I have regular conversations with the Irish Government. We both recognise the importance of the trade that takes place across the island of Ireland, which is worth £4 billion to the Northern Ireland economy. Equally, Great Britain markets are fundamental to Northern Ireland, with sales worth some £14.6 billion. As the Prime Minister reinforced in her Mansion House speech, we are committed to protecting both these vital markets.
The Tánaiste told the Dáil yesterday that there would be no formal withdrawal agreement between the EU and the UK if the Irish border issue was not resolved. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), has already said this morning that there will be no hard border, but will the Secretary of State explain how that will come about?
I do not think that the hon. Lady has said anything that is news to anybody. We are committed to the agreement we made in the joint report and to the Belfast agreement and all that it stands for. We will ensure that there is no new physical infrastructure at the border and that there is frictionless trade.
Last week, the Prime Minister spoke quite favourably about the “Smart Border 2.0” report from Dr Lars Karlsson. Yesterday, in evidence to the Brexit Committee, Dr Karlsson confirmed that the report was not tailored to the needs of Ireland and that it was incompatible with the December agreement that there would be no hard border in Ireland. Can the Government confirm that Dr Karlsson’s report will not form the basis of any future negotiations or agreement with the EU?
Yesterday, the Irish Foreign Minister suggested that the EU-UK transition arrangements could be extended beyond 2020 if better arrangements were not in place for the Irish border. Do the problems with dealing with the border mean that the UK could stay in the single market, the customs union and the common fisheries policy for longer, but without having any say?
I presume that the hon. Gentleman wrote his question before the announcement in Brussels by Michel Barnier and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. The transitional arrangements will end in December 2020. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and leaving the European Union means leaving the single market and the customs union—that is what we will do.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend has every sympathy with the Irish Government. They did not want Brexit, and there are lots of risks for Ireland and no upside. Will my right hon. Friend nevertheless impress on her interlocutors in Dublin that the option presented in the draft withdrawal agreement is wholly unacceptable and that they should work with us to ensure that option 1 in the December joint report goes ahead?
A competitive free trade deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union is clearly in the interests of both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Will my right hon. Friend therefore take the opportunity to suggest to the Taoiseach and others that it is in their interests to put pressure on the European Union to negotiate just that deal?
I would sum it up by saying that this is either a win-win or a lose-lose; there is no win-lose option whereby one side loses and the other wins. We will all benefit if we secure free trade arrangements and deal with the Irish border through the overall UK-EU relationship.
Does the Secretary of State think that it would be a good idea to ask the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Mr Barnier to come to the border—not for a press conference, but for a full day—to see the hundreds upon hundreds of crossing points and to debunk the nonsense and myth of a hard border, which would be irrelevant and impossible to enforce?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There are more crossing points in the 310 miles of land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic than there are on the whole eastern land border between the European Union and non-member states. However, I think that it will reassure the hon. Gentleman to know that both Mr Barnier, who was working in the European Commission at the time of the Belfast agreement, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union are very familiar with that border.
Now that spring has come and there is a lightness and warmth in the air, may the equinoctial optimism extend to all politicians in Northern Ireland!
I know that the Secretary of State is well aware of the important role played by the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, particularly during the previous period of direct rule, when there were 18 meetings between 1999 and 2007. With no devolution, and with the horrors of Brexit looming ever larger, what plans does she have to reconvene the BIIGC, and when and where will it be reconvened?
I am bound to say that I am a little disappointed that there was a less than fully attentive audience for the legendary thespian performance of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), to which many of us have become accustomed over the last two decades, but there are always other occasions on which people can listen more closely—and should.