Northern Ireland will not be given a special status after the UK leaves the EU, but the British government will seek arrangements that take the “unique circumstances” on the island of Ireland into account, Northern Secretary James Brokenshire has said.
“I think when people have used the term ‘special status’, that in part implies that Northern Ireland remains within the European Union,” he said in an interview with The Irish Times.
“And we’ve been very clear as a government that the UK as a whole made the decision to leave the European Union, and all of the parts of the UK will leave the EU as part of that.
“But that is not to be confused with very important relevant factors here on the island of Ireland. We’ve spoken about, for example, the Common Travel Area and the land Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
“There will be a range of other factors too. Things that spring to mind would be the single electricity market, again unique to the island of Ireland, requiring solutions to ensure that is maintained.
“And also being conscious of some of the real-life issues too – the way in which the health service is used North-South.”
Mr Brokenshire visited Dublin on Tuesday for meetings with Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, business leaders and others.
He said the British government’s desire was to have no tariffs between the UK and the EU after the former leaves the customs union despite sceptical noises from EU leaders.
“I don’t think we should prejudge the outcome of the negotiations,” he said. “We go in good faith in a positive way . . . We do want to see zero-tariff arrangements; we want to see arrangements that don’t see barriers, whether invisible or others, preventing the free flow of trade in both directions.
“We do want to see that open Border arrangement, that fluid Border arrangement, the invisible Border that we see today . . . We are doing our utmost to ensure that is protected.”
Mr Brokenshire said he was “flexible and open-minded about some of the possible solutions, which is why the White Paper said we remain open to having a bespoke customs agreement with the European Union [or] associate membership of a customs union with the European Union”.
He suggested that Irish citizens in the UK (as well as UK citizens in the Republic) were likely to be governed by different arrangements from other EU citizens, stressing that the arrangements between Ireland and the UK pre-date the EU.
“We’ve been very clear that we want to uphold the rights under the Ireland Act that very much underpin those special rights of Irish citizens in the UK,” he said.
“That is something absolutely that we do see as an important objective through the negotiations: that the bilateral relationship we have had between our two countries over many, many years, and therefore those rights that Irish citizens do enjoy in the UK, [is] protected into the future.”
Mr Brokenshire rejected suggestions from former taoiseach Bertie Ahern in recent days that the future of the Belfast Agreement was threatened by Britain’s decision to leave the EU.
“Firstly, I would underline our commitment as a government to stand foursquare behind our commitments under the Belfast Agreement and its successors,” he said.
“From our perspective, while we may be leaving the EU nothing changes in terms of our commitments under those agreements.”
He added: “The benefit that we enjoy of the free-flowing Border, I think, is important to the politics around this, which is why it is such a priority to us.”
However, Mr Brokenshire said that the “biggest threat at the moment to all of that” is the collapse of the Executive and the uncertain prospects for its return after the Assembly elections.
“My absolute focus for the coming weeks is to get an executive back into place . . . That is the most significant near-term challenge that we are facing.”