Skip to main content

Northern Ireland Protocol

Volume 712: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2022

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol. (906578)

13. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol on businesses in Northern Ireland.

I meet Cabinet colleagues regularly to discuss Northern Ireland matters, including the Northern Ireland protocol. The protocol does not command the confidence of a significant part of Northern Ireland’s population. This is about making sure that we get the balance right, and deliver on the balance in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. That agreement must have primacy, which we have been clear about on many occasions in this House. This is more than an issue of trade; it is about peace and stability, identity and the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. (906590)

On trade, I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the latest round of UK-US trade talks yesterday, and the progress on the US policy, and joint policy, of worker-centred trade deals. When we were in Washington last month, it was made absolutely clear to us in Congress that this would be derailed by what many there would see as the undermining of peace on the island of Ireland. They included in that not only the Good Friday agreement, but the Northern Ireland protocol. Is the right hon. Gentleman really going to put at risk a trade deal with the world’s biggest economy?

Obviously, the focus of the UK Government’s work is to get trade deals that work for the United Kingdom as a whole United Kingdom. Northern Ireland wants to and should be able to benefit from those trade deals. We have also got to make sure—this should always be our prime focus—in a shared way with our friends in the US, who have a strong interest in the Good Friday agreement, and strong involvement in it and support for it, the primacy and delivery of the Good Friday agreement. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Good Friday agreement has three strands, and east-west is one of them.

The cost of shipping from Great Britain to Northern Ireland is up 27%. Nine out of 10 traders in Northern Ireland are reported to face difficulties with six out of 10 forced to re-route goods because of the protocol. The European Union’s interpretation of the protocol is damaging business now, it is undermining the Good Friday agreement now and it is threatening Northern Ireland’s rightful full place as part of our United Kingdom now, so does my right hon. Friend agree that the time to fix it is right now?

My hon. Friend makes a very important and accurate point. The protocol and its implementation are having a profound impact, and change is needed urgently to resolve the issues that affect businesses, consumers and communities. I remind the House that this is the consistent position of the UK Government going back to March 2019, when the now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster outlined the importance of the Good Friday agreement. The Attorney General himself outlined that the Good Friday agreement will always have primacy for the UK Government. It is right that we deliver on that, and we will do.

After five months since the Government renewed negotiations with the European Union on the protocol, we have no visible progress, have we? Instead, we have a series of op-eds aimlessly threatening article 16. Now, bizarrely, the Prime Minister confirms on a visit to India that he is ready to tear apart his own deal, while expecting the Indian Government to trust him with a new one. Will the Government get a grip on treating negotiations with the respect they deserve, and use something called statecraft, and diligence, to find a settlement with the European Union?

I have got used to listening to those on the Opposition Front Bench defending the European Union against the people of the UK on a regular basis, but that was quite something. The reality is that the EU’s protocol implementation —and we are not seeing in the negotiations the flexibility from the EU that we need to see to find a resolution—is detrimentally affecting the people of Northern Ireland. I would respectfully say to the hon. Lady that she should think about standing up for the people of Northern Ireland and the people of the UK. That is what we will do to defend and protect the Good Friday agreement and resolve these issues.

In those discussions with Cabinet colleagues, will my right hon. Friend commit to pointing out that there would be a terrible hypocrisy if, having pointed out to Russia and her allies the importance of abiding by an international rules-based system, we were then to countenance breaking our internationally agreed obligations?

Our position has been consistent, whether set out by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union or the Attorney General in March 2019. The Secretary of State pointed out that if

“the objectives of the protocol were no longer being proportionately served by its provisions because, for example, it was no longer protecting the 1998 agreement in all its dimensions”—[Official Report, 12 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 289]

the UK could seek agreement to end the provisions, which would be, for obvious reasons, no longer necessary to achieve the protocol’s objectives. The objectives of the protocol are very clear and they respect the Good Friday agreement. At the moment, that is under massive threat in all three strands, and we need to make sure we are protecting the peace and prosperity that we have seen in Northern Ireland thanks to the Good Friday agreement.

Another week, another rattle of the sabre by threatening to deploy article 16. I wonder who the Secretary of State imagines is impressed by such behaviour, apart from a number of hardliners in a Conservative and Unionist party that seems increasingly incapable of conserving or unifying anything, least of all itself.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman might want to have a closer look at what is happening in Northern Ireland, in the sense that there is a view across all parties that we need to resolve the issues in the protocol. Some parties have stronger views than others about what those issues are. Nobody in the Unionist community supports the protocol any more, so it does not have consent across the communities. We no longer have a First or Deputy First Minister, and we no longer have a North South Ministerial Council. That is the Good Friday agreement under threat. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman stands for, but I stand for defending the Good Friday agreement and defending the United Kingdom, its people and its residents. We will do that.

In trying to find an alternative to the Northern Ireland protocol that has cross-community support, what note has the Secretary of State taken of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report of March 2019? The report made it very clear that there are acceptable technological, technical and procedural ways of dealing with the border that do not involve onerous checks of the sort that we see now.

My right hon. Friend correctly points out that there are now technical solutions. We have tried to talk to the EU about them, and we want the EU to show flexibility and recognise that there are solutions that can work today to deliver what is required in a way that works in Northern Ireland and protects the single market. We understand and respect the EU’s desire to protect their single market. For us, it is about the Good Friday agreement and the people of Northern Ireland.

If we are going to use the situation in Ukraine as an example, does the Secretary of State agree that the last piece of advice we would ever give to a sovereign nation such as Ukraine is to cede control of part of its territory to a foreign entity? And yet those who advocate the protocol advocate precisely that—that a large degree of the laws and regulations in Northern Ireland should be imposed by the European Union, and that I and my colleagues should have no say whatsoever in how they are drawn up. The Secretary of State and the Government last year published a Command Paper, indicating steps that they would take to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market. When will the Government take those steps?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, not least because in the vision outlined in its opening pages, the protocol makes it clear that we will not disrupt the everyday lives of people and their communities, and that we will respect the internal market of the United Kingdom and all aspects of the Good Friday agreement. Those are the effective vision statements that we are determined to deliver on. As I said, we will keep everything on the table. We want to get a resolution, by agreement with the EU, that respects all aspects of the Good Friday agreement. If we cannot do that, we will need to take action to ensure we deliver on the peace and prosperity of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

The Government are a co-guarantor of the Belfast agreement. The Secretary of State will know that since the introduction of the protocol, the North South Ministerial Council is no longer functioning, and we do not have a fully functioning Northern Ireland Executive. The Assembly is limited in what it can do, and the east-west relationship is at its weakest point since probably 1998. The Government therefore need to send out a clear message to Washington and others that the protocol is incompatible with the aim of maintaining Northern Ireland’s political stability and political institutions, because it changes Northern Ireland’s constitutional status without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, and that is not acceptable.

I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. We find ourselves in a ridiculous situation where the EU’s position on implementing the protocol means that the very document that was designed to help to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is the thing that is putting it most at risk. We recognise that, and we are very clear that that needs to be resolved.

As I say, we take nothing off the table. We want to get an agreement with the EU, and we want them to recognise the challenges that this is creating for businesses and communities in Northern Ireland. We are clear that we need to, and we will, resolve this issue. If we cannot do so by agreement, we will have to do what is right for the people of the United Kingdom and, obviously, the people of Northern Ireland.