Ireland marked its 70th anniversary as an independent Republic by promising all Irish citizens in Northern Ireland they will retain their EU rights after Brexit – whether or not the UK crashes out with ‘no deal’.
But, stressed Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Theresa May’s existing Withdrawal Agreement does contain those protections.
He promised that whatever happened Irish citizens in Northern Ireland will be European citizens in all circumstances. His remarks follow on earlier comments by Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.
The two senior politicians, who have cross-party support for this, made their comments in the same week that Ireland hosted a delegation of some of the most powerful and influential politicians in the US including the Speaker in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.
Mr Varadkar was addressing Ireland’s upper house, the Senate, or Seanad Eireann.
He said Ireland would ensure people in Northern would continue to benefit from important European rights.
“The Withdrawal Agreement contains a commitment from the UK that Brexit will not result in any diminution of the rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity as set out in the Good Friday agreement,” the Taoiseach said on Thursday.
“I have discussed with Theresa May the responsibilities of the UK government under the agreement, with or without a deal.”
No matter what happens, he promised, there are several matters on which Ireland can provide reassurance to people in Northern Ireland – most of whom voted strongly in favour of remaining in the EU despite the DUP’s alignment with the anti-European ERG.
“Irish citizens in Northern Ireland will continue to be European citizens in all circumstances.
“They will continue to enjoy the right to travel and work and study freely throughout the EU, benefiting from the important rights not to be discriminated against on the grounds of nationality while doing so,” said Mr Varadkar.
Irish people in Britain and British people in Ireland would continue to enjoy the freedoms and privileges they have at the moment under the 96-year old Common Travel Area, he pledged.
“They will continue to enjoy a range of rights and privileges in each other’s countries, including the right to live and work as well as to access healthcare, housing, education, pensions, social benefits and the rights to vote in each other’s local and parliamentary elections.
“Even in a no-deal outcome, we will ensure that people in Northern Ireland will still have access to European health insurance cards. Similarly, we will work to ensure third-level students in Northern Ireland will continue to be able to access the Erasmus-Plus higher education programme.”
All Ireland’s political parties are at one in supporting this, he said, as demonstrated by the unanimous support for Ireland’s Brexit Omnibus Bill which passed through both house of the Irish legislature last month at rapid pace.
“This landmark legislation focuses on protecting Irish citizens, assisting businesses and jobs, and securing access to essential services and products.
“Our work complements the steps underway at EU level to implement measures to mitigate the impact of no-deal.”
Earlier this week Foreign Minister Simon Coveney pledged the Irish government to cover the costs of European Health Insurance cards for people in Northern Ireland after Brexit.
He said Ireland will provide funding for the scheme which provides free medical treatment in state hospitals for those who fall ill or have an accident in EU countries.
If the UK leaves with no deal, payment for healthcare abroad will be required.
“When EU citizens travel across the EU they have health insurance cover. We are working and will ensure that we extend that right to Northern Ireland
“That will involve passing legislation here and it will involve the Irish government, if necessary, paying for that insurance cover for citizens in Northern Ireland.”
He said Ireland is fully committed to ensuring that vital citizenship and identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement are respected and upheld in all relevant policy areas.
“I’m fully aware of the concerns at recent statements that the UK Government has made that raised concerns for Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, particularly at present given the uncertainty linked to Brexit.
“It’s important to be clear that these statements in no way change the position that Irish citizens in Northern Ireland continue to be EU citizens in all circumstances,” he said.