At this weekend's first Brexit summit, EU leaders will be discussing what, for many, is an unthinkable topic: a united Ireland. And missing from the table will be the UK government. The UK is excluded as the discussions concern the EU's Brexit negotiating guidelines.
The 27 EU leaders are expected to unanimously approve a declaration which will state that "the entire territory" of a united Ireland would be part of the EU in the event of a successful future referendum on unity, and that such a move would be "in accordance with international law." The declaration is designed to ensure that, if there is reunification of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the future, Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU.
The draft declaration is contained in a text separate to the EU's official negotiating guidelines, as it is seen to be a reflection of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement - an existing international treaty - rather than an issue to be freshly negotiated with the UK.
Passing the text will be a victory for the Irish government, which has been lobbying hard on this. The draft is being referred to by many as "a GDR clause," referring to the arrangement which allowed East Germany to enter the European Community after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The text should not come as a surprise to the UK government. It simply reflects the Good Friday Agreement, which states that north and south of Ireland have a right to unify if a majority agree north of the border. The Good Friday Agreement makes specific mention of the UK and Ireland being friendly neighbours and partners in the European Union, and membership of the EU was critical to the negotiations which ultimately led to the successful peace process. This week, Senator George Mitchell, who brokered the peace talks in 1998, has emphasised how critical the EU was to the success of the peace process and his concerns that Brexit is a destabilising force.
Little wonder that Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach, has been arguing for months that it is important for the north of Ireland to have “ease of access” to rejoin the EU if reunification were to occur, and Irish Ambassador to the UK, Dan Mulhall, has echoed this, emphasing in a recent interview with Sky News that Brexit "would not alter that commitment that the British Government made in the Good Friday agreement to respect the outcome of [a] border poll when it takes place in the future."
The unique position of Northern Ireland, and the particular complexities and difficulties of Brexit for Northern Ireland, was largely ignored during the Brexit debate last year. The ramifications for Northern Ireland, Ireland and the peace process are huge, but the main voices highlighting this have come from the Irish government, not the UK government. Before the referendum, Enda Kenny and the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan voiced serious concerns about the potential implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland. The Taoiseach said that the Irish Government’s strong view, backed by independent economic research, is that Northern Ireland would be the most adversely affected region of the UK in the event of a Brexit, and that the EU has been "an important, perhaps underestimated, enabler of peace in Northern Ireland… . All-island economic cooperation is so much easier between two members of the European Union… . Common membership of the EU project is part of the glue holding that transition process together."
Writing with Katie O'Byrne last year, I highlighted the particular headaches Brexit would cause in relation to two practical issues: passports and borders. Working again with Katie, and also with Susie Alegre, we gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights about our concerns that Brexit would destabilise the peace process. A superb report from the House of Lords European Union Committee in December highlighted the multi-faceted ways in which Brexit could damage Northern Ireland (including its economy, the peace process, basic rights of its people), and North/ South and East/ West relations. One particularly powerful piece of evidence the Committee referred to came from Peter Sheridan, who said that whereas the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement had diminished “the tribal issue of identity”, Brexit threatened to resurrect it (paragraph 175). This weekend's headlines screaming about a united Ireland show how right he was.
A draft declaration by the EU will state that "the entire territory" of a united Ireland would be part of the European Union in the event of a successful future referendum on unity. The draft, seen by RTÉ News, declares that such a move would be "in accordance with international law". The declaration is designed to ensure that should reunification occur, Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU.