It has been almost a year since I had the honour of becoming the Ambassador of Ireland to the UK, and what a wonderful year it has been. Together with the team at the Embassy, I have travelled across Britain working to strengthen the cultural, economic and political ties between Ireland and the UK. In the process, I have met countless members of the Irish community here and witnessed the impressive scale of achievements of Irish people in every walk of life. There is no doubt that the Irish community has contributed greatly to British society in all areas. I am proud of that contribution and thank you for it.
In the course of my many conversations with Irish people here, I have frequently been asked about the potential impact that Brexit may have on Ireland and on the daily lives of the Irish in Britain.
The Irish Government’s objective in these negotiations is to do whatever we can to ensure an orderly Brexit that does not damage Ireland’s fundamental national interests – safeguarding the peace process, maintaining the Common Travel Area (CTA), protecting Ireland’s trade and economy and ensuring the closest possible future relationship between the UK and the EU.
Whether you were in favour of Leave or Remain, the reality is that the UK’s decision to leave the EU has the capacity – if not properly managed - to disturb the delicate and complex balance of the Good Friday Agreement. Therefore, the aim of the Irish Government has been to conserve what we have enjoyed for the last 20 years – an evolving peace process, a Good Friday Agreement that has transformed life for the better, and an open and invisible border that is both a cause and reflection of that transformation.
In the negotiations, the EU has proposed a backstop solution for Northern Ireland that contains all of the elements necessary to ensure this status quo remains and that will apply unless and until another solution is found. I assure you that this proposed backstop, as set out in the draft Withdrawal Agreement, fully respects the Good Friday Agreement; the EU would not have proposed it, and Ireland would not be supporting it, if it did not. It simply sets out the practical and technical measures needed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and in no way affects the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the constitutional status of Northern Ireland can only be changed with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
As recently as last week, Prime Minister May reiterated her commitment to ensuring there is no hard border in Ireland, and has also committed to having a legally operable backstop in the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, which we welcome. For final agreement to be reached, delivering on these commitments will be essential.
The Irish Government is also working to ensure that the status of Irish citizens in the UK is preserved post-Brexit. Since long before Ireland and the UK joined the EU, the Common Travel Area (CTA) has allowed Irish and British citizens to move freely, reside in either jurisdiction and access associated rights and entitlements, including those related to employment, healthcare, education and social benefits, as well as the right to vote in certain elections. It also underpins the rights of those born in Northern Ireland to be British or Irish or both.
In December of last year, the EU and the UK agreed that the CTA and associated rights and privileges can continue to operate. The UK Government has confirmed that Irish citizens will not need to apply for the “settled status” scheme (which has been established for other EU citizens living in Britain) although they can if they wish to. This was re-confirmed most recently in the UK’s White Paper on the Future Relationship between the UK and the EU, which states that the CTA means that Irish citizens will continue to hold their current status in the UK.
In the months ahead, the Embassy will share further information on the completion of the work underway to ensure that the CTA continues to function effectively, so that Irish and UK citizens can continue to enjoy access to the arrangements in each other’s countries that we so value. Where you have concerns or questions, I encourage you to highlight those to us, either through the Embassy or Irish community organisations. We have also developed a Brexit website which I hope you will find useful and informative.
Ambassador Adrian O'Neill