Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Questions (37)

Niall Collins


37. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of Anglo-Irish relations and the way in which the Government proposes to ensure ongoing and sustained dialogue between the United Kingdom and Ireland in a post-Brexit environment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37473/19]

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Oral answers (4 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

Can the Tanáiste update the House on Anglo-Irish relations and how the Government proposes to ensure the ongoing and sustained dialogue between the United Kingdom and Ireland in a post-Brexit environment?

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union is one of enormous strategic, economic and political consequence. We respect this decision, and we have been consistent in all interactions with the UK Government making clear that our preferred outcome is a deal on the basis of the withdrawal agreement. We are of course open to realistic, legally binding and workable alternatives but in the absence of such alternatives, the British Prime Minister's proposal to abolish the backstop is unacceptable.

Notwithstanding our differing perspectives, and continued uncertainty in relation to the manner of the UK's departure, I and my Government colleagues are maintaining regular contact with our UK counterparts. The Taoiseach met the British Prime Minister last week, and over the last month, I have met the Foreign Secretary, the Brexit Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on a number of occasions, including last night when I hosted the Secretary of State for dinner in Dublin.

It is clear the UK’s decision to leave the EU will change fundamentally the nature and frequency of our bilateral interaction. I am conscious of the importance of protecting existing co-operation and of providing opportunities for mutually beneficial co-operation and relationship-building in the future, for obvious reasons.

The existing, carefully balanced Good Friday Agreement structures for British-Irish co-operation are vital in this regard, namely, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, BIIGC, and the British-Irish Council, BIC. These institutions now need to be utilised to the fullest extent possible.

At last November's meeting of the intergovernmental conference, a joint paper outlining a possible model to maintain bilateral co-operation post Brexit was discussed, including regular Taoiseach-Prime Minister-level summits, and ministerial and official-level dialogue. The importance of such future structures was also discussed at the latest BIIGC meeting in May, and will be revisited by the current UK Government in the coming period and advanced as required in the context of broader developments.

Our embassy in London - our largest bilateral embassy - and our consulates in Edinburgh and Cardiff remain essential to sustaining ongoing dialogue, and the Government is committed to opening an additional consulate in Britain in the coming years.

The relationship between Ireland and the UK is and will continue to be a unique, vital, and complex one. It is a relationship which requires great care, close attention and ongoing engagement at every level.

Brexit and the ongoing political instability in the UK have disrupted Anglo-Irish relations. Our two countries are going in different directions and are at odds over the manner in which the UK will exit the EU. This presents difficulties for the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, and maintaining the all-island economy, to name but a few.

It is imperative, despite the obvious difficulties, that the British and Irish Governments continue to engage constructively with one another. Governments must lead from the front and set the tone for Anglo-Irish relations. Moreover the relationship underpins the peace process and there is an onus on both Governments to ensure that they work collectively and adhere to their obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. Historically, it has been the two Governments that have always been the engines and catalyst for driving the talks and getting things done. It is imperative that the same impetus continues from both Governments.

Furthermore, we cannot allow Brexit suck all of the oxygen from Anglo-Irish relations. Anglo-Irish relations are much more than just Brexit. Our countries are deeply entwined, economically, socially and culturally and will remain so in the post-Brexit environment. Ireland needs to actively nurture this relationship.

Last November the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference discussed a joint paper outlining a possible model to maintain and strengthen the high level of bilateral co-operation between Ireland and the UK post Brexit. This commitment was reaffirmed at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference held in May of this year. Officials on both sides have commenced the process of turning these ideas into a practical plan of work with a view to presenting a fully worked through proposal for future east-west co-operation. Can the Tánaiste give the House an update on this, please?

I thank the Deputy for his question.

We had a very good engagement on that issue. Both sides recognised that the EU post Brexit will be very different. We are simply not going to see British Ministers as often because they will not be around the EU negotiating tables with us. Even with the Good Friday Agreement structures, there was an acceptance on both sides that we needed to go beyond that. The idea that we were developing at the time - David Lidington and I were the key people co-chairing the BIIGC - was that we were developing this concept which some other EU countries have, for example, France and Germany, and Portugal and Spain, whereby they would have an annual intergovernmental conference-engagement. We would look to do that every second year in the UK and Ireland, led by the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister but also involving at least half a dozen Ministers in key areas. We are still committed to that approach. There has of course been a change in British Government and personalities. I am hoping that we will have a BIIGC in the next six weeks or so and that we can get back to focusing on that new structure in terms of making it happen.