I have met and will continue to meet counterparts in the Irish Government as we prepare for the UK’s exit from the EU. The UK-Irish relationship has never been stronger. In the coming months we will deepen co-operation and secure a deal that works in the interests of Northern Ireland and the best interests of the island of Ireland.
In recognising the closeness and importance of the relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that while there can be no question of Ireland negotiating with the EU on behalf of Northern Ireland, ultimately any process should serve to strengthen and enhance existing relationships with the Republic?
Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a real need for bespoke and in-depth protection for all aspects of the Good Friday or Belfast agreement, and for the constitutional principles in annex A of the agreement to be given full recognition in any future UK-EU treaty? Northern Ireland’s unique interests will in no way be satisfied by a mere consultation with the First and Deputy First Ministers.
The Government stand by their commitments under the Belfast agreement and subsequent agreements. There are fundamental issues such as consent. I can say to the hon. Gentleman in terms that we will not do anything as part of the negotiations that unpicks or seeks to undermine those essential values contained in the agreements.
The democratic reverberations that have echoed around Europe since the end of June no doubt affect the Irish Republic as well. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the particular circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland regarding the border with the Irish Republic are at the forefront of his mind in negotiations as we go into 2018?
I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance about the significance and importance of the border issue. A critical aspect of our approach is that we do not see a return to the borders of the past.
Last week, in response to a written question on the status and rights of UK state pensioners living in the Republic of Ireland post-Brexit, I was told by Department for Work and Pensions Ministers that that was a matter for negotiation. They simply do not know what the future of those people is. What will the Secretary of State do to get this issue resolved as a matter of urgency? Is this not yet another example of why he should be a permanent member of the Brexit team, not just an add-on?
I can say to the hon. Gentleman in terms that we are playing a key role in ensuring that there is a UK-wide negotiation and that the interests of Northern Ireland are heard loud and clear in those preparations. One of the aspects of that is the Ireland Act 1949—the rights of Irish citizens in the United Kingdom—and that is part of the work that we are doing.