LAST week’s progress on Brexit was hugely significant for Ireland.
We achieved the goals we set out to accomplish in phase one of Brexit negotiations.
This includes maintenance of the Common Travel Area, protection of the Good Friday Agreement and North/South co-operation and protection of EU citizenship and other rights.
On the border, we have achieved the most important commitment.
We always welcomed the UK aspiration to avoid a hard border, but we also insisted on the detail as to how that could be achieved.
For the first time now we have that, in terms of the stated commitment to maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement.
The UK has repeated that there will be no physical border infrastructure or related checks.
This is what we wanted — a spelling out, for the first time, of how any hard border will be avoided, if it comes to that.
The Taoiseach has held firm on this critical point throughout.
The avoiding of a hard border is described as a “guarantee” on the UK’s part and as the “overarching requirement”.
We are satisfied that this means a hard border will be avoided, and have the reassurances and the details from the UK government that back it up.
The EU and UK have agreed that the Common Travel Area can continue, which is a big win.
In plain terms, it means there will be no change in the right of Irish citizens to travel freely North and South, East and West, and to live, work, study and access social benefits in the UK on the same basis as UK citizens.
People in Northern Ireland who are Irish citizens will continue to enjoy rights as EU citizens.
And the UK has committed to no erosion of human rights protections in Northern Ireland as a result of Brexit, including in regard to EU anti-discrimination law.
I am satisfied therefore that, in all eventualities, a hard border will be avoided and North/South co-operation protected.
This is something that every party on our island supports.
It is hugely important for Ireland that we can now move to start discussions on the framework for a future EU-UK relationship.
While we still regret the UK decision to leave the EU, the Government will keep working to achieve the best possible outcome for the island of Ireland, our citizens and our economy.
Clearly, there is a great deal of work remaining on the Irish issues to ensure that all the commitments set out today are implemented.
Therefore I am very pleased that work on Irish issues will continue to be taken forward in a distinct strand of the negotiations in phase two.
This will ensure that they will not be overlooked in the next phase.
Finally another hugely positive outcome of the first phase of Brexit negotiations, which bodes well for the next phase, is the remarkable solidarity and commitment shown to Ireland by our EU Commission President Juncker, European Council President Tusk, European Chief Negotiator for the UK exiting the EU, Michael Barnier and all the Member States, during this difficult and first phase of Brexit negotiations.
Moving forward, we hope that Michel Barnier is now in a position to recommend that sufficient progress has been made on all phase one issues.
It is hugely important for Ireland that we now move to start discussions on the framework for a future EU-UK relationship.
In terms of trade, but also in many other sectors such as fisheries, aviation and research, Ireland has more at stake than any other Member State.
As your Tánaiste, I will be representing the needs of Ireland in the next phase, and look forward to making progress on your behalf in the subsequent Brexit negotiations.
For now, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas…