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Northern Ireland Protocol Negotiations

Volume 705: debated on Wednesday 8 December 2021

8. What assessment he has made of the progress of the negotiations with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol. (904554)

The status quo cannot continue. Nearly six months ago we presented a Command Paper outlining how we thought we could resolve the serious issues within the Northern Ireland protocol. The EU brought forward its own proposals, but these do not have the support of businesses or society and do not remove the need for unnecessary checks on goods that will remain in Northern Ireland and the UK internal market. We want a negotiated solution and we are engaging constructively but the gap between us is still large. We will do what we need to do to deliver for Northern Ireland.

Members of this House have said on the record that the Prime Minister personally told them that the Northern Ireland protocol was being agreed with the specific intention to renege on it in the future, so how can any future trade or negotiating partner trust the UK when it is clearly acting in bad faith?

The UK Government have been very clear and transparent about our intentions all the way through, as we were when we launched the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill last year, as we were when we took action back in March, and as we were when we published the Command Paper. The current situation with the Northern Ireland protocol is not working for the United Kingdom internal market and it is not working for anybody or any business in Northern Ireland. That is not sustainable and it needs to be corrected.

The Secretary of State has said today that the Northern Ireland protocol is not working for the people of Northern Ireland, but it was his Government who negotiated the protocol and voted for the exit from the EU. Is he not embarrassed to stand here as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in a Government who have effectively thrown Northern Ireland under the bus in the name of Brexit?

The objectives the Northern Ireland protocol include ensuring that the everyday lives of people and their communities are not disrupted, that the UK internal market is respected and that all three strands of the Good Friday agreement are respected. The EU’s implementation of the protocol is breaching those issues and we will not tolerate that. It is abhorrent to be in a situation in which members of the Jewish community in Northern Ireland cannot practise their religion under the EU’s requirements. That should not be tolerated by anybody in this House.

I welcome the Government’s dialling down of the rhetoric on the protocol, but may I urge them to speed things up? This issue and these negotiations are affecting our international relationships in steel and other matters, and the very fragile ecology in Northern Ireland. May I also urge the Secretary of State to assist my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his need for a negotiated settlement on the Irish sea checks and regulations?

My right hon. Friend is right: we need to see this resolved quickly, but that obviously requires the European Union to recognise the very real issues on the ground in Northern Ireland and the fact that we need to see movement from the EU to get to a resolution that can work for businesses in Great Britain supplying Northern Ireland, and for Northern Ireland’s citizens.

It is almost 12 months since the Northern Ireland protocol was agreed and concluded yet, despite all the talk and all the bluster from Lord Frost, the UK Government have still not reached an agreement on the transporting of medicines to Northern Ireland. This is a matter of life or death. Will the Secretary of State please give a concrete guarantee to the House now that an agreement on medicines will be reached before Christmas?

That is very much at the heart of the discussions that Lord Frost is continuing to have with the EU. The hon. Lady highlights a clear problem. The EU needs to come to the table with proposals to resolve these issues so that people can have confidence in having access to medicines, rather than having that access prohibited by the way in which the EU wants to implement the protocol.

The Secretary of State keeps threatening to invoke article 16, but he never quite gets round to doing it, does he? There is a pattern of behaviour here: the Secretary of State talks a great game but he never plays one. Where is your Bill, Brandon?

My right hon. Friend is right that we have not yet triggered article 16. As we said, the conditions have been met, but article 16 is not the solution in and of itself; it is the start of a process. It is right that we strain every sinew to reach an agreement with the EU, because that is what gives certainty for businesses and citizens in Northern Ireland. It is a reality that if we are not able to secure an agreement with the EU, and if the EU is not able to move in a way that delivers for Northern Ireland, we do not take anything off the table.

The Secretary of State will be aware of recent Office for National Statistics data indicating that Northern Ireland is faring the best of all UK regions due to the protection and dual market access of the protocol. He will also be aware of the BBC “Spotlight” investigation into very murky goings on at Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, showing that loyalist threats to the protocol were confected for and by political actors. Will he acknowledge that there has been a year-long campaign of reality distortion to mask the fact that the protocol, which has majority and growing support in Northern Ireland, is required by the people of Northern Ireland?

We have always been clear that we want to ensure the protocol works for people in Northern Ireland, and at the moment it does not. In my engagement with business representative groups across Northern Ireland last week, they were very clear that the status quo does not work for businesses in Northern Ireland and the EU’s offer does not deliver a solution.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Government’s legal representatives are now telling the courts that the Northern Ireland protocol represents a temporary suspension of parts of the Act of Union. When will this temporary suspension come to an end?

My hon. Friend will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on an open court case, but we are determined to ensure we resolve the issues for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland and for the UK internal market.