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'My government does not believe that there is continuing evidence of a demand for a united Ireland'


United front: PM Theresa May with Taoiseach Enda Kenny

United front: PM Theresa May with Taoiseach Enda Kenny

AFP/Getty Images

United front: PM Theresa May with Taoiseach Enda Kenny

The result of last month's UK referendum on EU membership was a political shock, which will have significant implications across Europe and beyond for quite some time.

The result of the poll is acutely felt in Northern Ireland, where the outcome was at odds with the UK-wide overall result. In the context of a debate and a result which has thrown up a number of constitutional issues within the UK, most notably in Scotland, it is unsurprising that related questions have come to the fore.

This especially true in Northern Ireland, where society and politics, although stable and increasingly reconciled, are still defined by differing constitutional aspirations.

My government's policy - and, indeed, our responsibility - arises from our status as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, which was approved by the people of this island and then enshrined in an international treaty, lodged with the United Nations, as well as in amended provisions of the Constitution of Ireland.

Ahead of the referendum, comprehensive cross-departmental contingency plans were put in place by the Irish government. In light of the result, these efforts are being intensified.

It is crucial that Ireland is well-placed to protect and advance our interests in the negotiations, which will take place between the EU27 and the UK.

The government is determined that Ireland's role in those discussions will be constructive, effective and influential.

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One obvious priority for Ireland in these negotiations is the potential implications for Northern Ireland, as well as the British-Irish relationship. The Common Travel Area and cross-border trade are among the priority issues.

As the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister made clear at Downing Street earlier this week, both governments are determined to avoid any return to a 'hard border' and that the flow of people and goods on this island remains unimpeded.

The Irish government will fully play its part in securing this objective; both in bilateral engagement with the UK and, most significantly, as one of the countries integrally involved in the EU negotiations.

The detailed preparatory work that is ongoing includes the steps required to fully respect the status of the Good Friday Agreement and all of its provisions, irrespective of the UK's future status within the EU. This includes those provisions that relate to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland which, like all other aspects of the Agreement, must be fully taken into account in whatever new legal arrangements are agreed between the EU and the UK.

While the Good Friday Agreement recognised that a majority of people in Northern Ireland currently wish to remain as part of the UK, the Agreement also envisaged the possibility at some stage in the future of a united Ireland, provided a majority voted for that option. Crucially, all of this is subject to the explicit principle of consent and the Irish Constitution binds all Irish governments, confirming that "a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island".

The specific mechanism within the Agreement to test that consent in Northern Ireland - a border poll - has already been in place for more than 18 years and would be invoked when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland believes it likely that a majority of those voting would opt for a change.

As of now, my government does not believe that there is convincing evidence that this test has been met and, in our view, such a vote now would only serve to increase uncertainty and division at an already difficult and sensitive time.

However, as the Taoiseach has made clear, the government is mindful of the need to ensure that this future option, as part of the totality of the Good Friday Agreement, is not in any way invalidated by a UK departure from the EU.

In all of our meetings with our EU counterparts over the last month, the Taoiseach and I have highlighted the unique status of Northern Ireland and the consequences for north-south interactions, which must be factored into any new EU relationship with the UK.

While this is only the beginning of the process, I am encouraged by the sensitivity and understanding of our partners to this issue, which is reflective of the enormously positive contribution which the European Union has made to the peace process.

The government's determination to protect the gains of that peace process and minimise any negative impact on Northern Ireland is unequivocal.

A prosperous and reconciled Northern Ireland is in the interests of all the people of this island.

  • Charlie Flanagan TD is the Republic's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade

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