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Brexit: UK-Irish relations

12 December 2016, House of Lords European Union Committee.

The House of Lords EU Committee published reports to highlight issues that have arisen due to the UK referendum result.  The report on Brexit: UK-Irish relations is of particular interest.

The following is a summary and the full report can be found here

The United Kingdom and Ireland have a special set of historical, geographical, economic, social and cultural ties. It is a unique relationship, turbocharged in recent years by an unprecedented degree of friendship as the Northern Ireland peace process has advanced. This relationship has as one of its foundations— though not its only one—the UK and Ireland’s common membership of the EU.

The implications of Brexit for Ireland are therefore more profound than they are for any other Member State. Brexit gives rise to a series of complex and interconnected questions, affecting UK-Irish relations, Northern Ireland, and North-South relations on the island of Ireland. Yet these issues are often overlooked on the British side of the Irish Sea.

In this report, we therefore draw attention to: the serious economic implications of Brexit for Ireland, North and South; the consequences for the Irish land border of potential restrictions to the free movement of goods and people; the implications for the Common Travel Area (CTA) and for the special status of UK and Irish citizens in each other’s countries, including the right of people born in Northern Ireland to Irish (and therefore EU) citizenship; the potential impact on political stability in Northern Ireland; and the challenge to the institutional structure for North-South cooperation on the island of Ireland, and East-West relations between the UK and Ireland, established under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

In order to ensure that these issues receive the attention they deserve, all parties to the negotiations need to give official recognition to the special, unique nature of UK-Irish relations in their entirety, including the position of Northern Ireland, and the North-South and East-West structure and institutions established under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

We do not underestimate the legal and institutional difficulties of translating such recognition into a final agreement. Yet the unique nature of UK-Irish relations necessitates a unique solution. The best way to achieve this would be for the EU institutions and Member States to invite the UK and Irish Governments to negotiate a draft bilateral agreement, involving and incorporating the views and interests of the Northern Ireland Executive, while keeping the EU itself fully informed. Such an agreement would then need to be agreed by EU partners, as a strand of the withdrawal agreement.

Key objectives of any bilateral negotiation should include: maintenance of the current open land border between the UK and Ireland, as well as of the ease of movement across the sea boundary between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK; maintenance of the current Common Travel Area arrangements, and the right of free movement of UK and Irish citizens between the jurisdictions; maintenance of the right of UK and Irish citizens to reside and work in each other’s countries; the retention of rights to Irish (and therefore EU) citizenship for the people of Northern Ireland; in the event that the UK leaves the customs union, a customs and trade arrangement between the two countries, subject to the agreement of the EU institutions and Member States; acceptance of the Northern Ireland Executive’s right to exercise devolved powers in making decisions about the free movement of EU workers within its jurisdiction; reaffirmation by both governments of their commitment to the Belfast/Good 4 Brexit: UK-Irish relations Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements, including continued support for existing cross-border cooperation; and continued eligibility for cross-border projects to EU funding programmes.

The EU has a strong interest in supporting this approach. It has made a significant political and financial contribution to the peace process, and it is not in the EU’s interests, any more than of the UK and Ireland, for political stability in Northern Ireland to be put at risk by Brexit. The EU will also be particularly cognisant of the asymmetric burden that Brexit would place on Ireland, which has made clear that its future lies in the EU.

We welcome the Irish Government’s strenuous efforts to ensure that EU colleagues are informed about the unique circumstances in the island of Ireland, and the particular challenges of Brexit.

But the primary responsibility for drawing attention to and finding solutions to these issues lies with the UK Government. Ireland now faces challenges that are not of its own making. Closer UK-Irish relations and stability in Northern Ireland must not be allowed to become ‘collateral damage’ of Brexit.