theresa May’s government challenges the EU to appreciate the “unique circumstances” of Northern Ireland and match its commitment to upholding both the Good Friday peace agreement and Common Travel Area (CTA) – the latter being an open borders area comprising the UK and Northern Ireland which allows citizens to move freely within it.
In a statement accompanying the paper, Brexit Secretary David Davis stresses the importance of retaining a “seamless” border between the UK and Ireland and says the British side is “looking forward” to the EU’s response.
“The UK and Ireland have been clear all along that we need to prioritise protecting the Belfast Agreement in these negotiations, and ensure the land border is as seamless as possible for people and businesses, ” Davis says.
“The proposals we outline in this paper do exactly that, and we’re looking forward to seeing the EU’s position paper on the Northern Ireland border.
“In committing to keep the Common Travel Area, which has existed for nearly a century, we’re making sure UK and Irish citizens will continue to be able to travel, live, work and study across both countries.”
The paper will outline key negotiating goals the UK and EU should aim to achieve in Brexit talks. They are:
- Support for the Good Friday peace deal should be written into the withdrawal agreement to reflect a commitment on all sides to the Irish peace process. The withdrawal agreement should recognise that the people of Northern Ireland will continue to have – as set out in the Good Friday deal – a right to both British and Irish citizenship. Any people living in Northern Ireland who are Irish citizens will continue to benefit from the EU citizenship rights. The withdrawal agreement should also recognise the continued status of the CTA and associated rights. This will mean no passport controls for UK and Irish citizens travelling within the CTA and no question of new immigration checks operating between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Continued funding for reconciliation and peace projects in border areas. Preserve North-South and East-West cooperation, particularly on energy.
The government’s proposals include granting people who were born in Northern Ireland who hold Irish citizenship the right to maintain their Irish citizenship and the rights that flow from that as an EU citizen. This, in practice, would mean Northern Irish people with Irish citizenships could continue to enjoy rights reserved for EU citizens, like the right to move freely across the 28-nation bloc.
This paper is one of many the UK government is set to release over the next few weeks as it looks to speed up the process in Brexit talks. On Tuesday, DExEU published a paper outlining its desire for a “new” and “frictionless” customs union deal following a transitional customs arrangement.
What is the Northern Irish border dilemma?
Nothern Ireland is the only part of the UK which will share a land border with an EU member state after Brexit as the Republic of Ireland will remain part of Europe after Britain leaves. May has confirmed Britain will leave the customs union in March 2019, consequently putting the invisible border between Ireland and Northern Ireland at risk.
The return of a hard border would likely unleash chaos. A Lords report published in December said there is €60 billion (approximately £55 billion) in trade between the UK and Ireland each year, and an estimated 30,000 people cross the Irish border every day. There are also real concerns that leaving the customs union could threaten peace in Northern Ireland as the free movement across the border was integral to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
The chief executive of Ireland’s biggest business group, Chambers Ireland, told the HuffPost the British government’s plans for Ireland are “unhelpful” and lack sufficient detail to tackle the complexities of the problem.
Chambers Ireland CEO Ian Talbot, who is likely to have had advanced copy of the position paper, said: “The UK’s unwillingness to engage in the very real practical, political and geographical complexities of what will be a new land border between the EU and the UK is unhelpful and does not bode well for the next round of Brexit negotiations.
“Further, technology is not a panacea to the issue of cross-border trade. While technological solutions may be helpful, they are one part of what will be a series of complex arrangements. Suggesting anything otherwise is unrealistic.
“We do not fully understand how the UK’s suggestion that they plan to have an open border with the EU ties into the immigration concerns they have expressed. This approach could also impact on Ireland’s immigration policy and obligations.
“Our Chamber members along the border have also highlighted several concerns businesses have about traceability and regulation, delays in travelling cross border for day to day business, education and social needs.”
A spokesperson for the Irish government welcomed the position paper as “timely and helpful” but warned: “Protecting the peace process is crucial and it must not become a bargaining chip in the negotiations.”
Labour MP Conor McGinn, who grew up in Northern Ireland, accused Theresa May’s government of “vagueness and posturing.” “These proposals on a light touch border are lighter still on detail,” McGinn said.