Belfast Telegraph

Simon Coveney: Brexit must not paralyse Northern Ireland politics... restoring Stormont is now crucial

Tanaiste Simon Coveney speaking at Queen’s University last night
Tanaiste Simon Coveney speaking at Queen’s University last night

By Simon Coveney

Yesterday was exactly two years since we last had a working Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland. I have regular conversations with the parties here in Northern Ireland. I talk to the Secretary of State all the time.

The sense that the situation we find ourselves in is unsustainable is an absolutely shared one.

It should be, by far, the dominant political issue of the day.

It has, however, been overshadowed and complicated by another question: the UK exit from the European Union.

I am conscious of the heat that has entered this debate, and the risk of misunderstandings and mutual mistrust. And that debate is, of course, at an intense and sensitive stage this week in Westminster.

I have no wish to do or say anything to complicate those deliberations. So let me simply be as open as I can.

We didn't want the UK to decide to leave the European Union. We believed that the European Union worked for the UK and enhanced its role in the world, as it does ours.

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And we believed that the European Union was better with the UK in it, benefiting from its place in the single market and the UK's voice around the table of European leaders.

And an EU with the UK as a full member state is better by far for Ireland too.

Better economically, politically and, most importantly of all, as a context and support for an extraordinarily positive relationship between our two countries and our greatest joint achievement, the peace process in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement.

However, we respect fully the democratic decision of the UK electorate.

We do not seek to undermine it. And we do not seek to use it to our advantage, because, frankly, there are next to no advantages to be had from it.

To the extent that we have an 'agenda' in the process of securing a withdrawal agreement, it isn't hidden. It's the first sentence of every intervention we make.

We want to make sure that UK withdrawal from the European Union doesn't jeopardise the foundation of the shared, peaceful future for everyone on this island provided by the Good Friday Agreement. That is our agenda.

We recognise that people have genuine concerns in this process. Fears even.

A change, like that presented by Brexit, raises great uncertainty about the future - for families, for businesses and for farm-owners, for every citizen.

For our part, we believe that the withdrawal agreement addresses those concerns.

It has explicit assurances on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement, namely, that there will be no change in that constitutional status without the agreement of the people of Northern Ireland.

It also has explicit assurances on unfettered access to all markets for Northern Ireland businesses, both within the UK's internal market and in the EU's single market - a unique advantage for businesses and farmers here.

It has explicit assurances on no diminution of rights resulting from Brexit.

And it includes the backstop or insurance mechanism to guarantee that there will not be a return to any hard border on this island, with all the negative impacts that would bring for the delicate balance of the peace process, for small businesses and farms dependent on seamless cross-border flows, and for people's day to day lives.

Overall, we believe that the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on the future relationship negotiated between the UK and the EU is a fair and balanced deal, with compromises shown on both sides.

How the Brexit process goes forward now is a deeply important question for people in Northern Ireland. But we cannot let it paralyse politics in Northern Ireland any longer.

Last year we rightly marked the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and we honoured those from across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland, and from Dublin, London, Washington DC and elsewhere who made that achievement possible.

But life moves on.

In universities across this island, we have young people who weren't born when the Agreement was signed. We have a generation graduating for whom these years right now will be formative to their political outlook.

Not the heartbreaking years of the Troubles; not the tentative hopes of the ceasefires and the talks; not the extraordinary breakthrough of the Agreement. But this, this here and now. This absence of political co-operation. This absence of political contact. This absence of respectful political dialogue.

We don't have a generation's worth of time to waste.

We've got to get this done in 2019. We can't keep waiting for a better moment.

  • Simon Coveney is Tanaiste and Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs

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