Enda Kenny, Ireland’s prime minister, is pressing Brussels to include measures in the eventual Brexit deal to allow “ease of access” into the EU for Northern Ireland in the event of Irish reunification under the Good Friday peace agreement.
Citing the example of East Germany’s “seamless” entry into the EU when Germany was reunited in 1990, Mr Kenny said Northern Ireland should receive the same treatment if it ever joins the Irish Republic.
The Good Friday pact of 1998, which largely brought an end to decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, allows for a referendum on reunification where there is reason to believe a majority in the region is in favour.
Dublin accepts that could be many years away, with unionists who favour retaining the link with Britain still in a majority over nationalists who favour Irish reunification.
But Mr Kenny wants provisions embraced in the Brexit treaty to avoid a long EU accession process for Northern Ireland if joins the Republic and returns to the bloc.
Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in the Brexit referendum. In a speech last week, Mr Kenny noted that fewer than 350,000 people voted for Brexit from a population of more than 1.8m.
“We want that language inserted into the negotiated treaty, the negotiated outcome, whenever that might occur,” Mr Kenny said in Brussels after talks with Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission.
“That’s already inherent in the Good Friday agreement. So, therefore, in protecting that, and in being able to implement it, we want that language incorporated into the (Brexit) agreement that will eventually emerge.”
Ireland and Britain joined the then European Community, the EU’s predecessor, on the same day in 1973 and Mr Kenny is adamant that it will remain a member of the bloc after the UK leaves. His intervention comes amid an election campaign prompted by the collapse of the regional government in which the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party shared power with Sinn Fein, the Irish republican party.
It is widely accepted in Brussels that Britain’s departure creates potential to destabilise the peace agreement and UK-Irish trade worth €1bn per week, prompting senior European officials to say the questions raised for Ireland are rising high among the chief priorities in the looming negotiation.
With Britain on its way out of Europe’s single market and the customs union, there is concern in Dublin and London to avoid new post-Brexit customs checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic that might be targeted for attack by dissident republican paramilitaries who reject the Good Friday deal.
Under pressure from party rivals to hand power to a younger generation, Mr Kenny has signalled that he is preparing to step down as Taoiseach — prime minister — after six years. The formal leadership contest will not begin for some weeks so Mr Kenny expects to be in office when Theresa May, the UK prime minister, moves next month to trigger the Article 50 negotiation that will take Britain out of the EU.
Standing alongside Mr Juncker, Mr Kenny said the Irish border presented “a political challenge as distinct from any technological issue.” Both Dublin and London had agreed that there should be no return to customs posts along the frontier after Brexit.
Mr Juncker said “we don’t want hard borders between Northern Ireland and Ireland.” He hoped to minimise the impact of Brexit on Ireland to “put certainty where is now uncertainty.”