Before I answer, I would remind the House that this is the final Northern Ireland questions before the Assembly election on 2 March. These are critical elections for the future of Northern Ireland, and I would urge the parties to conduct the campaign in a manner that allows for the speediest return to partnership government. Only power-sharing government will deliver the political stability that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want to see, and which remains the priority for this Government to secure.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear, maintaining the common travel area is one of the Government’s 12 priorities in negotiating exit from the EU. It is the Government’s intention to deliver a practical solution that allows the maintenance of the common travel area while protecting the integrity of the UK’s immigration system.
A hard border would be disastrous for communities that live along that border, especially in economic terms. What assurances can the Secretary of State offer that the common travel area will be top of the agenda in any Brexit negotiations? Will it be more important than restricting the freedom of movement elsewhere in the UK, for instance? Will Ministers assure us that the common travel area is part of any trade deal done with the European Union?
I have already indicated the priority that is given to securing the common travel area. This is a very strong commitment that this Government have given, and a point that I have underlined on many occasions. It is also a shared intent with ourselves, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. It is therefore with that approach, and with that shared will, that we look to the negotiations ahead, getting the common travel area secured and seeing that frictionless border that is equally important to the politics and life of Northern Ireland.
As I have said, the priority, as set out in the 12 points that the Prime Minister made in her speech, was securing the common travel area. That has served us over so many years, dating back to the 1920s. We believe that it is really important that we seek to attain that, as well as getting frictionless trade in goods, which is also a key priority.
I welcome the Government’s determination to maintain the common travel area across our islands. Does the Secretary of State agree that the friendly relations it symbolises could only be strengthened by the Republic joining the Commonwealth as an associate member, as suggested by Senator Frank Feighan during his visit to the House yesterday?
Obviously that is a matter for the Irish Government, but the point that my hon. Friend makes about strong, friendly relationships between ourselves and the Irish Government is well made. It was with that intent, and with that theme, that the Prime Minister met the Taoiseach earlier this week and underlined the importance of continuing to work together to get the best outcome for Northern Ireland and for the island of Ireland.
The European Union and member states recognise the significance of Northern Ireland, and the significance of the politics on the island of Ireland. Indeed, we have seen investment and political engagement from within the European Union. We will continue to underline that in the negotiations ahead, and that is why I remain positive that we can secure a good deal for Northern Ireland within the UK but outside the EU.
There is broad alignment of policy in relation to the Republic of Ireland and the UK. That has been part of the bedrock of the common travel area and its existence over many years. Indeed, it is an aspect of how we have sought to create new visa issues in relation to China that have allowed travel to Ireland and also to the United Kingdom, and how co-operation between ourselves and the Irish Government is very good.
As I have indicated to the House this morning, we are committed to securing the common travel area and, yes, we are also committed to dealing with issues of immigration, which were at the forefront of the campaign. The Home Office is working on the detail of a new immigration policy that I am sure will be a matter of debate in the House in future.
The Government have rightly sought to identify the issues that affect different regions and sectors of the economy and to build those into their negotiating position. Regardless of the common travel area, can the Secretary of State assure us that all parts of the United Kingdom will leave the EU on an equal basis and that no special arrangements, different conditions or special circumstances will be afforded to Northern Ireland that would weaken our position within the United Kingdom and treat us differently from other parts of it?
As a Government, we are very clear about the strengths of the Union and how that matters to us all. The approach that we take is based on getting the best possible deal for all parts of the United Kingdom. Yes, there will be some specific factors in Northern Ireland of which the hon. Gentleman is well aware––we have talked about the border and there are other issues as well––but our approach is with that intent and focus. Therefore concepts of special status are the wrong approach. It is rather about looking at special factors and special circumstances and dealing with them effectively.
May I agree with the Secretary of State in that we are very impressed with the strength of the Union, too––that is, the European Union? Beyond the common travel area, there appears to be a significant gap between the wishful thinking and the reality of movement of goods. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the effect of exiting the customs union on the movement of goods and services between Northern Ireland and the Republic?
As the hon. Gentleman will have seen, the Prime Minister’s speech underlined the clear desire of the Government in the negotiations ahead to get the best possible trading arrangements with the European Union and therefore we are reflecting on how we do that, whether that is some form of membership of a customs union or a bespoke customs agreement. He should be intent on our desire to get that deal and to see a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
I welcome the comments of the Secretary of State on having an election that produces parties that want to work together, because that is exactly what we want. When it comes to the common travel area, have we looked at the legal implications, not just within other Departments but in how it is respected by Europe itself? Does it really exist there? Do they see it as a law that stands in place?
The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that the ability for the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom to make arrangements in relation to the common travel area has been recognised in previous EU agreements. It is therefore that approach that we take in securing the future of the common travel area and underlining its importance to our European partners. I am positive that we can do that.