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Paul Murphy: Prime Minister's priority must be to protect Good Friday Agreement

By Paul Murphy

Today in the House of Lords, the bill to trigger Article 50 and start the UK's withdrawal from the European Union reaches its next stage.

While Parliament is debating our future with respect to the result of last June's Brexit referendum, we are calling on the government to recognise the importance of an earlier referendum.

It is almost 20 years since the people of Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland voted to endorse the Good Friday Agreement. Since then, that Agreement has been at the heart of progress in Northern Ireland - a process that continues today.

With regard to the EU vote, it has become clear that David Cameron chose to call the referendum with no proper thought to the implications for Northern Ireland should the result not go the way he wanted.

With the referendum campaign now behind us and a Leave result, it is crucial that Theresa May and her government gets some focus, and urgently.

The Good Friday Agreement was drafted and signed against a backdrop of the shared and common membership of two governments, of Ireland and the UK, as partners in the EU.

That membership permeated every strand of the Good Friday negotiations.

For the last two decades, it has underpinned most of the bodies set up between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and facilitated everyday discussions and engagement.

Indeed, the preamble to the Agreement reads that the two governments wish "to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union".

The process of EU withdrawal has implications for the Good Friday Agreement, and the UK government should not be content to court uncertainty.

We must have a commitment that the provisions of the Agreement will remain in place, and be respected both in letter and in spirit.

There are implications for the border and the free movement of people, goods and services.

Those born in and residing in Northern Ireland who choose to take up their right to Irish citizenship will, by virtue of that right, remain citizens of the EU.

The long-standing rights of Irish citizens within the UK must also be protected, and vital institutions preserved.

Mrs May and her ministers need to demonstrate that they understand these realities, and respect not just Northern Ireland's past but its future, too.

The legislation to trigger Article 50 as it stands gives no regard or protection whatsoever to the constitutional, institutional or legal provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. Labour Peers - including our Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland, Lord McAvoy, and Shadow Leader of the Lords, Baroness Smith - will today promote an amendment in the Lords to protect the Agreement voted for in May 1998 while we plan for the next steps towards Brexit.

If the government are prepared to give assurances that the spirit of existing agreements will not be unpicked or undermined, they should do so with greater certainty and include them in the bill now before Parliament.

Paul Murphy was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from 2002 to 2005 and is now a member of the House of Lords

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