‘Nothing here remotely threatens NI’s constitutional status’: Coveney

Irish deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney. 'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Irish deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney. 'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
  • The Republic’s deputy prime minister SIMON COVENEY has moved to reassure unionists that his government can be trusted not to use Brexit issues to attempt to undermine the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

My current role as Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has not been the beginning of my engagement with Northern Ireland issues – far from it.

My current role as Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has not been the beginning of my engagement with Northern Ireland issues – far from it.

I have always fully respected the equally valid outlook and concerns of unionists

As a Member of the European Parliament I cooperated on issues of mutual interest with my colleagues from Northern Ireland – and indeed those from the rest of the UK.

As Minister for Agriculture, I worked closely with Northern Ireland farmers and fishermen and their political representatives in the context of North/South cooperation and crucial European negotiations.

I even spoke at a DUP party conference in this capacity.

I am keenly aware that the collective contributions of so many people – but particularly the people of Northern Ireland – have resulted in the achievement of a lasting peace and, flowing from that, enormous progress across this island.

Protecting that progress - and ensuring that the normalised relationships we now enjoy on these islands continue – is a core focus for the Irish Government in the EU-UK negotiations that are ongoing.

I want to set out very clearly here the motivations and aims of the Irish Government in the context of the UK’s departure from the EU.

While the Irish Government regrets the decision taken by the UK to leave the EU, we have been very clear that we respect and accept the outcome of the referendum and that it applies to the UK as a whole.

At the same time, the Irish Government has a responsibility, along with the British Government, to ensure that we protect the gains and benefits of the peace process which have been painstakingly built up, slowly but surely, over the last thirty years.

The unique situation of Northern Ireland – not least in terms of its history and geography – does mean that Brexit poses specific challenges here. The position of the Irish Government has been steady and consistent and focussed on genuinely seeking practical ways to minimise any negative impact on the island of Ireland and on the peace process.

That objective is shared by our negotiating partners in the EU and of course by the UK Government, which has sovereign responsibility for Northern Ireland and is the co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.

Our two jurisdictions share this small island and there are a whole range of areas from energy to health to agriculture where it has always made sense to cooperate. The normalisation of relations and the mechanisms of the North South Ministerial Council have allowed that to thrive in recent years and a common EU framework has been essential in facilitating this work.

Also central to the relationship we now enjoy is an open and effectively invisible border which is important for both Northern Ireland and Ireland – economically, politically and socially.

This is why the EU is seeking clear assurances from the UK Government now about what will happen on the island of Ireland post-Brexit. We are not seeking detailed solutions at this point, but we are looking for commitments to guarantee that the progress we have collectively worked so hard to achieve on this island is not put at risk.

There is nothing here which remotely threatens Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. The only way in which that can be changed is spelt out in the Good Friday Agreement. And nothing about Brexit will alter that.

Once we get to phase two of these talks, we will all be arguing for the same thing: the closest possible future relationship between the UK and the EU. This would be good news for the people of Northern Ireland, Ireland and Great Britain – indeed, jobs and livelihoods across these islands depend upon it.

In the meantime, I hope I can be taken at my word that there is no hidden agenda at play here.

We genuinely want an outcome in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, and of Ireland – economically, politically and socially. And while I am a constitutional nationalist, I have always fully respected the equally valid outlook and concerns of unionists.

As a Government we have not, we are not and we will not use Brexit to try to advance any kind of constitutional agenda. To do so would be irresponsible and counter-productive and restrict the space for the flexibility and imagination we need to find practical solutions for the complex issues we face with Brexit.

Our objective is simple – to protect the relationships, institutions and gains of the peace process in a way which serves the interests of all who live on this island, whether unionist, nationalist or neither.

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