Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Ceisteanna (25)

David Cullinane

Ceist:

25. Deputy David Cullinane asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the details of the protections of human rights in Northern Ireland post Brexit as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement; the measures proposed for the protection of the voting rights of EU citizens in Northern Ireland post Brexit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21482/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Ceist ar Foreign)

My question is on the rights of EU citizens who live in the North and how, in a post-Brexit situation, their political, social and economic rights can be protected.

We have discussed this issue and will do so again as these negotiations proceed, as this is one of the complex areas of negotiation on which we need to make progress. We are making some.

As co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government is determined to ensure it is fully protected in all its parts throughout the process of the UK's withdrawal from the EU. This includes the rights and equality provisions of the Good Friday Agreement that are central to the peace process. Our EU partners have shown solidarity and support in respect of Ireland's unique issues and concerns, including the protection of the agreement.

On 8 December, the joint report between the EU and UK negotiators was agreed. It included important commitments in respect of protecting the agreement in all its parts. The draft protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which forms part of the draft withdrawal agreement, translates these commitments into a legal framework. The protocol proposes that the UK would ensure no diminution of rights, including by respecting EU non-discrimination law, and that this commitment would be implemented through a dedicated mechanism. The protocol also proposes that the UK would facilitate the related work of the institutions and bodies of the Good Friday Agreement, which includes the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the joint committee of both human rights commissions in both jurisdictions. The protocol also clearly acknowledges that the people of Northern Ireland who choose to identify as Irish and therefore as EU citizens, will continue to enjoy the rights, opportunities and benefits of EU citizenship.

More work is required between the UK and EU on rights and equality issues, as is provided for in the joint report. The Government will continue to engage intensively on these issues, working with our EU partners, the Commission task force and the UK to ensure that the commitments made to date are delivered on in full. There has been a great deal of engagement on this issue in particular. While we are not making a great deal of progress in some areas, I am told that there is considerable goodwill on both sides where the issue of citizens' rights is concerned. We are making some progress in that regard.

We need to translate that goodwill into tangible proposals so that Irish citizens in the North who are also European citizens will know exactly where they stand in a post-Brexit situation. The Good Friday Agreement recognises that someone in Northern Ireland can be Irish and British and hold both passports and citizenships as a birthright. As with many other Brexit issues, however, the difficulty is that, although there were commitments in last December's political agreement, there is no agreement on the details, which the Minister says are still being worked out.

We represent a significant percentage of the people living in the North, and a question they are putting to us is about how their political, social and economic rights will be vindicated, for example, access to healthcare funding if people travel and access to education opportunities. These are important issues for people who live in the North, and they want to know how they can exercise their rights as EU citizens in the North if it is taken out of the EU against its will.

Those are fair questions, and that is what these negotiations have to deliver. For the first time, we are effectively discussing a birthright to EU citizenship for our citizens in Northern Ireland even though they will be born outside the EU. That is new. It shows the importance of the Good Friday Agreement, which allows people to choose British, Irish or dual citizenship.

That will require us, through the negotiations, to find a way to ensure EU citizens will be able to study, work, move around and access healthcare across EU member states as they can today. Although the common travel area arrangements will facilitate this for Irish and British citizens in Britain and Ireland, the delivery of EU citizenship rights is very complex for those seeking such rights but living outside the European Union and potentially outside the jurisdiction of EU courts. At that point it becomes very complicated. Having been in London on several occasions in recent weeks, I can state there is a determination among negotiators on both sides to make progress on this issue before the end of June.

The answer is that the North does not have to be outside the European Union. It should be part of it because that is how the people voted. It is interesting that there are, rightly, proposals on the table to effectively keep the North in the customs union, the Single Market and the legal architecture of the European Union for trade purposes. Why can the same approach not be taken to citizens' rights and access to the European Court of Justice or the European Court of Human Rights? That could be done if there was the goodwill the Tánaiste says there is. Although we are making progress on trade issues and the backstop is that the North will be kept in an all-Ireland framework aligned to the rules of the customs union and the Single Market, why can the same logic not be applied to citizens' and political rights which are as important as trade for those who live in the North? I accept that the negotiations are ongoing and that there is goodwill, as the Tánaiste stated. We hope to get the best possible result for those who live in the North, but they are concerned by much of the commentary from elements of the Tory Party which are trying to unravel the political agreement reached in December. Although the Government and the European Union have work to do, the difficulty is that we are dealing with a very divided Tory Party which is not particularly generous or kind when it comes to the rights of people who live in the North.

I wish to be very clear that we take our lead from the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. She has made commitments on behalf of Britain and on which she will follow through. There is a lot of noise in the political system at Westminster where various people are commenting on the issue, but the Prime Minister represents the British Government in the negotiations------

Yes, she does. Although there is political debate on the approach that should be taken, she has committed to protect the Good Friday Agreement in full, ensure there will be no Border infrastructure of any kind on the island of Ireland and no related checks and controls and have a backstop in the withdrawal agreement that will be legally operable in terms of text and which will remain unless or until it is replaced by something better. These commitments have been made. The challenge is how we fulfil them and promises made in the negotiations in a way that is politically acceptable to all sides. That is what we are trying to do. We should not be dragged in different directions by commentary from various sources. The Government and the Barnier task force take their lead from the British Prime Minister's office.