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Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland Border

Volume 637: debated on Thursday 15 March 2018

3. What steps he is taking to ensure that there are no border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after the UK has left the EU. (904376)

9. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on border infrastructure in Northern Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. (904386)

The Prime Minister reaffirmed her commitment to the Northern Ireland-Ireland border in her Mansion House speech, recognising the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland and our shared commitment to avoiding a hard border. The joint report, agreed in December, also made clear our intention to avoid a hard border and physical infrastructure, or related checks and controls, between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We have always been clear that we will not agree anything that threatens the constitutional or economic integrity of the United Kingdom.

Given that the Government have said the border will remain friction free or frictionless, and that there will be no border in the Irish sea, the question many of us continue to ask is how can this happen?

The Government have made clear their unwavering commitment to three guiding principles in relation to Northern Ireland and the Republic: there should be no hard border between north and south; the Belfast agreement must be honoured; and the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom must remain unimpaired. The Prime Minister set out, most recently in her Mansion House speech, how that might be achieved. We are also building on the options set out in the August position papers, which set out practical options for how we might take this forward.

How do the Government expect to avoid a hard border if they are ruling out any form of customs union?

It is the unwavering commitment of the Government that the economic integrity of the United Kingdom remains intact. If the United Kingdom is leaving the customs union, so is Northern Ireland.

I am certain my hon. Friend has seen the paper “Smart Border 2.0”, which was prepared for the European Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee. It does not provide the whole solution, but it does show how technology will help to solve this problem. Does she agree that this will solve it and ensure the integrity of the United Kingdom?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The report to which he refers is an interesting document, but it does not go as far as the commitment made by the United Kingdom. Our unwavering commitment is to not introduce any physical infrastructure at the border. We have explicitly ruled that out. The report is interesting, but it does not go all the way.

May I make a plea to the Minister to recognise that this is about much more than just the movement of goods or services? This is about a cultural issue and the movement of people—it is about all of that. The symbolism is enormous and the Minister needs to ensure that that is recognised, time after time in all the talks she has, to reassure the people of both parts of Ireland.

The common travel agreement is absolutely fundamental to any future arrangement, ensuring and enabling the free flow of people across the border. It is vital that that forms part of any future arrangement.

I do not think that Ministers quite appreciate the level of concern across the House on this issue. Whenever I have visited the Irish border, I have come face to face with the reality of what the installation of any cameras or any infrastructure would mean. It would not last a day, Minister; it would not last a day. Why will the Secretary of State not even visit the border, so that he can appreciate why people are so concerned? I do not know whether she has been, but will she encourage the Secretary of State to do so?

We do not underestimate the importance of this issue. My fellow Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), has been to the border and engaged regularly with Members from Northern Ireland and those involved in this issue. The Secretary of State has also been to the border, prior to his appointment to this position, and is very much apprised of the sensitivities and importance of this critical issue.

I think that says all we need to hear. What we want to know is how can we ensure an open border without a customs union? We have looked everywhere we can think of to identify a border anywhere on earth that is open and has no customs union. The Prime Minister referred to the border between the United States and Canada. Can the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister has ruled that out as an option, and can she tell us where on earth there is a border that is open with no customs union?

The hon. Lady really needs to go back and listen to what the Prime Minister said at Mansion House. She spent a lot of time looking at this issue and is very much interested in finding solutions. There are many proposals on the table that would be viable and workable, and the Government are in the process of considering them. A trusted trader scheme, exemptions, authorised economic operator arrangements —all these options are on the table and are subject to the negotiations.