Brexit: UK-Irish relations Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction


1.The implications of the 23 June referendum result for UK-Irish relations are often overlooked, at least on this side of the Irish Sea. Yet the consequences of Brexit are highly significant, not only for the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and North-South relations between the two,1 but for the totality of relationships across these islands. Indeed, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has described the UK’s vote to withdraw from the EU as “arguably the greatest economic and social challenge for this island in fifty years.”2

2.This report seeks to draw attention to the implications in key areas such as the Irish economy; cross-border trade; the Irish land border and the Common Travel Area; policing and security cooperation; the future of the Northern Ireland peace process; and North-South and East-West relations.

This report

3.The United Kingdom and Ireland have a special set of historical, geographical, economic, social and cultural ties. While the relationship has not historically been a smooth one, it is, in the words of both the UK and Irish Governments, unique, and it has been turbocharged in recent years by an “unprecedented degree of friendship” as the Northern Ireland peace process has advanced.3 This friendship, symbolised in recent years by the successful reciprocal state visits of the Queen and the President of Ireland, has as one of its foundations—though not its only one—the UK and Ireland’s common membership of the EU.

4.The implications of the UK’s decision to leave the EU are therefore more profound for Ireland than for any other EU Member State. Brexit gives rise to a series of complex and interconnected questions. What will be the economic consequences for cross-border trade and economic activity? Can the current soft border arrangements be retained in their entirety? What are the implications for the Common Travel Area? What will the impact be on the institutional framework for North-South and East-West cooperation, established under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement?4 And, perhaps most importantly of all, what needs to be done to ensure that the Northern Ireland peace process remains on track?

5.For it is in Northern Ireland that, arguably, the consequences of the Brexit vote are thrown into sharpest relief. Of all the nations and regions of the UK, the economic implications of Brexit are greatest for Northern Ireland, not least because of the significant level of EU funding it receives, and the high volume of cross-border trade and economic cooperation with the Republic. Yet the social and political implications are equally significant, not least given that 56% of votes cast in the referendum in Northern Ireland were for ‘remain’. The British and Irish Governments are co-guarantors of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which presumes that they are “partners in the European Union”.5 Under that agreement, people born in Northern Ireland are entitled to Irish citizenship, which would make Northern Ireland unique, post-Brexit, as the only jurisdiction outside the EU where citizens were entitled to EU citizenship. The uncertain impact of Brexit on these issues threatens to disrupt the fragile political stability now seen in Northern Ireland.

6.Yet there is a pervasive sense that, while these issues are high on the agenda in Dublin and Belfast, they are not receiving the attention they deserve in London, Brussels or other EU capitals. The former Irish Taoiseach and EU Ambassador to the USA, John Bruton, expressed regret at the failure to address this issue during the referendum campaign:

“The impact on Ireland was virtually ignored, apart from a few interventions from the Prime Minister … it would have been easier for us—I have to be frank here—if more thought had been given to this before the referendum was initiated. It would also have been easier if more of this concern had been publicly expressed during the referendum campaign. I spoke at a number of events here in the UK and it seemed to me that people were hearing reference to this for the first time, notwithstanding that there has been so much interaction between the two islands and people on this island are well aware of the negative consequences of failing to deal with certain underlying grievances for innocent people.”6

7.We share Mr Bruton’s regret at the lack of attention given to the implications of Brexit for Ireland. The Irish Government and people remain committed to EU membership, and, aside from attempting to inform the debate and encourage Irish citizens resident in the UK to vote, had no power over its outcome. We also regret the lack of attention given to the impact of Brexit on East-West relations between the UK and Ireland, and between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. We have therefore undertaken this inquiry in order to give the impact of Brexit on UK-Irish relations and on Ireland, North and South, the attention it deserves.

8.We heard evidence in London from the Ambassador of Ireland to Great Britain, His Excellency Dan Mulhall; the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP, and Robin Walker MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU); and from former Irish Taoisigh John Bruton and Bertie Ahern. We also visited Belfast and Dublin, where we heard evidence from politicians, academics, think-tanks, economists, business, trade union and sectoral representatives, and those engaged in cross-border cooperation and engagement. While in Dublin, we also met the British Ambassador to Ireland, His Excellency Robin Barnett.

9.It did not prove possible while in Belfast to meet members of the Northern Ireland Executive. We were, though, grateful for the opportunity to exchange views informally with members of all the main parties represented on the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee on the Executive Office, and to participate in separate informal meetings with Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin MPs in London. In addition, we held an informal meeting in Dublin with members of the Oireachtas Committees on European Affairs and on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. We also received a number of written submissions from interested parties. We are grateful to all our witnesses for their assistance.

10.This report is intended to inform and influence the UK Government’s consideration of issues affecting Ireland as it forms its Brexit negotiating position. We trust that it will prove useful for ministers, officials, parliamentarians and other stakeholders not only in London, but also in Belfast, Dublin, and colleagues in the EU institutions and other Member States. The importance of closer UK-Irish relations and stability in Northern Ireland transcend the referendum result, and are too important to put at risk as collateral damage of the Brexit decision.

The work of the EU Committees

11.Following the referendum on 23 June 2016, the European Union Committee and its six sub-committees launched a coordinated series of short inquiries, addressing the most important cross-cutting issues that will arise in the course of negotiations on Brexit. The pace of events means that these inquiries will be short, but with this constraint, we are seeking to outline the major opportunities and risks that Brexit presents to the United Kingdom.

12.Our inquiries are running in parallel with the work currently being undertaken across Government, where departments are engaging with stakeholders, with a view to drawing up negotiating guidelines. But while much of the Government’s work is being conducted behind closed doors, our aim is to stimulate informed debate, in the House and beyond, on the many areas of vital national interest that will be covered in the negotiations. As far as possible we aim to complete this work before March 2017.

13.We make this report to the House for debate.

1 The population of the Republic of Ireland was estimated at its 2016 census as 4.76 million. The population of Northern Ireland is estimated by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency to be 1.86 million.

3 Q 3 (Ambassador Dan Mulhall); Q 13 (James Brokenshire MP)

4 John Bruton reminded us of the political sensitivity around certain phrases in the context of UK-Irish relations (Q 124). We have, wherever possible, sought to use what we understand to be accepted politically neutral terminology, save where we quote witnesses, where we seek to reflect the terminology that they used.

5 The Belfast Agreement, Agreement reached in the multi-party negotiations (10 April 1998): [accessed 28 November 2016]

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