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Common Travel Area: Republic of Ireland

Volume 622: debated on Thursday 9 March 2017

3. What steps he is taking to maintain the Common Travel Area with the Republic of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. (909138)

6. What steps he is taking to maintain the Common Travel Area with the Republic of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. (909142)

18. What steps he is taking to maintain the Common Travel Area with the Republic of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. (909154)

One of the core principles guiding our approach to the exit negotiations is to protect our historic ties with Ireland and maintain the common travel area. There is a strong joint commitment from the Irish Government, the Northern Ireland Executive, and the UK Government to deliver a practical solution that allows for the maintenance of the common travel area. I welcome President Juncker’s recent statement that the EU does not want hard borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he believe that the EU recognises the serious impact that trying to force Ireland to reimpose a hard border would have not only on the tens of thousands of people who cross the border every day for work or healthcare or to study, but on the peace process, in which the EU has been heavily involved?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but we have seen some welcome comments from the other side in the negotiations. Following a recent meeting with the Taoiseach, President Juncker said:

“During the Brexit negotiations, the EU and Ireland must look to minimise the impact”.

Michel Barnier has also said that the EU must do its utmost to uphold the success of the Good Friday agreement. We remain fully committed to preserving and maintaining the Belfast agreement and its successors, and we will continue to work hard on that with our allies.

I welcome the strong commitment to the CTA in the White Paper. Shrewsbury has benefited for many generations from Irish citizens coming to work in our community. Will the Minister give them an assurance that their rights will be protected in UK law, much of which predates our membership of the EU?

Absolutely. I assure my hon. Friend that we remain committed to preserving the rights of Irish citizens within the UK. Irish citizens have had special status within the UK since well before the establishment of the EU, and that is rooted in the Ireland Act 1949 and reflected in British Nationality Acts. That status provides Irish citizens in the UK with additional rights beyond those associated with common membership of the EU. The family ties and bonds of affection that unite our two countries mean that there will be always be a special relationship between us.

The Crown dependency of the Isle of Man has strong links with Northern Ireland, the Republic, and the rest of the United Kingdom, and when the Justice Committee met representatives of its Government, their No. 1 ask was to ensure that it remains a part of the common travel area between the three. Will the Minister reassure them and us on that point?

Absolutely. We greatly value the work of my hon. Friend and his Committee on such issues and look forward to reading the report of his inquiry into the implications of Brexit for the Crown dependencies. The Crown dependencies, including the Isle of Man, have been part of the common travel area for nearly 100 years, and we are committed to preserving that arrangement. We set out in the White Paper that we will work with the Crown dependencies, as well as with Ireland, on improving the CTA.

Do the Government appreciate that the Good Friday agreement was not a single event, signed, sealed and put on a shelf 20 years ago, but a process of normalisation of relations and of free movement of goods, people, and so on? If the Government do realise that, will they ensure that they respond to the real fears in Ireland that Brexit represents a turning back of the clock on the precious new normality that has developed over the last 20 years?

The right hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of such issues and that the Good Friday agreement was certainly not just a moment in time—we talk about the Belfast agreement and its successors. We recognise the need to work continually on such issues and to work on them jointly with our friends and allies in the Republic and with the Northern Ireland Executive.

If the common travel area can continue to operate between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the EU and has its own rules on immigration, why could it not operate between Scotland and the rest of the UK if Scotland stays in the single market when the rest of the UK leaves?

The common travel area is of benefit to the whole UK, including Scotland. The people of Scotland voted decisively less than two years ago to remain part of the UK, and we should all work together to make this process a success for the United Kingdom.

It is reassuring to hear the Minister’s words on this issue. He will know the level of concern across this House and out there in the country. If he has not read it, I recommend to him the recent House of Lords report, page 63 in particular, which states that we cannot assume that this matter will become part of the article 50 negotiations. If that does not happen, he must act quickly to reassure the people of Ireland and the UK and ensure that it is done either as part of the article 50 negotiations, or that it happens in time, because certainty is needed more than anything in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Lady is right that we need to do everything we can to provide certainty, and we will take on board the suggestions of the House of Lords report. However, I welcome the statements we have seen from the Commission showing that it is taking a strong interest in this subject.

When the Brexit Select Committee visited Dublin recently, we were told that a United Kingdom default to World Trade Organisation rules would be catastrophic for the island of Ireland, with the re-imposition of a border. Can the Minister reassure the House that he will continue to resist siren calls to move towards WTO rules, if for no other reason than the effect on Ireland?

The Government have set out a very clear strategy for establishing a future partnership with the European Union, which is what we should focus on. That partnership includes the concept of frictionless movement across the border.

Will the Minister further outline how the election of the Northern Ireland Assembly has affected firming up the common travel area? How does he intend to take that forward in the interim while waiting for the Assembly to reconvene? Further, what role does he envisage the reconvened Assembly having in that process?

We are fully committed to ensuring that as we establish our negotiating position, the unique interests of Northern Ireland are protected and advanced. The UK Government have a clear role in providing political stability in Northern Ireland, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is doing everything he can to secure the resumption of devolved government. It is important that everyone engages constructively to reach a positive conclusion as quickly as possible. We are not contemplating anything other than the return of devolved government.

Would it not help enormously if the UK Government made it clear that they want to make both the common travel area and the Good Friday agreement, and all its strands, explicitly named features of the framework for future relations between the UK and the EU?