We are in another crucial stage in the Brexit negotiations. Work on drafting the Withdrawal Agreement has been a key focus since December. Published on 28 February, it contains a draft 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.
Following on from the adoption by the European Council at its meeting on 23 March of additional guidelines, a schedule of negotiations is underway between the EU and the UK leading up to the European Council in June. These negotiations are focused on all outstanding issues in the draft Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland with a view to continuing efforts to narrow the remaining gaps on the draft Protocol, as well as the future relationship.
Our preference has always been to resolve the Irish-specific issues through the wider 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.
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.
The importance of avoiding a hard border to people living in all the border counties, including Cavan and Monaghan, cannot be underestimated and the Government is acutely conscious of this. The North South cooperation we enjoy today brings tangible benefits to the daily lives of people in the border region and contributes to economic opportunity and development. It is also a very practical outworking of the peace process which allows for the normalisation of relationships between people across the island, to mutual benefit. It is for these reasons that there cannot be a return to border infrastructure of any kind on this island.
Coordinators have agreed that negotiations will continue on a regular basis and Ireland will continue its close cooperation 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.