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Northern Ireland Protocol Negotiations

Volume 716: debated on Wednesday 22 June 2022

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on progress in the Northern Ireland protocol negotiations. (900560)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues about issues affecting Northern Ireland more widely, including the Northern Ireland protocol.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, which represents 14 industries, released a statement last week stating that

“there are significant concerns about the introduction of an all-encompassing dual regulatory regime.”

I understand that dairy farmers have similar concerns. Having heard about those issues, can the Secretary of State tell us what consultation the Government did with businesses before introducing this regime?

We are in continual engagement with business. We have had more than two meetings a month with the wider group, and the Minister of State and I have made more than 30 visits to businesses that are members of those groups. We are in constant communication with business. It is important that we design the details in conjunction with business to ensure that businesses that are doing well and sectors such as dairy that benefit from the economy across the island of Ireland do not lose out. We must also ensure that we deliver for the businesses that are so detrimentally affected by the problems with the EU’s implementation of the protocol.

The EU is rightfully focused on protecting its own single market, but may I respectfully request that we first and foremost protect the single market of the United Kingdom? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the practical and durable solution set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill will do just that?

My hon. Friend is spot on, as ever. Our legislation will restore the balance inherent in the objectives of the protocol, avoiding a hard border, protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom and safeguarding the EU single market. It is right that we are doing the right thing by the businesses and citizens of Northern Ireland, who are businesses and citizens of the United Kingdom and the UK internal market.

When the Government introduced the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, the Secretary of State was quite honest about his lawbreaking, and here we are again. The man who resigned over his actions, the former head of the Government Legal Department, says that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is “next-level” lawbreaking. Based on this Government’s track record, why should anyone believe what the Minister claims about this Bill’s legality?

The hon. Gentleman tends to make a habit of standing at the Dispatch Box and taking the side of the EU over the UK, which is disappointing: what he should be doing is supporting the UK economy and supporting businesses and people in Northern Ireland, who want to see a resolution. We have set out a package in this legislation that is within the law and delivers for the people of Northern Ireland by delivering on what should be the priority for all of us: the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, in all three strands.

The Secretary of State mentions the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, but the Foreign Secretary argues for unilateral action on the protocol because it does not have the necessary support in one of the communities in Northern Ireland. I say that the EU must show more flexibility and listen to the Unionist concerns, but if cross-community support is so important to the Government, can he confirm that the current plans also have the support of the nationalist community?

The hon. Gentleman talks about the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, but his tweets in the last couple of weeks have highlighted that he has possibly not even read it; I suggest that he at least gets equipped with who the signatories to the agreement are, so that he understands who the co-guarantors are.

We are focused on delivering all three strands of the agreement. One thing that has been common and clear from the leaders of all the parties in Northern Ireland is that, in one form or another, they all—nationalists and Unionists—want to see changes to the Northern Ireland protocol. They all acknowledge that there are problems with it and that it is not working for businesses and citizens in Northern Ireland. Eventually, if we are not able to get an agreement with the EU, we will have to take forward measures to secure a resolution of the problems that all those people and businesses are outlining. We would rather do that by agreement with the EU, but it is right that we take action.

The EU has threatened to remove access for Northern Ireland businesses to the single market. To police this, it would have to create a hard border on the island of Ireland; that is the only consequence of its actions. Does the Secretary of State agree that such a threat from the EU indicates that, far from wanting to protect the Good Friday agreement and peace and stability in Northern Ireland, it simply wants to punish Northern Ireland businesses because the UK Government want to protect the UK internal market?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is right that we are looking to deliver on all three strands of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We will never be looking at any sort of infrastructure; there cannot be a hard border on the island, in the same way that there should not be a hard border between east and west. That is the issue of the three strands. We recognise that the EU’s focus is on its single market. We recognise that we will ensure that its single market is protected, but we will defend all three strands of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the former Prime Minister Tony Blair has stated that the protocol presents a real risk to the Good Friday agreement. Does he agree that the agreement and the political institutions can operate only on the basis of cross-community consensus and not the majority rule that some in this House are now advocating? Does he also agree that in order to achieve that cross-community consensus, the Government need to proceed with legislation that will resolve the real difficulties that the protocol is presenting for the people of Northern Ireland and our place in the Union?

Yes; the Government have been clear that we are determined that the political settlement in Northern Ireland is based on respect and understanding between all communities and the consent of those communities. The protocol is clearly undermining that, and that has to be resolved. That is what we are seeking to do through our legislation. We would like to get an agreement with the EU, but we need to move on and get this legislation in place as we have been unable to secure that agreement with the EU, in order to protect the internal market of the UK, the people and businesses of Northern Ireland and all three aspects of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

The Government invested a great deal of good faith in signing the protocol and they were entitled to expect the same good faith in return. It is now pretty clear that the protocol, in practice, has not proved to be compatible with the Good Friday agreement. Will the Government now consider triggering article 16, particularly given the casual, if fleeting, use of that measure by Ursula von der Leyen?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about how the EU has already triggered article 16, for example, to create disruption with the vaccine roll-out during covid, which highlighted how it views the north-south potential and the potential of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We are determined to resolve the issues overall. As we have said previously, we do not want to trigger article 16. We take nothing off the table, but we are very clear that our proposed legislation resolves the issues that the protocol is creating and it is the right move to take.