Creative thinking can provide solutions to Northern Ireland’s Brexit challenges

Creative thinking can provide solutions to Northern Ireland’s Brexit challenges

My visit to Brussels earlier this week was an excellent opportunity to update the European Commission’s Chief Brexit Negotiator, Michel Barnier, on the current talks to restore an Executive at Stormont, as well as discussing the remaining political challenges and opportunities Northern Ireland faces in relation to exiting the EU. I also had productive meetings with EU Commissioner for Agriculture, Phil Hogan, and various MEPs from Northern Ireland and Ireland, as well as further afield.

As the UK negotiates its departure from the EU, part of my role, working with the Prime Minister and the Secretary for Exiting the EU, is to ensure that the interests of Northern Ireland are protected and advanced through the development of specific solutions to address its unique circumstances and that we secure an agreement that delivers for all of the UK.

Crucially, we want to see a fully restored Executive actively engaging in this process. That is why the UK Government is continuing to work with the parties to reach agreement.

We joined the Common Market in 1973 as one United Kingdom and we will leave the European Union in 2019 as one United Kingdom. And as the Prime Minister has made clear, leaving the EU will mean that we leave both the single market and the customs union.

But as we have made equally clear, we are determined to find bespoke solutions to Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances, not least as the only part of the UK to share a land border with an EU member state. We need to deliver an outcome that works for all parts of the United Kingdom.

We fully recognise the extent to which the Northern Ireland economy, while an integral part of the UK economy, is also fully integrated with that of Ireland, particularly in areas like the agri-food sector.

We fully recognise the flow of traffic across the border on a daily basis for people going about their business be it to work, study, shop or simply visit friends and relatives.

And we fully recognise those ties of family and shared history that exist between people on the island of Ireland as well as between Ireland and Great Britain.

All of this requires creative and imaginative thinking by the UK and Irish Governments, along with negotiating partners in the EU. But I believe solutions can be found and it is in that positive sense that the UK Government has approached the current phase of negotiations and we will continue to do so – and the Northern Ireland and Ireland position paper published by the UK Government in August set out clearly and positively where we stand.

We want to preserve the Common Travel Area and ensure that we have as frictionless and seamless a border as possible between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We want to protect the single electricity market that operates across the island of Ireland to ensure continuity of supply for the benefit of business and domestic consumers.

At the same time we need to ensure that nothing is done that undermines the integrity of the UK single market: Northern Ireland companies sold four times as much into Great Britain than to Ireland in 2015.

And of course we also need to ensure there is no border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland or anything that fractures the internal market of the United Kingdom, which benefits Northern Ireland hugely.

As both the Prime Minister and the Secretary for Exiting the EU, David Davis, have set out to the House of Commons in recent days, significant progress has been made in the negotiations so far. Within the Northern Ireland-Ireland Dialogue, we have agreed that the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement should be protected in full, including its constitutional arrangements.

We have proposed that the UK and the EU seek to agree text for the Withdrawal Agreement that recognises the ongoing status of the Common Travel Area and have already developed joint principles with the EU on this. We have also mapped out areas of cooperation that function on a North-South basis to ensure this continues once the UK has left the EU.

None of this was ever going to be easy but I believe, with a positive attitude on all sides, it is achievable.