Seanad debates

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

National Risk Assessment

10:30 am

Photo of John HalliganJohn Halligan (Waterford, Independent) | Oireachtas source

On behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I thank the Senator for raising this matter.

First, it is important to point out that the issue of Brexit is separate and distinct from a Border poll. I believe that to be the case. The full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements is a priority for the Government. The approach of the Government to Irish unity is guided by Article 3 of the Constitution, as amended by the people in 1998. The principle of consent and the possibility of change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland are fundamental elements of the Good Friday Agreement, endorsed by the people of this island, North and South.

It is worth recalling the precise wording and provisions of the Good Friday Agreement in this regard. Under the agreement, the Irish and British Governments, first, "recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Britain or a sovereign united Ireland"; second, "recognise that it is for the people of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland"; and, third, "affirm that if, in the future, the people of the island of Ireland exercise their right of self-determination on the basis set out above, it will be a binding obligation on both Governments to introduce and support in their respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish".

The holding of a referendum in this jurisdiction is therefore connected with the calling of a Border poll, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, in Northern Ireland. While the decision to hold such a poll in Northern Ireland rests with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Government of Ireland does not believe it likely at present that such a Border poll in the near future would result in a decision on the part of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland in favour of constitutional change. In these circumstances, it is the Government's view that a referendum on Irish unity against the background of the ongoing political impasse in Northern Ireland and the increased uncertainty created by Brexit would only add to that uncertainty and division at an already difficult and sensitive time for everybody on the island of Ireland.

In the absence of the prospect of a referendum in the near future, the Government has not made specific preparations on this issue and does not have immediate plans to do so. The Government's immediate priorities are twofold, namely, to ensure the protection of the agreement in all its parts and the gains and benefits of the peace process in the context of UK withdrawal from the EU, and to secure the functioning of the devolved power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland and the North-South Ministerial Council. As the Senator is aware, the Government is currently actively involved in a talks process to achieve that.

Issues of risk relating to Northern Ireland are considered as part of the annual national risk assessment. Although a Border poll would not be regarded as a risk, and the very important and sensitive policy issues related to it would not be dealt with in the risk assessment process, the question of relationships on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain is always considered as part of the annual national risk assessment. In this regard, the national risk assessment was one of the first official acknowledgements of the risks posed by a potential Brexit, including associated risks for Northern Ireland. Further reflecting the Government's commitment to identifying, preparing for and mitigating risk, earlier this week the Government published its updated Brexit contingency action plan. This reflects the extensive work which has taken place at EU level and on a whole-of-Government basis, including the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Act, to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. It sets out the next steps to be taken between now and 31 October. It also makes clear that it will pose particular risks for the Good Friday Agreement, the all-island economy and for Northern Ireland's economy, political stability and community relations.

In the event of a future referendum within the consent provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government has confirmed that it would make all necessary preparations in accordance with the terms of the Constitution and the principles and procedures of the agreement.


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