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Northern Ireland

Volume 697: debated on Wednesday 16 June 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Negotiations: Lord Frost and the European Commission

What recent discussions he has had with Lord Frost on negotiations with the Vice-President of the European Commission on Northern Ireland. (901165)

May I associate myself with your remarks about Jo Cox, Mr Speaker? I am sure that none of us in that House will ever forget where we were on that day. My thoughts are with her friends and family, and the amazing legacy that she has left.

I would like to thank Arlene Foster, who resigned as First Minister of Northern Ireland earlier this week. Arlene has given 18 years of public service to the people of Northern Ireland. We have seen throughout the covid pandemic the phenomenal work that she has done as First Minister in Northern Ireland, working with all the parties to take Northern Ireland through a very difficult time, especially as the Executive were newly reformed just weeks before. I would like to thank Arlene for her work. I will continue to work, as I have done over the past few days, with all the party leaders in Northern Ireland to ensure that we can keep a sustained and stable Executive in the weeks, months and period ahead.

I regularly discuss our approach to the Northern Ireland protocol with Lord Frost. We have conducted joint engagements together in Northern Ireland on a regular basis with businesses and civil society, as well as joint engagements with Vice-President Šefčovič to consolidate our understanding of the real-world impacts of the protocol. At last week’s Joint Committee, the Government outlined our continued commitment to engaging to find the pragmatic solutions that are urgently required and needed to ensure that the protocol can achieve the delicate balance that was always intended. We in the UK will continue to work actively to find and deliver the solutions.

May I, too, express my condolences to the family, friends and comrades of our late colleague Jo Cox on this anniversary?

A trade war has been threatened, but, most importantly, the stability and the peace process in Northern Ireland are at stake. Two international treaties are at stake; so, too, is the reputation of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world, because our allies fear that this Government would be prepared to breach either or both of those treaties. Does the Secretary of State now regret saying that the Government were prepared to

“break international law”,


“in a very specific and limited way”?—[Official Report, 8 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 509.]

I was answering a question that I was asked last year and giving a factual position. The reality, as we outlined at the time, is that we were creating an insurance policy to ensure that we could continue to deliver on the Good Friday/Belfast agreement in terms of unfettered access from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. We were then able to secure that, and we therefore did not need to take those clauses forward. That was exactly what we said we would do. Our colleagues around the world can be very clear that we will do what we have said we would, and they can have confidence that we will continue to protect the Good Friday/Belfast agreement in all its aspects and all its strands.

Like the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), Jo Cox was in my intake in 2015. She was a sparkling light among us and we miss her enormously. I associate myself with your remarks at the start of our proceedings, Mr Speaker.

Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that mutual trust is possibly the key ingredient to sorting out the position with regard to the Northern Ireland protocol? Our Committee has just had Lord Frost before us for an hour and a half, taking questions; I think that he agreed on that proposition as well. What is my right hon. Friend doing as Secretary of State to ensure that the issue of trust and its importance is understood across Whitehall?

My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee makes an important point. I have not had a chance to see the transcript of the meeting this morning that he and his Committee had with Lord Foster, but I work closely with Lord Foster on these issues and one of the key things is that mutual understanding and trust. That is one of the reasons I have always felt strongly that our colleagues, friends and partners in the EU should be engaging with civic society and businesses in Northern Ireland to ensure that they really understand the sensitivities and the nuances in Northern Ireland. I am pleased that the Commission and Maroš Šefčovič have done a couple of those meetings already. I would like to see more of that as we go forward, so that we can build that understanding. It is fundamental to the basis of having trust that each one understands why it matters to deliver on the protocol in the way that was always intended: in a pragmatic, flexible way that delivers for the people of Northern Ireland.

I join the Secretary of State in sending all our love to Jo’s family on this very difficult day, and in paying tribute to the outgoing First Minister, Arlene Foster, for her many years of public service and for the lesson she has treated all of us to in recent weeks on how to do politics with dignity, even in difficult times.

I support the Secretary of State in his efforts to ensure that there is a strong, stable, functioning Executive in the current negotiations to meet the enormous challenges facing Northern Ireland, and one that respects all existing commitments. However, it was an extraordinary diplomatic failure for the Prime Minister to spend a crucial summit on home soil being rebuked by our closest allies. Northern Ireland does not have any more time for bickering or blame games, so is it not time to get serious and commit to a veterinary agreement that would eliminate the vast majority of checks down the middle of our Union?

The hon. Lady has a different reading of the weekend. One thing that was very clear over the weekend was that our partners—particularly our partners and friends in the United States—were very much in the same place as us on the precedence and importance of protecting and delivering on the Good Friday agreement. That is something that they were such a strong part of, and that we are always focused on as being of paramount importance for us. We have put forward a number of proposals—more than a dozen, I believe—to the European Union Commission around how we can deliver on the protocol in a pragmatic, flexible way that delivers for the people and businesses in Northern Ireland. We look forward to continuing those discussions with the EU, but when the EU talks about flexibility and pragmatism, it has to show it as well as talk about it.

We need to see the details of that veterinary agreement in order to ensure that it really would eliminate the vast majority of those checks. A significant part of the problem is that people in Northern Ireland feel that these changes have been imposed on them—that they have been done to them, not with them. So how is the Secretary of State going to ensure that representatives from politics, business and civil society in Northern Ireland are brought meaningfully into the negotiations, not just engagement, so that any solution is sustainable and permanently eases tensions?

The Executive and Executive members have been part of a specialist committee. They have also been part of the wider engagement meetings and had a chance to feed into them. Obviously this is a negotiation between the UK Government and the European Commission, and it is therefore right that the UK Government lead on that, but we have been the ones who have been engaging across businesses and civic society, as well as with the Executive politicians, and we will continue to do that and continue to encourage the EU to do that.

May I associate my colleagues with the comments made about the late Jo Cox and also pay tribute to our former leader and First Minister, Arlene Foster, for the sterling leadership that she provided to Northern Ireland during what has been a very difficult period for all of us?

What progress has been made in the Secretary of State’s discussions with the EU side to ensure that when people are travelling with their pets between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in either direction, they are not required by the EU to carry so-called pet passports and incur the cost of having their pets vaccinated for a disease that has not existed in the United Kingdom for almost a century?

In reflecting on the excellence of delivery that Arlene Foster had, I am going to learn a lesson that I am sure all Members here will be pleased about: I am going to avoid singing at any point this afternoon as I simply cannot live up to the talent that she showed on Friday.

Pet travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland is one of the critical issues that we have been discussing with the EU. We see no reason why part 1 listing could not be granted by the EU, and indeed it should be. We meet all the requirements for it, as the right hon. Gentleman has rightly outlined, and we have one of the most rigorous pet checking regimes in Europe to protect our biosecurity, so we will continue to push for a solution with the EU. As he will be aware, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland has recently confirmed that there will be no routine compliance checks on pets or assistance dogs entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain until at least October 2021.

We hope it will go well beyond October and that this matter will be fully and completely resolved.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister that it would be wrong for the EU to impose a ban on the sale of chilled meats, including sausages from Great Britain, to Northern Ireland? What action does he intend to take to prevent this from happening?

I absolutely agree. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and its consumers should be able to enjoy the products that they have bought from Great Britain for years. Any ban on chilled meats would, in fact, be contrary to the aims of the protocol itself and would be against the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. An urgent solution must be found so that Northern Ireland’s consumers can continue to enjoy chilled meat products bought from Great Britain.

We have proposed options for either extending the grace period or putting permanent arrangements in place. We are working hard to try to resolve these issues consensually with our partners, but as the PM has always made clear, we will consider all options in meeting our responsibility to sustain peace and prosperity for the people in and of Northern Ireland.

Mr Speaker, may I associate myself and my colleagues with your opening remarks, and those from both Front Benches, in paying tribute both to the legacy of Jo Cox and to the public service of the outgoing First Minister, Arlene Foster?

In his discussions with Lord Frost and Maroš Šefčovič, to which of the following did the Secretary of State commit his Government? The integrity of the Good Friday agreement; the free flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland; building trust by working to implement what they agreed to in the protocol; or further standards-lowering trade deals, which could restrict the ability to agree a veterinary deal with the EU? Surely the Secretary of State must recognise that it cannot possibly be all four.

I fundamentally disagree with the principle that the hon. Gentleman has just outlined. The reality is that the Good Friday/Belfast agreement—he has fallen into the trap that too many people fall into—has more than one strand. East-west is a vital strand, and we will continue to protect it. That is why it is important for people to recognise and understand that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and should have the same rights and access to products as anywhere in the United Kingdom.

I, too, send my thoughts to Jo Cox’s family today.

With all the talk of sausages and the protocol, I hear very little from this Government on the benefits of the protocol for local producers. What is the Secretary of State doing to promote those benefits? Can he tell the people of Derry what exactly he and Lord Frost think is wrong with Doherty’s sausages?

The hon. Gentleman and I agree on a number of things, including the quality of sausages from across Northern Ireland, which, as Members can probably tell, I get to enjoy from time to time. He makes a fair point, and it is at the heart of the issue. It should be a matter of consumer choice, not regulatory regime. The reality is that, as across the United Kingdom, consumers who go into a supermarket in my constituency in Great Yarmouth will see a range of products that is different from what they will see in the midlands, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. That is because of consumer choice, not regulatory command.

We have to ensure that Northern Ireland’s residents have the ability to make that choice. If the hon. Gentleman looks, as I know he does constantly, at the media, I have made the point a few times that, if we get the protocol to work in a proper, flexible, pragmatic way, it creates an opportunity for Northern Ireland. But we also have to be cognisant of the fact that, at the moment, it is causing real disruption and real problems for businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland, across the whole community, and it has an impact on people’s sense of identity in the Unionist community. We have to accept that, respond to it and deal with the protocol in a pragmatic way. That is why I think it is so important that the EU engages with people in Northern Ireland to get a real understanding of why Northern Ireland is such an important part of our United Kingdom.

Links with the United States

The Government have always cherished our close relationship with the United States. It was a combined effort of the UK, Irish and US Governments that brought the troubles to an end, and it will take a renewed and ongoing partnership to safeguard Northern Ireland’s stability and prosperity in the future. That is why I announced earlier this month the appointment of Trevor Ringland MBE as the first special envoy to the United States on Northern Ireland. The special envoy will support our Government’s important mission to promote Northern Ireland as an excellent place to live, work and do business.

I welcome the news that my right hon. Friend has appointed a special envoy. Does he agree that it is important to engage not just with the US but with all our international friends and partners to ensure a greater understanding of the challenges that Northern Ireland faces, but also of the opportunities that this integral part of the UK has?

My hon. Friend is spot on: she is absolutely right. We in the UK are committed to working internationally to tackle global challenges, as was demonstrated by our hosting of the G7 just last weekend. As an integral part of the Union of the United Kingdom, we will always fully represent the issues that matter most to Northern Ireland when we engage with our international partners. That is the spirit in which we appointed the special envoy to the US, and I look forward to working with Trevor Ringland on that. She is also right to say that Northern Ireland is a phenomenally exciting place to live and work, with so much opportunity, in cyber, advanced engineering, technology—I could go on. It has a lot to offer the world and we will continue to promote that around the world.

May I associate myself with your comments earlier today, Mr Speaker? My thoughts are with all of Jo’s friends, family and former colleagues.

Inflaming tensions, undermining trust and a formal diplomatic rebuke—we would expect this language and action to form the backdrop to a summit with our adversaries, rather than with our closest allies. Is the Secretary of State not alarmed that our Government are increasingly isolated from our partners on the protocol? What comfort can the Secretary of State, who boasted about breaching international law, provide to the new US Administration that his word can be trusted?

Obviously, I do not recognise the context the hon. Lady outlines, but I would say to her, as I said earlier, that what colleagues and people around the world can see is that I will always be straight and give a direct and honest answer to a question, as I did last year. I work regularly with our partners in the US, and they are clear in understanding our determination to make sure we deliver on what is, to an extent, a joint endeavour between the UK and Irish Governments, with the support of the US: delivering protection of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. We make no apologies whatsoever for putting the people of the UK and the people of Northern Ireland first in everything we do around Northern Ireland.

I congratulate the Secretary of State and wish Trevor Ringland well on his appointment as a special envoy from Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State will know that Northern Ireland has attracted significant interest internationally over the last number of decades. At pivotal moments, it has been incredibly helpful, but at other times that involvement can be naive and, worse still, partisan. In that vein, may I ask the Secretary of State what reflections he has to make on the deeply unhelpful and destabilising contribution from the Irish Tanaiste yesterday, at such a grave time of political instability in Northern Ireland?

I join the hon. Gentleman in expressing some surprise at the comments we saw yesterday. We would be concerned about any deviation from the principle of consent, as enshrined in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, but that agreement of course also respects the right of anyone to express their views, and we fully support that. We note the recent life and times survey, which showed support for a united Ireland at a low of 30% in Northern Ireland. I am also aware of the polls that put Sinn Féin ahead in the Republic, which may explain the timing of some of these comments from the Tanaiste. I urge everyone to dial down any rhetoric, particularly at this time of year, as it is unhelpful and ill-advised. Whatever the circumstances, this Government will support the principle of consent and all of our obligations under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

Northern Ireland Protocol: Implementation

What discussions he has had with EU officials on the need for pragmatic implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. (901169)

What discussions he has had with EU officials on the need for pragmatic implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. (901179)

There have been extensive technical discussions with the European Commission, both as part of the formal withdrawal agreement structures and in support of them. I have joined Lord Frost in his comments, engagements with Vice-President Šefčovič, Northern Ireland businesses and civil society, as I have said, as well as meetings with the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney. These discussions have covered a wide range of issues related to the operation of the protocol. There is an urgent need for this ongoing dialogue to make real progress soon—as soon as possible—so that we avoid any disruption to critical supplies such as food and medicines.

I was not lucky enough to be in this place with Jo Cox, but it is clear that she made an enormous impact during her time here and is much missed.

I know that both negotiating teams worked hard, but it was really disappointing to see the lack of a significant breakthrough last week. We need pragmatic, sensible arrangements in place, just as we need devolved government working again with a new First Minister. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the EU needs to engage with the practical proposals that are being put forward on issues such as veterinary agreements and authorised trader schemes if we are to make progress on the ground?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that he has a huge knowledge and understanding of the nuances and the issues in Northern Ireland. It is absolutely right that we need to see a pragmatic and flexible approach. The EU has talked about that, and the vice-president himself outlined that point on British media. We need to see that in practice as we move forward. As I said, we have put forward a whole series of proposals and we look forward to the European Commission engaging with those in a real and direct way.

Following some of the comments last week, particularly those from President Macron, will my right hon. Friend do everything in his power to make it very clear to those in the EU who want to divide up our country that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK?

My hon. Friend makes a correct and an important point. We have been crystal clear on this, and I will be again today: Northern Ireland is a full and an integral part of the United Kingdom. Authority is exercised within Northern Ireland by the UK, not the EU. We believe that being part of the UK is in the best interests of all in Northern Ireland, but we also believe, and I think it is fundamental, that Northern Ireland contributes to making us a stronger and more prosperous United Kingdom.

Given that certain provisions of European Union law apply to the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland by virtue of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, can the Secretary of State explain the legal effect of the unilateral extension of grace periods? Does he not agree that the time has come to do the right thing by the people of Northern Ireland and make use of the diversion of trade provisions of article 16 that allow for legally effective action against arrangements that are damaging the United Kingdom’s internal market, businesses in Great Britain and consumers in Northern Ireland? Secretary of State, the time for action is now, not when the Belfast agreement is in complete tatters.

We are working hard and in good faith to find solutions. Our overriding focus, as I have said, is on stability and safeguarding the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and restoring cross-community confidence in the practical operation of the protocol. The protocol could work with common sense, good faith and flexibility from the EU, and we are working to resolve the issues urgently, acutely aware of the time constraints that we face, as the hon. Lady rightly outlined. We are continuing to talk, and I hope that we can make better progress through the Joint Committee structures designed for resolving these problems. If we cannot do that, as I and the Prime Minister have said, no options are off the table.

Northern Ireland Protocol: Implementation

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. (901170)

You are always here to help, Mr Speaker. Thank you.

We have taken extensive steps to implement the protocol, including providing £500 million for a range of support schemes, such as the trader support service and the movement assistance scheme. The trader support service alone has created 1.8 million declarations, supporting nearly 700,000 consignments since January. Despite these huge efforts, though, the protocol is presenting significant challenges for Northern Ireland, and we are seeing sustained disruption to trade, which is causing real impacts on livelihoods and disruption for citizens. So unless pragmatic, risk-based solutions can be found rapidly to a range of issues, cross-community confidence in the protocol will be eroded. We will therefore be continuing to work actively with the EU to find urgent solutions.

Sorry for the delay, Mr Speaker— I have only been here 20 years.

Is not the truth that the Prime Minister signed up for something in the protocol that he had no intention of honouring, in the way and practice he has followed throughout his life and got away with? The truth is, though, that he is not getting away with it now. Is not that the reality?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has a very good read of the protocol. The protocol that we signed up to is very clear that it will not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities, but it will respect the integral market of the United Kingdom and the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. Arguably, two—some would argue all three—of those things are currently in breach. We have a duty to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland and we will do that.

Is it not a fact that the protocol has partitioned the United Kingdom? It has undermined business, damaged the political and social fabric of Northern Ireland, and our EU partners, in whose single market we share, do not even know that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. There are more checks now happening between GB and Northern Ireland than between Belarus and the EU and between Russia and the EU. This morning, Lord Frost has told us that there is no risk whatever for any of these goods entering the single market. Give us a timeline, Secretary of State: when will this be fixed?

The hon. Gentleman makes some very important and correct points. The protocol was always about dealing with goods that are at risk or are moving into the European Union. It is farcical to have a situation with products that are never moving into the European Union. Indeed, businesses, including well-known super- markets that do not even have stores in the Republic of Ireland, are having to go through the same sort of checks. We want to ensure that that is resolved. We absolutely understand that the EU’s core focus, as it has said, is on protecting its single market. For us, this is about respecting the single market, but our core focus is on protecting the Good Friday/Belfast agreement in all its strands, and ensuring that the residents and citizens of Northern Ireland can have access to the products that they should have as an integral, important part of the United Kingdom.