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Brexit: Belfast Agreement

Volume 774: debated on Thursday 8 September 2016


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the impact of Brexit on the future of the Belfast Agreement.

My Lords, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Rana, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the future of the Belfast agreement is not, and never has been, in question. The UK’s exit from the EU does not change the commitment of the UK Government and the people of Northern Ireland to the Belfast agreement, its successors and the institutions that they establish. The Government will make a success of the UK’s exit from the EU and continue to build a brighter, more secure future for Northern Ireland.

My Lords, the Minister is aware that Northern Ireland has a border with another EU country. Under the Belfast agreement, most people living in Northern Ireland are entitled to dual citizenship. Many people already carry Irish passports and, since the referendum, many more—including unionists—have applied for Irish passports to protect their status as EU citizens. Can the Minister explain how the Government will work to secure the retention of EU citizens’ rights, including the free movement of goods and people across the Irish border? Does he agree with me that this is a unique situation affecting 1.8 million people and can he explain how Brexit affects them?

The noble Lord quite rightly points out the important rights afforded to the people of Northern Ireland under the Belfast agreement. Let me reaffirm that there is nothing in the outcome of the referendum that undermines the Government’s rock-solid commitment to that agreement and its successors. The Government recognise the very real benefits of the common travel area; the open border for people and businesses has served us well. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been very clear that it is an absolute priority for him that we,

“do not … see a return to the borders of the past”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/7/16; col. 815.]

Will the Minister confirm that the Belfast agreement is not just an internal agreement between the parties in Northern Ireland but an international treaty between two sovereign states of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland? As such, can he tell us whether it is lodged with the European Union and, if so, what implications would the withdrawal of one of the parties from the European Union have on the status of that international treaty?

It is true what the noble Lord says: it is an interrelated agreement—it is power sharing for Northern Ireland and it is quite a complicated agreement, but there is no reason to suggest that the outcome of the referendum means that the agreement needs to be revisited. Perhaps I can reassure the noble Lord on that. The UK Government, Irish Government and Northern Ireland political parties are fully committed to upholding the agreement and its successors.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Republic of Ireland has shown some interest recently in associate membership of the Commonwealth? Do Her Majesty’s Government consider that this could be useful in resolving some of the border problems which are being discussed? If so, will the Government consider pressing the Commonwealth authorities to develop the relationship with the Republic of Ireland which is already blossoming quite strongly?

This is a helpful comment from my noble friend. I know that the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has hit the ground running, if I may put it that way. He has been meeting a variety of parties to ensure that he gets into his new role. I will pass that message on.

My Lords, several Ministers have repeatedly stated that our land frontier with the European Union will not be a hard border. What discussions have the Government had with the Government of the Republic of Ireland to determine the exact nature of this, our only land border?

It is clearly a priority and I can reassure the noble Lord that discussions are already taking place. There is—and always has been—a strong will to preserve the common travel area and to ensure that we do not have a hard border. This is what the Government are working towards.

My Lords, is not the problem that this is the first time in history that Northern Ireland and the Republic will be on opposite sides of a European border? They joined together in 1973; although the common travel area has been in existence since the early 1920s, there were tough security controls and border checks during the Troubles. Is it not unthinkable that, in an era of mass refugee migration and jihadi terrorism, the only land border between the UK and the EU would be completely open?

The point is well made by the noble Lord, who has much experience in this particular area. I want to reassure him that this is very much at the top of the agenda. On the one hand, we want to have a soft, not a hard border. At the same time, all parties are well aware of the security issues and of people passing to and fro.

My Lords, the Belfast agreement gives encouragement to the use of European Union resources in Northern Ireland—and across the island of Ireland as a whole. Presently, £3.5 billion is scheduled to be spent between 2014 and 2020 for peace, INTERREG, rural development and agricultural support. What comfort can the Minister give that these resources, planned to be available for the entire period of the 2014-2020 programmes, can be honoured?

The first thing to say to reassure the noble Lord is that the UK will continue to have all the rights, obligations and benefits that membership brings—including receiving European funding—up to the point at which we leave the EU. We recognise that many organisations across the UK which are in receipt of EU funding, or expect to start receiving it, want reassurance about this. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has confirmed that structural investment funds projects, signed before the Autumn Statement, and the Horizon research funding that has been granted, will be guaranteed.

My Lords, as someone involved in the negotiations of the Belfast agreement, can I ask the Minister whether the Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Human Rights is a requirement in the Belfast agreement? Secondly, since there are now more people from Poland than from the Republic of Ireland living in Northern Ireland, will both those with Irish passports and those with Polish passports be guaranteed their future in Northern Ireland after Brexit?

I can only repeat what I said in my first Answer which is that the Belfast agreement remains intact and we do not envisage any changes.