Protecting the Northern Ireland Peace Process is at the forefront of the Government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations. This includes the protection of the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts and the gains of the peace process, maintaining EU support for the Peace Process, supporting continued North South cooperation and ensuring there is no border infrastructure of any kind on the island of Ireland.
In this regard, Ireland’s interest is in trying to achieve as close as possible to the status quo on the island. Ideally, this would be achieved through the wider EU-UK future relationship agreement, but in relation to the border, we need to have a backstop in case that proves not to be possible and that backstop needs to be clearly defined as part of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Work on drafting the Withdrawal Agreement has been a key focus since December. Published on 28 February, the draft Withdrawal Agreement contains a Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is an integral part of the Agreement.
The UK has accepted that a legally operative version of the ‘backstop’ for the border will be included in the Withdrawal Agreement, in line with paragraph 49 of the Joint Progress Report agreed last December, and that all the issues identified in the draft Protocol reflect those that must be addressed. These were important steps forward.
At this point it is clear that while there are areas in the Protocol where shared policy objectives have been identified, there are some fundamental issues that have yet to be resolved.
The current schedule of negotiations now under way between the EU and the UK is being taken forward with a view to continuing efforts to narrow the remaining gaps on the draft Protocol. The overall aim is to maintain full alignment with those rules of the Single Market and Customs Union that are necessary to protect North South cooperation and the all-island economy as well as to avoid a hard border.
Significant progress is needed between now and the June European Council. At this stage in the negotiations, it is more important than ever that the UK provides more detailed and realistic proposals to the EU. We must have certainty in all scenarios on the commitments made on Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Coordinators have agreed that negotiations will continue on a regular basis and Ireland will continue its close co-operation with Michel Barnier’s team. This includes our involvement in discussions, where appropriate, while respecting the negotiation structures that have been mandated by the European Council.
Ireland’s future is at the heart of the European Union. It is a home which we have helped to build and continued membership of the Single Market and Customs Union is a core element of our economic strategy. This is not an either/or choice between the UK and our membership of the EU. We want the future relationship between the EU and the UK to be as close and positive as possible. We will work hard with all parties to achieve that over the coming months.