Irish EU minister: Post-Brexit North-South hard border ‘not acceptable’

Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced a referendum on voting rights for citizens abroad during his visit to the US. The Irish government is still considering criteria for the referendum, but does not want online voting. [Wikipedia]

Ireland’s EU minister has told euractiv.com that any post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic should allow status quo in terms of movement of goods or people, and a ‘hard border’ would be “unacceptable.”

Dara Murphy is Ireland’s minister for European affairs, data protection and, since May, the European digital single market. He was talking to euractiv.com’s Catherine Stupp.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said at this week’s European Council summit that he wanted to give the UK more time to use Article 50 and notify other EU countries that it will leave the union. Do you feel Ireland was protecting the UK from some other EU leaders who took a more hardline approach and wanted the notification very soon?

I don’t think that’s the right way to reference our position. We feel that it’s quite obvious that in order to have a negotiation or a negotiated process there have to be two parties. Clearly there is significant change in the political landscape in the United Kingdom. The Conservative party now has a process in place to elect a new leader and subsequently there will be a new prime minister in the UK who will have to have a mandate from parliament to invoke Article 50 and there will have to be some internal discussions. It’s about accepting the political reality that a negotiation cannot start until there are two parties to those negotiations and that’s why giving the UK the time to formulate their position and put their leadership in place is just practical and reasonable.

Kenny also insisted that the European Council will be in control of the negotiations whenever they do happen. What kind of role does Ireland want to play in those talks?

We have a very significant amount of bilateral trade with the UK so we will be perhaps more affected by the outcome of these discussions than the majority of the other 26 member states in the EU. Then when you add the fact that we have a common travel area between both islands which predated our entry into the EU in 1973, for the first time we’d be in a situation where one part of the island of Ireland would be in the EU and the other would not. Of course with the Good Friday Agreement there are issues relating to Northern Ireland that are also unique. So we will have similar perspectives and issues to the other 26 but there are some areas where we will have specific interests and we don’t see a contradiction in that. It will be a negotiation that the Taoiseach will continue to lead from an Irish point of view and all of the ministers as well will be keenly and actively engaged with it.

Regarding the border with Northern Ireland, what situation do you want to avoid?

Well we said throughout the campaign and we continue to say now that any measures to restrict the movement of goods or people with border-related measures would be regretted as backward moving steps. That’s our position with respect to the movement of goods and people notwithstanding the UK vote, but as far as at all possible the status quo should be maintained.

What could a potential return to a ‘hard border’ look like?

We’re not visualising the return of a hard border in any circumstances. While there may be some restrictions we will be arguing against them in the first instance and keeping them to an absolute minimum. We’re certainly not creating or seeking to imagine any measures that would give rise to a so-called hard border. That is not something we feel would be acceptable.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the groundwork is bring prepared for a second Scottish referendum on gaining independence from the UK. What would an independent Scotland meant for Ireland?

I’m not sure Scotland’s independence in itself would mean anything in particular for Ireland. That’s a matter for the people of Scotland if they are to be asked that question again. We didn’t engage at all in the last referendum in Scotland, the government of the Republic was completely impartial and we didn’t comment or engage in it. We did engage in this referendum on the UK-EU question because we were very clear that our citizens would be impacted by the outcome.

Ireland imports a lot of its energy supply from the UK. Are you concerned Brexit could make Ireland an energy island?

That is certainly an issue that we have already been engaging in contingency and it will be very much part of one of the key areas we will be addressing in the context of the future discussions. We are well aware that it’s a potential issue but we don’t accept that it’s a potential difficulty. We see no reason why this market no more than any other markets cannot continue to function well.

You’re also responsible for data protection. It looks like the Privacy Shield agreement for data transfers to the US will be finalised soon. But Max Schrems, who filed the original complaint in Ireland that brought down Safe Habour, has already said he will challenge Privacy Shield in court. Do you wish there was a more sustainable solution for data transfers to the US?

We hope that Privacy Shield will of course be a sustainable replacement for Safe Harbour. That’s the purpose of the very detailed discussions that are ongoing now between the US and Europe. I have had as minister many conversations with both sides and urged them to work together. There’s a significant price for both sides in concluding this agreement and like any other issue it’s up to any individual to seek recourse to courts to do so.

Are you concerned that without the UK you’re losing a negotiating partner in the EU that has been pro-digital industry?

I think that’s a fair comment to say the UK has a progressive approach with respect to the digital economy, to competitiveness generally and to regulation burden reduction. We felt their interventions in those spaces were positive. There are many other countries that have shared that view. But yes, we would be concerned that that voice would be diluted somewhat and one of my jobs would be to work to continue to build alliances with other like-minded member states to ensure that Europe continues to be as open-minded and as progressive as possible. And that we don’t regress into a more protectionist type of economy now that the UK has unfortunately chosen to leave.

During the negotiations for the new Irish government earlier this year, there were considerations for Ireland to have a separate digital affairs ministry.

Yes, that was certainly an option. It’s unquestionably the case that the broader issues evolving from the digital age affect every department. There are issues in every department to a greater or lesser extent. The Taoiseach felt that by having a minister responsible for it in his own department that that would make a statement to all other departments that this is something we want raised up the government’s agenda and all departments’ agendas. It’s better to have a number of ministers in a number of departments whether it has to do with broadband, with issues regarding cybersecurity, geoblocking, VAT simplification. Many of these issues are in different departments. So to deal with these issues in several rather than on one front was also deemed to be the prudent way to go.

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