Charlie Flanagan: Return of power-sharing in Northern Ireland absolutely crucial as process of Brexit picks up momentum
The year 2017 has already given us more than a year's worth of political drama. The collapse of the Executive at Stormont and the subsequent Assembly election. Weeks of talks between the five main parties in which I and Secretary of State Brokenshire have been actively involved.
The calling of a UK general election. And, perhaps most significantly of all, formal notification of the UK's departure from the EU and the formal responses by the EU.
This week I am bringing the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier to the border area to see first-hand the unique situation here on the island of Ireland and the potential impact on people's daily lives.
Mr Barnier already knows the border area well from his time as EU Regional Affairs Commissioner in the years immediately after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, something he emphasised to me when he visited Dublin last October.
Now, in his role as the EU's Brexit negotiator, he wants to build on that experience and see first-hand the border region as it is today.
Many of us are old enough to remember what the border used to mean.
We have witnessed the historic transition of the border from a visible symbol of division to an invisible product of peace. The Irish Government's priority is to protect that position and ensure no return to any kind of "hard border" as a consequence of Brexit.
In pursuit of that objective and the broader interests of all of the people of this island, the Irish Government has, over the last nine months, engaged intensively with Mr Barnier and European Council President Donald Tusk and their teams, the European Parliament, the UK and every single one of our fellow 26 remaining EU member states.
I have explained the Good Friday Agreement and the unique circumstances on our island to every EU foreign minister in multiple discussions.
At the European Council on April 29, the efforts of the Irish Government resulted in the explicit prioritisation of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland in the core phase of the withdrawal negotiations.
The European Council's negotiating guidelines, which will guide Mr Barnier's work, are clear: "Continuing to support and protect the achievements, benefits and commitments of the peace process will remain of paramount importance", while "flexible and imaginative solutions will be required, including with the aim of avoiding a hard border."
When Mr Barnier visits the border region, his focus will be on the many ways which Brexit could affect people's everyday existence across this island. Informed by the All-Island Civil Dialogue consultations on Brexit, an ongoing series of sectoral dialogues and my own meetings with civil society and business representatives in Northern Ireland, I have emphasised this dimension in all my formal meetings.
But I believe Mr Barnier will find a visit to the region very valuable and I am pleased that he has accepted my invitation.
During his visit, I will be ensuring that there is a good understanding of the realities for people who live on one side of the border and work on the other; the importance of cross-border medical services; the movement and trade of agricultural goods such as milk and milk products; the cross-community peace and reconciliation initiatives underpinned by the EU; cross-border transport links by bus and rail; our shared energy needs; our co-operation on tourism; and much more besides.
I will be highlighting the fact that virtually everyone born in Northern Ireland is entitled to Irish and, therefore, EU citizenship.
Having done the groundwork to ensure that the unique situation in Ireland is a shared priority for the EU as a whole, we must now begin to seek solutions as part of the negotiations between the EU and the UK.
The UK Government has set out its initial stall for the negotiations, including the avoidance of a hard border and other key Irish-British issues, such as maintaining the Common Travel Area. Open minds and a willingness for give and take will be required on all sides.
At this crucial time, the return of a power-sharing Executive by June 29 is vital. The Irish Government will play its part and will not let up on the pace and momentum, but there can be no substitute for an active, constructive Executive, bolstered by the voices of people across the community in representing the unique interests of Northern Ireland.
There is no room for complacency now - not in Dublin, not in Brussels, not in London and not in Belfast.
- Charlie Flanagan TD is the Republic's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade