Motion to Take Note (Continued)
My Lords, it is time to resume the debate on the Motion tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Jay. I congratulate the Select Committee on its report, and indeed its early appearance is especially valuable. It has been said by some that for the British Government negotiating Brexit, the Northern Ireland border with its various ramifications is perhaps the most intractable part of the problem. Personally I do not think it should be, although clearly the new customs arrangements could prove to be difficult depending on the agreement on customs partnerships and in particular which products or services turn out to have different customs tariffs once we are outside the EU.
I was involved in Northern Ireland border matters during two periods of my somewhat varied ministerial life. The first was in the Government of the late Baroness Thatcher when I was the Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office with responsibility for security and finance. That was until 1990. A couple of years later I became the Paymaster-General in Sir John Major’s Government with responsibility in the Treasury for customs and excise across the whole of the UK. Meanwhile, on 1 January1992 while I was doing other things, the Northern Ireland borders stopped, and with the start of the single market the customs posts which had been in place since 1923 were removed. So I had a before and after view of the start of the soft border. By the way, the customs posts had been attacked 484 times between 1969 and 1992, and of course they did not in any case cover the whole border. During the Troubles no one could ever have called the border “frictionless”.
There has been some media talk about closing the border again, but anyone who thinks that it can be a closed border does not know the border. Neither President Trump nor even Benjamin Netanyahu could build a wall along it. In any case, our Government, the Northern Irish parties, the Executive when it exists and the Government of the Republic have all ruled out a closed border. So the question is how we will live with it.
I would not like noble Lords to get the impression that the coming of the single market ended the incentives to smuggling. Many of the problems then were connected with security and terrorism, but the incentives for smuggling were also to do with the differences in excise duties on tobacco and fuel, for example, as well as VAT rates and compensation amounts from the common agricultural policy, and for that matter the controls on contraband of one kind or another: weapons, drugs and much more. The security situation is now quite different, but there are still plenty of differences in VAT and the rest which the border authorities on both sides deal with now without the customs posts. Smuggling is of course always with us and the possibility of differential customs tariffs after we leave the EU must be seen in the light of that. We cannot know what divergences there will be at least until we get somewhere in the trade talks.
Both legitimate cross-border shopping and smuggling were and are worthwhile activities for those who engage in them. Many people from the Republic come up to shop in Northern Ireland quite legitimately, as they have for many years, to our traders’ and our revenue’s benefit, and that will continue. VAT was supposed to have been harmonised throughout the EU, but of course it is not despite all the rules and arguments we have seen. But since that time technology has advanced in customs and excise as it has elsewhere. When I was a Minister we were dealing with the introduction of electronic customs declarations through a programme called CHIEF, which has now been superseded by a new digital system known, for the benefit of the MoD I suppose, as CDS—the Customs Declaration Service. Similarly, the Common Transit Convention which covers the traffic about which my noble friend Lord Howell spoke between the Republic of Ireland and the EU and so on operates well, as does the so-called authorised operators scheme. I believe that these electronic measures and no doubt others to come are dealing with the quite severe problems we have now and will be able to deal with the problems that we are contemplating in the course of this debate.
On the more general position of the talks, I am not in the least surprised that Monsieur Barnier is shouting and banging the table about money. The whopping great hole in the EU budget is getting nearer and so far I have not seen anything in the media about serious discussions among the 27 on how they are going to deal with it. We will fulfil our obligations but they need to discuss what they are going to do to balance their books in the future.
It is of course important that the common travel area should continue, as others have said, but why should it not? The Governments concerned in Dublin, London and Belfast all agree about that, and Brussels should too. I see no reason why it should not, just as it recognised it when we went into the EU in the first place. Similarly, the single electricity market runs well and all concerned want it to continue, so it will.
The British-Irish Council and British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which I served on, should both continue. We are fortunate that these bodies from the Belfast agreement and before are up and running, and I agree with the Select Committee’s encouragement to UK Ministers to devote more time to these bodies. The ending of the more or less daily procession of Ministers to Brussels will help them to achieve that. We all know that these discussions are serious and complex and that there is a long way to go, but I think that the Northern Ireland border aspects should be some of the easiest to agree in the talks.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jay, for starting off the debate and the Select Committee for a very helpful and useful report. I join in wishing the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, a speedy recovery.
During the referendum campaign I felt that if there was one single reason to vote for this country to stay in the EU it was Northern Ireland. It seemed that whatever the other arguments were, the difficulties we would be faced with if the referendum result turned out as it did would be very challenging and probably very difficult to solve. During the referendum campaign I was asked to speak in Birmingham at a meeting aimed specifically at the Irish community there. I was asked to join John Bruton, the former Taoiseach, and Baroness Williams at that meeting. Sadly, it was the day that Jo Cox was murdered and the meeting was cancelled, but I always thought that the question of Ireland was hardly mentioned during the whole referendum campaign. When people say that we voted and the British people made a decision, I do not think many people were aware of the consequences for Northern Ireland.
I spent some time in Northern Ireland as a Minister in the period up to the Good Friday agreement and the referendum. All I can say is I was certain at the time that the Good Friday agreement happened because of the widespread support for it not just from the American Government and the Irish Government, but from the EU—enormous support that made it possible. I do not think the Good Friday agreement would have happened had we and Ireland not both been in the European Union. That smoothed the passage, improved co-operation and made the whole thing much easier to achieve.
One of my responsibilities in Northern Ireland was agriculture. I remember, both in meetings with Joe Walsh, the Irish Government’s Agriculture Minister, and at the European Agriculture Council meetings, that we had enormous support. The first country that supported the United Kingdom was Ireland at those meetings, which were pretty difficult meetings. Joe Walsh was totally supportive, as were the Irish Government, of what we sought to do. Then we had cross-border, cross-community projects, again supported by the EU, which helped a great deal during the peace process.
Turning to the present, I do not want to get into an argument about Mr Barnier except to say this: I do not see it being possible for us to deal with the border in Northern Ireland before we have dealt with all the other matters—that is, trade and other relationships. I do not think one can see them in isolation because they are integral to the whole process. It will not work. On the other hand, I believe we should set our sights on being at least in the customs union. I cannot see any other way of dealing with the border issue in Northern Ireland unless we are members of the customs union. Again, that seems as good an argument for being in the customs union as any, although there are of course others.
I have had a look at the Good Friday agreement—my copy is getting quite worn; I look at it quite often—but there are references to the North/South Ministerial Council, which will be difficult to manage if we are outside the EU and Ireland is in it, because it would be composed of Ministers from both jurisdictions. Where the agreement says, under strand two,
“to use best endeavours to reach agreement on the adoption of common policies”,
that seems not all that easy when the common policies have to transcend the EU border. It also says:
“All Council decisions to be by agreement between the two sides”,
“the North/South Ministerial Council and the Northern Ireland Assembly are mutually inter-dependent, and that one cannot successfully function without the other”,
all of which suggests there has to be an ongoing close relationship. It will not be too easy to achieve that. It also says that the North/South Ministerial Council is,
“to consider the European Union dimension of relevant matters”.
The EU is mentioned in a number of respects in the Good Friday agreement. It was suggested by a Member that it was not, but it certainly is there.
One other quite separate issue is the question of identity. One of the successes of the Good Friday agreement and the whole peace process was to give people in Northern Ireland—certainly nationalists—an ability to have a better sense of identity than they have had up to now. The sense of identity for both communities in Northern Ireland is crucial. Anything that weakens that will be damaging. We know the great co-operation that there is on energy, for example. It is not easy to see how that can be unravelled, nor would we want to unravel it, but we would have to keep going on the basis of having the EU border there.
I note that the Select Committee refers to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, of which I have long been a member, because that will be an ongoing basis for co-operation between politicians from London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. Again, that is pretty good. Any international body—some of them are talking shops, but I do not believe this one is—that enables one to be on first name terms with politicians of another jurisdiction cannot be other than pretty good.
Although I looked carefully at the Government’s document it seems we are in too much of a damage-limitation exercise rather than anything positive. That underlies the whole of their approach to Brexit: to try to make the best of a bad job, rather than for anybody in the Government to suggest that it is a good job. Of course we are all agreed on avoiding a hard border, on maintaining the common travel area and upholding the many principles of the Belfast agreement, but the Government’s statement says:
“The UK therefore welcomes the opportunity to discuss how best to deliver these shared objectives”.
That is ideal, but how to do it? That is where we were all along: how best to achieve these objectives. The UK’s position paper also says at paragraph 14:
“The UK proposes that the Withdrawal Agreement confirms that the current substantive position is not changed as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and that both parties recognise that it will remain unchanged”.
That is ideal and wonderful, but can we achieve that? If we could that would be a great thing. The Select Committee report also says, crucially:
“It is not a given that the EU will tolerate uncontrolled movement from the UK into the EU”.
I do not know how that stacks up against the Government’s document.
I shall make some other very quick comments. First, it is important, as the Select Committee says, that we do not place a disproportionate burden on the Irish authorities to provide solutions to the problems of Brexit. Ministers say, “They can do it”. We have to share in the approach. The one positive suggestion, which has not been met with the Government’s enthusiasm, is at paragraph 261 of the report. It says that the EU institutions and member states should,
“invite the UK and Irish Governments to negotiate a draft bilateral agreement”.
Short of being in the customs union, this idea of a draft bilateral agreement seems a pretty good one. Finally, I say this: we spend a lot of our time trying to be logical. I am reluctant to say what I am about to say, but I will say it anyway. Sometimes we want everything to be logical—Mr Barnier more than our side. Sometimes we should not pursue logic to its ultimate. Maybe a slightly less than logical solution, maybe a bit of a fudge, might be the best way forward.
My Lords, I follow many speakers, in particular the speaker who has just spoken, with concerns about what we should be doing. I am participating in this debate because of the key issue of Brexit to this country. The key element is undoubtedly the relationship between the UK and Ireland, so long established and much improved in recent years. As much as anything, I want to listen to the many speakers who have specific knowledge on the relationship.
To me, the issue of the border between the south and the north accentuates the whole issue of working co-operatively with people in this world of ours. Why am I concerned about the potential breakdown of relations between Ireland and the UK? It is because it is vital and productive for both nations to keep peace going, but also for me and many others it is that we need to perpetuate co-operation with people so close to us. Trade is important, but so is friendship.
Unlike many noble Lords, I do not have detailed views of the present complications and the complications that could arise, so I am listening and learning, but above all I portray myself as a member of the public who sees no negatives about the present close relationships with our neighbours in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe and in the world. We are seeing peace. I declare a specific interest in the Ireland issue. I have a UK passport but I can also have an Irish passport, thanks to my mother, who was born and brought up in County Tipperary in southern Ireland. The Governments of both countries can and should not find it difficult, as previous speakers have said, to find a way to maintain our beneficial relationship.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Jay for his speech introducing this debate today. It was very skilful and very important. I cannot stop myself saying that I am not sure how often we hear David Davis supported in his view, that the border issues cannot be sorted out in absence of the trade issues being sorted out, by my noble friend Lord Jay and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in the same debate in the House of Lords. I think that is definitely a first: David Davis is not used to quite that range and quality of support on European issues. What they both said is, by the way, absolutely true. I also add my good wishes for the recovery of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell.
I voted yes in the referendum, even though I was very sympathetic to my English family’s arguments for leaving the European Union and thought they had many good arguments. I wanted to stay within the European Union, I was a remainer, simply because I thought it would be very destabilising for the island of Ireland. In fact, Brexit has been indisputably destabilising for the island of Ireland. For Sinn Fein it has been a marvellous thing: the days are long gone, but I am old enough to remember, as I think is the noble Lord, Lord Empey, when the slogan of the previous leader of Sinn Fein, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, was, “Don’t replace the British jack-boot with the EU cheque-book”. That principle, for what it is worth, has been entirely lost now in modern Irish politics.
Mind you, I am also old enough to remember when the defining principle for Irish life was, “We are the largest English-speaking Catholic country in the world. We may not be the largest Catholic country, but we are the largest English-speaking Catholic country—that is our mission”. Today I discovered that the mission really is, “We are the largest English-speaking country in the European Union”. That is another transformation over the generations.
However, it has been a marvellous thing for Sinn Fein, whose vote has gone up, and even the most modern Irish nationalist tends to see Brexit as an irrational act of self-harm by Britain. All over the island, that will be held. What is hidden from that discussion is that it is also a deep, deep threat, especially with the way the European Union is handling it, to the future of the Irish economy. It is therefore a fear as well. I wanted to stress the point that I was a remainer in order to put in context my great unease about the way the European Union is handling the Irish issue at the moment.
Turning to our own paper, the suggestion seems to be perfectly reasonable that the British and Irish Governments should get together and work out an appropriate solution with the European Union. We all know why that is not happening. We all know why so many things are not happening. It is because they do not fit with the framework of European law and are not being supported by the European Union. Here, I also have to say something very important. The great strength of the document that my noble friend Lord Jay introduced today is its insistence on the depth of the British-Irish relationship and how profound it is. That is not understood in Europe. It is therefore creating a consequence in the way they are handling or talking about these issues. Then they are surprised, in the last two weeks, when something that they thought they could use as a stick to twig the British with does not work quite like that; it is a bit more complicated than that. That is because they have not thought about what that relationship really is.
The crucial thing here—let us take a simple figure—is that there are 600,000 Irish citizens living in Britain. The number of Irish citizens living in another European country, one with which it has great associations, France, is fewer than 10,000. This is the crucial place for Ireland. Ireland has all kinds of political reasons not to talk too much about that, but that is the simple reality. If we had said, in the document that has been much criticised, that the common travel area is something we are not going to defend, the consequences for Ireland would have been disastrous. We received no credit for taking a liberal and decent position on this, but it is worth saying that it was important that we took that position.
We have to be aware of a difficulty here, which is that Ireland is now between a rock and a hard place, in that the European Union is not being particularly sympathetic to many of its real concerns but is being sympathetic about something which is not that important: the border. To be absolutely honest, this matter of individuals and the border will be sorted. I am delighted to discover that some people who regarded smuggling as morally not an easy matter but something you had to live with, when it was for the peace process, now discover that, when it is a consequence of Brexit, it is the worst thing that could ever possibly happen in the world; these moral developments are all part of the rich tapestry of modern life. None the less, the crucial thing is the impact on the full Irish economy. If I see another television report of a farmer saying, “Here’s my farm, here’s my bit of land; this is in the UK and that bit is in the Republic”, I am going to be ill. Television reporters love it because it is a dramatic image, a simple image, but the real issue is what is happening to the Irish economy as a consequence of Brexit.
Increasingly, by the way, Irish commentators say, “We are talking far too much about the border; let us face up to the real issue”. The real issue is the agri-food industry, which is mentioned in the Lords report. Since the report came out, three major authorities in Dublin—the Central Bank of Ireland, the much-respected Economic and Social Research Institute and the Irish Department of Finance—have all said there will be a major contraction in that sector if there is anything approaching a hard Brexit. It will be particularly hard also on Irish SMEs, which are locked into the UK. It is as simple as that. They are talking about 40,000 job losses. This is the real Ireland. This is the heart of Irish society we are talking about here.
The Irish Government are taking a gamble on their foreign direct investment sector. They are going to gamble that the European Union is never going to deliver on what it is trying to do. We have seen a €9 billion fine already, on one particular tax deal, coming from the European Union. They are going to gamble that Mr Trump, who was talking last month about getting thousands of jobs back from Ireland, is not going to deliver on that either. That may well be true. They might win both gambles. They need to be lucky, but they have a good chance. They have made a decision that foreign direct investment is the sector. It has created 13,000 jobs in recent months. There are some problems, such as big pharma firms. Ireland is the main exporter into the US of pharmaceutical products—made by American firms in Ireland and reimported. This is what Mr Trump says he does not like and some of these firms are holding back. But by and large, the decision is made, and it is a decision which makes Dublin even more the city-state that it is becoming. That is the modern Ireland, against a more traditional Ireland where the social life of much of Ireland is.
No wonder the Irish Government resent us for forcing this decision upon them, but we should not treat statements from them, which are frequently cries of pain, as if they are always considered statesmanlike compared with the absurdities of our own Ministers; nor the way they talk about their relationship with the European Union, where they are in a very difficult position—they want to stay in but have to go along with what the European Union says about these matters. For example, Mr Flanagan, the Foreign Minister, said recently that Ireland is part of the EU family and the British are our colleagues. But by any definition of family, any definition of DNA, we are the family; by any definition at all—including that we quarrel, including that there is money involved. We are up against the deep texture of our relationship with Ireland and a European Union which does not quite understand it; it does not understand why the Irish Chief Whip is now saying that Ireland will need extra support from Europe if there is a hard Brexit. Its view is that it wants to get more money out of Ireland to replace the British money.
These are the sorts of things we should be talking about, not a farmer’s bit of land one side of the border or the other. These are the real difficulties that we now face. If the European Union strategy pushes us into a hard Brexit—if there is no civilised compromise—the consequences for Ireland and then for the European Union will be very unpleasant indeed.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and his very relevant reality check on what we are currently facing. The noble Lord, Lord Jay, presented the committee’s report. I am glad it was done. It is important that people look at these things. Sadly, as was said—I think the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made the point—in the run-up to the referendum nobody was drilling down into the minutiae of this. That has been demonstrated over the past 14 or 15 months in the consequences we have seen.
I serve on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly’s Committee C, which is looking at the agri-food sector. Of course, the agri-food sector has a very effective lobby, but the people in the Republic who are really concerned are those who provide services. There are far more people employed in services nowadays. The way things are going is actually creating a major threat to what we believe to be rural Ireland. Some 40% of all Ireland’s food and drink ends up in the United Kingdom. We are talking about huge sums of money and vast numbers of people employed. Let us be under no illusion: the drop in the currency alone and the fact that a lot of the companies’ insurance has run out are having a profound impact on the economy of the Republic, and it is only scratching the surface at the moment.
He is not in his place but the noble Lord, Lord Hain, made some comments—particularly outside the Chamber but certainly inside it today—advocating that we in Northern Ireland remain in the customs union and the single market. We cannot contemplate the partition of the United Kingdom, which is what in effect that means. What we need is a deal between the United Kingdom and, if possible, the whole EU but, if not, at least with the Republic, where we would have a customs union between these islands. That is the way ahead.
During the gap in the debate for the Statements, I attended a function downstairs run by transport organisations. They make the point that 90% of the Republic’s hard exports to the European Union travel through the United Kingdom to get there. If anybody is dependent on the full impact of us leaving the EU, it is the Irish Republic. These are staggering figures. I had no idea it was on that scale. The current policy of the European Union negotiators is to separate out these three issues: Ireland, the so-called divorce settlement, and the rights of EU citizens. I do not dispute that these are key issues but you cannot isolate the future trading relationship from them. I take the view that it is far more effective to look at how we meld and keep our two economies together. That is more important than some ideologically or politically driven Brussels-led determination to ensure that we get a beating in these negotiations, which would be a very short-sighted position.
If the noble Lord will forgive me, I thought I heard him say that an option might be for us to have a customs union with the Republic of Ireland, even if we could not negotiate new customs arrangements with the European Union. Is that not a complete impossibility?
It depends on whether—we come back to the term “special status”—the European Union is very flexible. I want to see a successful negotiation between the United Kingdom and the European Union, but it will always be particularly difficult on the island of Ireland.
We have to keep this in perspective. The amount of goods travelling north to south is, in European terms, comparatively modest. It is about 15% of Northern Ireland’s trade. The trade coming to Great Britain is 60%, and among the rest of the world mainland Europe has only 8%. So our main trading concern is with the rest of the United Kingdom and to have any kind of interruption or border in that would make absolutely no sense. We would be inflicting an economic wound on ourselves.
I turn to a couple of other points that have been made. First, many people spoke about the Good Friday agreement or Belfast agreement. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, was kind enough to give me responsibility in that regard, along with the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. We were all part of it and, perhaps because they both had duties here at Westminster and I did not, I probably spent virtually every day of those two years in the negotiations. The role played by the European Union in them was very modest. In fact, it was rarely mentioned except when it came to the conclusion. Then we looked for help from the European Union, which was forthcoming—and very generous it was. European Union expenditure is still there and, although it is probably reaching its penultimate phase, we nevertheless have to keep it in perspective. Even at its peak, when we were an Objective 1 region and had ERDF and so on, it accounted for only 3.5% of the total public expenditure in Northern Ireland at its maximum. It is a lot less now.
The second point is more psychological, because it was accepted that we were both parts of the European Union. Everybody understood that and it was never debated on a line-by-line basis. Your Lordships should remember one other thing: that neither of the two principal parties which are now not leading the Executive were present for the strand 1 negotiations. The DUP was outside—calling the rest of us Lundies and traitors—and, while Sinn Fein was inside, ideologically it refused to participate in strand 1 negotiations and produced no papers. Sinn Fein did not ask us for an Irish language Act then. It just sat there and did nothing, while the DUP was not there. So they have not got into their heads the essence of what we were trying to do: to create a partnership-led Government, where both main traditions walked up the aisle together to send out a signal that we had embarked upon that partnership. That has not happened.
While I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, on some of his earlier points today, I agree with him on this: our voice on the Brexit debate is stilled. I am aware of no coherent process for getting our views in there and I would like the Minister to address this in his wind-up. How will our views be injected into the negotiations? How will we have any sense of where they are going? Does anybody really understand the minutiae? I doubt it. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, is absolutely right that our voices are stilled at this crucial time. Given that the Northern Ireland Executive does not exist and that our total contribution from Stormont has been one two-page letter last August—that was the only contribution the Executive have made to the Brexit debate—then, at one of the most momentous times in our history, we are out to lunch. That is a criticism on all of us. It is outrageous and cannot be justified.
I know that the Minister’s colleague, his right honourable friend the Secretary of State, is doing his best, but we are now up against people who have different and bigger agendas. The Government have to find a formula so that the views of our business, our trade unions and our professionals—the people making money and creating jobs—are injected into this debate. That, in my opinion, is the yawning gap that we face right now.
My Lords, I enter the debate with some trepidation given the contributions from people who have much greater experience of direct negotiations and of life in Northern Ireland. However, I am a member of the EU Committee and fully participated in this inquiry. I add my thanks to the staff for their hard work and for the support they gave members. I appreciated being able to work with the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, who I hope will be back with us after the Recess, and with the noble Lord, Lord Jay, whose knowledge and perspective I found incredibly useful. I appreciated his speech today.
I came out of every meeting of this inquiry thinking, “Crikey! I never thought of that before. How are we going to get hold of that? How are the Government going to deal with that?”. This is one of the real issues around Brexit. I do not believe that anybody faced up to its complexities during the referendum campaign, and we are now living with the incredible consequences. I do not think any of us expected them, and I certainly do not think that we were ready for the level of work and detail that will need to be gone through in order to achieve the sort of outcome that everybody here today and Ministers want. None of us will get any of those outcomes without a lot more detailed work.
I am disappointed that we are having this debate so long after we produced the report. I am horrified that the Government did not produce their response until an hour before this debate started, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay, said. I have not seen it yet. That gives me no confidence about the capacity of the Government to deliver on the negotiations. It makes me think that they are not ready. Why on earth did we trigger Article 50 so early when we were not ready to respond on the issue that the Government have said is one of the most important to sort out early in the negotiations?
I echo other noble Lords about how the Government will meet their ambitions. In the evidence heard in Dublin and Belfast and here in Westminster, we were all struck by those who lived and worked on either side of the border. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, has mentioned this, which was almost a relief to me because I wondered whether I dared talk about the border when he tells me it is not important. I hope that when he reads my speech he will understand why I decided to continue to talk about it. People talked about the number of times they cross the border on any day of the week and on every day of the week. Those in the food and agricultural trades talked, for example, about cattle reared on one side of the border, slaughtered on the other side, taken back for butchering and then sold on the other side of the border or to the other side of the British isles. They said how complex all that was and asked what on earth was going to happen. They talked about the movement and production of milk, and I realised how much milk on the mainland comes from the north, or at least is in the north at some stage. The cows are all over the place. But it was not just the movement of cattle or even the movement of people, but also public services. In some border areas, the main hospital or health centre is across the border and the ambulances cross the border without ever being stopped. People were worried about public services where they had been developed across borders.
If the border does not matter, that is fine, but my anxiety is that the Government are making the right sort of noises about their ambition. The letter from the Minister today and the report that was produced two or three weeks ago give us the right sense of where they want to get to but there was no confidence from the people we talked to that the IT solutions were going to be ready, or feasible for what might be necessary. Whether you talk about the border or the common travel area, at the end of the day, we are talking about where the border with the European Union is going to be. Are we really going to negotiate a border that does not matter with the European Union? At the moment, the only physical border after Brexit will be the one between the north and south of Ireland. Our ambition may well be that it is frictionless, that nobody notices it and that we are able to do what we are doing now, but that comes back to the fact that this will be our only physical border with the EU once we have left. How are the Government going to reconcile that with their overall ambitions? I do not have a clue how they are approaching that. I know that the approach that it should be done by Ireland was not well received in Ireland. We have to think that one through, and the Government need to let us know where they are going.
Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the EU all want to see the peace process moving forward. But we have had indications today from speakers from all sides in the north of Ireland, and from the others, of just how difficult that will be without Brexit, let alone with it. I hope that the Government are looking at this much more clearly than we have heard so far today.
Wherever people are coming from and whatever position they are in, the problem will be in the detail. The problem with the papers and the rhetoric from the Government is that it appears that we are saying that we do want to have our cake and eat it. I believe that by sounding like that with the European Union, we are actually undermining our acceptance of the integrity of the European Union and where it is coming from. It does not want to fracture even more, and therefore has to pay attention to its integrity in the way we go forward. That means that we have to negotiate with a lot more humility.
My Lords, it is good that the House is debating this important but often overlooked and marginalised issue of the consequences for the whole island of Ireland of last year’s referendum vote and the Article 50 negotiations now under way. It is good, too, that we are doing so on the basis of yet another careful, judicious and evidence-based report from your Lordships’ EU Select Committee, and of the excellent introduction to that report by my noble friend Lord Jay of Ewelme. The report shows something of the extraordinary fecklessness demonstrated by the supporters of leaving the EU when they have not very often addressed the possible risks and dimensions of winning that vote. Now we are facing those risks and neither they, the supporters of leaving, nor the Government seem yet to have any very convincing answers to these questions.
It is as well to begin with one salient fact: when they voted in the referendum last June, the people of Northern Ireland voted by a substantial majority that their future would be best assured by remaining in the EU. That fact cannot be gainsaid or belittled, nor should it be. What we are discussing now is, in the judgment of that majority, a damage limitation exercise, and those who so incessantly call for the referendum outcome to be respected here should respect that fact too. The party in the north that now supports the Government needs to recognise that it was in a minority in that vote.
I would like to touch on two issues that come up less often than those of the border for goods and services and the free movement of people—indeed, they have not come up at all—the future of the network of the EU justice and home affairs legislation, and the situation that might arise with regard to EU membership should the people of Northern Ireland decide at some point in the future by a majority, as provided for in the Belfast agreement, to join the state of Ireland. First, there really should be no doubt about the critical role that the EU’s justice and home affairs legislation has played in recent years in depoliticising law enforcement across the whole island of Ireland. That was the conclusion to which the then Home Secretary—now the Prime Minister—came at the time of our opt-in/opt-out negotiations in 2013-14 on justice and home affairs. We need some clarity from the Government about how they plan to sustain that joint co-operation after we have left. If we left without a deal, we would simply go in this instance over a cliff edge—no WTO, no plan B, just plain thin air. I would like to hear from the Minister about that because there is not a word about it in the paper produced by the Government, and not one of the speakers in today’s debate has yet referred to it.
Secondly, there are the implications should the people of Northern Ireland ever vote freely and fairly for unification. Some seem to believe that this was some kind of clever plot by the Irish Government when they made reference to that in the EU guidelines. It is not, actually; if you look at it carefully, it is simply to recall the precedent set when the people of East Germany voted to join the Federal Republic of Germany without giving any rise to the need for new accession negotiations, as would be the case if Scotland voted for independence, on which it is quite clear that there would need to be accession negotiations. The inclusion of that in the guidelines merely repeats the precedent that was created in the case of East Germany.
The free movement of people is going to take a lot of effort by the Government and the EU, which broadly subscribe to avoiding the imposition of new controls between the two parts of Ireland. Frankly, it is not going to be enough to simply recite “common travel area” endlessly as if that were some kind of magic potion. The hard fact is that the common travel area has never so far, throughout its existence, operated when part of the island continued to apply the EU treaty provisions on freedom of movement while the other did not. We need to know now not just that the common travel area is to be sustained but how that is to be done in the new circumstances. Perhaps the Minister could say something on that because, again, the desire to do that is in the Government’s paper but there is nothing on how to do it.
Trade in goods and services is another area where the desire to avoid the reimposition of border controls will not in itself be enough. How is it actually to be done, by whom and where? Why have the Government simply discarded, even before Brexit negotiations began, the two simplest means of avoiding any border control—namely, staying in either the single market or the customs union? Why did they decide that without thinking about the problems that it would cause in Ireland? Now they are going around trying to patch them all up.
On those two points—free movement, and trade in goods and services—the Government’s recent paper is full of admirable aspirations, which I share, but short, if not bereft, of detail on how to get from here to there. Not surprisingly, the passages on trade have caused plenty of sucking of teeth by the EU side, which is most at risk if the Government’s magic ideas turn out to be impracticable. There has been less criticism of the passages on freedom of movement. That is understandable because it is we who are at risk—or at any rate the Government, who wish to impose strict controls on immigration to this country—if the approach in the paper is applied.
I hope that your Lordships’ EU Select Committee will subject the ideas in the most recent paper to some careful scrutiny and that the Government will be forthcoming on the practicalities of how their ideas are to be given effect, in case they are to be agreed in Brussels.
That leaves us with one final point. The improvement in Anglo-Irish relations in recent years has been outstanding and brings huge credit to all the parties concerned—the British Government, the Irish Government and the parties in Northern Ireland. They deserve that credit. We must not put it at risk in the difficult negotiations that lie ahead. We will be far more likely to succeed in that if we stop treating the problems being caused to both parts of the island as if they were collateral damage, which are simply bad luck because we took a decision to leave the European Union and they just have to lump it—to grin and bear it. If that is the attitude that we take, nothing but trouble lies ahead.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Hannay, and I agree with everything that he said with such force. Like other noble Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Jay for the perfect clarity with which he introduced the debate and join the felicitations to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell.
Because of the delay between the report and this debate, it has now become part of a process, but it is an important part of it because it is evidence-based and contains solid analysis. Another part of that process is the letter that we received from the Minister. It reached my inbox at 3.09pm this afternoon. I think that your Lordships are entitled to be more than mildly irritated by the fact that that letter arrived then, when there were months or certainly weeks in which it could have been delivered, and when we have known that this debate was taking place for quite a long time. But I have now read it, and would like to raise a particular point with the Minister about bullet point 6 —and, frankly, I would like an answer from him tonight, not at 3.09pm before the next 4 pm debate.
Bullet point 6 refers to a “time-limited interim period” that is linked to implementation arrangement and allows for a “smooth transition”. I invite the Minister to unpack that very dense sentence. What are the implementation arrangements that he expects? Would he tell us and define what they are? How does he expect that smooth transition to be negotiated? Is there any evidence of negotiation of a smooth transition, and does that sentence really make transition and destination an unintended synonym? What destination does he predict is realistically achievable—or, as appears to be the case with a lot of the current phase of negotiations over Brexit, does he simply not know?
I want to speak about my experience of Northern Ireland and Ireland. I was the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation for an indecently long time—from 2001 to 2011. Subsequently, I continued to visit Northern Ireland very frequently in some non-statutory roles that I carried out. I had the opportunity to meet all the political parties on a fairly frequent basis; sometimes they spoke to me and sometimes they decided not to speak to me, but on the whole they were very co-operative and I learned a great deal about their mindsets. On one occasion, I went to South Armagh not long after it had been described as “bandit country” with the elected Sinn Fein Member for the relevant constituency, and I saw with him the extraordinary developments that had taken place—the fact that there was an active and representative democracy taking place in an area where, if I had gone there on my own 10 years before, I would almost certainly have been shot at.
I believe that Northern Ireland has become a good place to live and run a business, a very good place to educate your children—it has an outstanding education system—as well as a good place to have social housing. The government funding made available to Northern Ireland has been substantial. At least two, and maybe more, Secretaries of State in this House contributed to those developments, to their great credit.
I am terrified of the possibility that what has been achieved in Northern Ireland will in any way be lost. I refer briefly in particular to three of the conclusions of the report that we are debating. The one at paragraph 142 says:
“Political stability in Northern Ireland depends on the confidence of both communities that their interests are being respected”.
That is said with particular reference to the land and sea borders. The report concludes at paragraph 152:
“Brexit has profound implications for the current high levels of crossborder police and security cooperation between the UK and Irish authorities”,
and at paragraph 183 states:
“The peace process is supported by a majority of people from across the communities, and it would be irresponsible to overstate the threat posed by Brexit”.
Nevertheless, Brexit is already proving politically divisive and all sides must remain vigilant to ensure that the momentum behind the peace process is maintained. I regard those three principles—from my viewpoint, as somebody who has been concerned with counterterrorism and observing the effectiveness of the peace process—as absolutely non-negotiable and crucial.
This brings me to the role of Parliament. I thought Keir Starmer spoke very cogently on behalf of the Labour Party last week when he said that we must respect the outcome of the referendum, and I do. However, I also agree with him that Parliament continues to have a role. We cannot hand over to Government a discretion to do what they like. Equally, if the negotiation does not reach a conclusion, or reaches a bad one, that is not a trigger for a new referendum—that would be irresponsible. It is the trigger for this House, and Members elected to the other place, to say, “I am sorry. This will not do and we are not going to allow it to continue”. One of the key issues in that exercise of parliamentary responsibility in due course is what has happened in Ireland, particularly in relation to the peace process in Northern Ireland and the continuity of the beneficial developments there. We surely have to resolve this quickly. This is one of the most obvious questions, with the most obvious answers, of anything in the Brexit negotiations. If we and the European Union cannot sort this one out quickly, what hope is there of resolving any questions?
My Lords, I am glad that the issue of the Irish border is now a central part of the Brexit negotiations. The initial debate before the referendum skimmed over so many of the complex and emotional issues of the Irish border. Northern Ireland ought to have been a central part of the debate: it was not. However, we are where we are, and the best deal has to be made to create the least disruption to Northern Irish people and businesses.
One issue I am particularly concerned about is the appearance of the border between the Republic and the UK after Brexit. The Republic of Ireland and the UK have, of course, had an uncommon relationship in terms of freedom of movement of people, since Irish independence, but those rights have been strengthened, underpinned, and locked in by a raft of European Union legislation. Post Brexit, the UK and the Republic will have to convince the EU that such a privileged status is deserved and needs to be maintained. The report brings up EU concerns that,
“entry into the Republic of Ireland from the UK would not become a back door to entry into the EU”.
Some give and take will be inevitable, but realism will be required from both sides. The border is 500 miles long, highly permeable, and has a large number of routes that were previously used to smuggle people and goods. Our European Union membership negated the need for such routes, but it is plain economics that raising the barriers to entry will create a meaningful incentive. More money in the hands of smugglers, especially those hostile to the current state of the island of Ireland, is a worrying prospect.
Furthermore, as the PSNI and the Centre for Cross Border Studies put forward in the report, border checkpoints are the most tangible and egregious of the additions to the border post Brexit. They will likely become easy targets for terrorists, and while much of the anger of the Troubles has lessened, this has been because of the EU and a common regime, not despite it. I understand the Government’s position to be that checkpoints are not encouraged, but has the Minister made preparations for the introduction of such checkpoints, and done risk assessments? A great deal has been talked about technical solutions and wondrous IT solving many of these issues. I have seen many Governments struggle and slip with enormous IT projects like this. That is not to pour cold water on anything said today, but is a note of caution. We will need to see more from the Government about the solutions they have to make that border frictionless.
As a final note, I am saddened that there is no operating Legislative Assembly. Stormont deserves to be heard more loudly in this debate, and while the leaders of the Northern Irish parties have expressed their views, there need to be debates, Motions and Statements issued from a functioning Parliament to carry legitimacy. I will not blame one side or the other, but I express my hope that the impending trade-offs to come from Brexit will focus minds and push both parties into making a deal to bring Stormont back into working order.
My Lords, the contribution to the debate of most concern so far was the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bew, a distinguished historian, who said that Brexit has already been deeply destabilising in the Republic of Ireland, particularly with regard to its economy, and that it is likely to become a lot more so as it advances.
The Government’s position paper on Ireland makes all kinds of assertions that everything is going to be okay, but the stark reality is that unless the relationship between the UK and the European Union basically does not change so there is no serious disruption to UK-EU trade, the assertions are essentially magical thinking and the only issue is how much harm Brexit does to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and their relations with Great Britain.
In his opening speech, the noble Lord, Lord Jay, said, with the discretion which distinguishes a diplomat of his eminence, that his committee had not meant to hint that there was a comparison between the threat of Brexit to Northern Ireland and the threat of a breakdown of the Good Friday agreement. We all hope and pray that he is right, but the truth is that since we do not know what form Brexit is going to take, we do not know what the impact might be and how serious the consequences for the political stability of Ireland, north and south.
At any rate, it is impossible to overstate the moral and political responsibility which Her Majesty’s Government have to ensure that the impact of Brexit on Ireland is minimised. In the Good Friday agreement, Britain formally declares that it,
“will pursue broad policies for sustained economic growth and stability in Northern Ireland and for promoting social inclusion”.
It also promises,
“a new regional development strategy for Northern Ireland ... tackling the problems of a divided society and social cohesion in urban, rural and border areas, protecting and enhancing the environment ... strengthening the physical infrastructure of the region, developing the advantages and resources of rural areas and rejuvenating major urban centres”.
These are solemn commitments made by the British state to the people of Northern Ireland, yet they will be affected, and may be undermined, if Brexit takes the form of a hard border and restraints on trade.
In terms of the magical thinking which has seized the Government, I emphasise two points. First, customs duties and controls will not be frictionless and of little account simply because the Government declare that that will be the case. I am not aware of any border in the world where customs controls are magically frictionless and it all takes place in the internet cloud, and Ireland does not show any sign of being a pioneer in that respect.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope, said that it would be all okay because we have managed with differential rates of VAT in the past. The difference in the standard rate of VAT between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom is the difference between 23% and 20%, so I do not think that takes us very far if we are going to go off a cliff edge in terms of customs duties and trade barriers between Britain and the European Union. Of far more concern, given his eminence and his closeness to these discussions, was the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who seemed to suggest that everything would be fine if the trade talks between Britain and the European Union completely collapsed because we could, with even more magical thinking, have a customs union between Britain and Ireland. That is the one option which is absolutely not on the table if the Republic of Ireland is going to remain within the European Union. I have not yet noticed any sign that they are going to follow us in heading for the departure lounge.
The second point of importance—here I am entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick—is that intoning the three words “common travel area” at the beginning of every sentence, and airily pointing out that everything has been all right in the past, misses the point that Britain and Ireland’s visa and associated policies have been identical for the last 45 years and were largely the same for the previous 50 years after the independence of the Republic of Ireland in 1922 and the creation of Northern Ireland.
Because I am speaking late in the debate I have had the advantage of being able to read the Government’s letter to us on how everything is going to be basically fine after Brexit. I can describe it only as pure waffle. There is nothing in there of substance. How it manages to continue for eight pages is a diplomatic triumph, given the lack of content. To give just one example among many, under the heading,
“Impact on the peace process and on north-south and east-west relations”,
we read the sentence:
“The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union’s first visit to another EU Member State was to Dublin in September last year. Through the annual meeting of UK Permanent Secretaries and Irish Secretary Generals, we remain committed to continuing our strong cooperation”.
Let us hope that these meetings take place almost daily if they are capable of producing any concrete results. But in my experience of the affairs of the world, it is not meetings that make a difference, it is the actual substance of policy, and on that we have had no reassurance whatever.
When Gladstone introduced his Home Rule Bill in 1886, he told the House of Commons:
“I believe we have reached one of those crises in the history of nations, where the path of boldness is the path, and the only path, of safety”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/5/1886; col. 602].
It was a tragedy that Parliament in the 1880s and 1890s rejected Gladstone’s bold path which could have avoided so much of the terrorism and horror of the 20th century. However, we did take the path of boldness in the Good Friday agreement, and I entirely echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that this is one of the high points in statecraft within the United Kingdom. Ireland is much the better for it, and I believe that the path of safety today is not to endanger this by a hard Brexit which puts the prosperity and security of Ireland in the lap of the gods.
My Lords, this is a very difficult debate for the people of Northern Ireland. It is difficult because we voted by 55% against Brexit, and all the indicators are that Northern Ireland is going to be the part of the UK which will be most adversely affected by Brexit.
We know that the issues with which our negotiators must struggle are many and varied, but the real question tonight is the land border between the UK and Ireland. I do not think many people in England and Wales realise that it actually is a real problem, and we are in debt to the European Union Committee for producing the paper which we are debating today.
The reality is that Brexit, and the terms upon which we Brexit, are not in the hands of the UK, or the people of Ireland, or the people of Northern Ireland. They are in the hands of our Government and the 27 EU nations.
One of the biggest challenges, I think, is to find a way to maintain the best possible relationships with Ireland, because the Brexit negotiations are going to lead to difficult situations in which Ireland and the UK will seek to protect their own national security, economy and culture, while trying to honour their obligations under the Good Friday agreement and work out an acceptable solution to Brexit. We will need those institutions—the British-Irish Council, the intergovernmental conference, the parliamentary assembly —and we will need the British-Irish Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations. It is a special case; it needs a unique solution.
The EU Committee recognised that because of the Brexit problem, Ireland faces many challenges not of its own making and that the responsibility for finding solutions lies with the British Government and with the European Union. However, there must be a recognition here and on the European side of the reality of the problems. These are political negotiations, and the right of politicians rests on the trust and confidence of the people. Where confidence has evaporated, as we have seen in many recent elections, there can be unexpected electoral results.
I draw your Lordships’ attention to something that is simple but which may be important. There are 650 MPs in the other place, and our website says that there are about 800 Members of your Lordships’ House. There is a problem as we embark on the passage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and as we engage in negotiations with Europe. Of the 650 MPs, Sinn Fein has seven seats. The SDLP, for so long the voice of constitutional nationalism in the other place, no longer has a single seat. Sinn Fein is abstentionist. Its MPs do not take their seats, participate in debates, or engage with the issues in the Chamber or in committee. They will not do so. The result is that the voice of constitutional nationalists who live in Northern Ireland has been silenced in the other place. It will not be heard as these vitally important debates go on. There is no one to speak on behalf of the constitutional nationalist people, and that is a major problem.
It is a worse problem because there is no one to speak on behalf of anyone in our devolved Assembly. Stormont is no longer—we are facing direct rule. Who will government be able to engage with during the Brexit negotiations, in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive mandated to speak on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland? No one. That has been a problem for a number of years now, as many noble Lords will know from sitting on committees here and seeking to take evidence from the Northern Ireland Executive. They could not agree a common voice, so there was no response, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay, said. It has been thus for a number of years.
Therefore, if there is nobody from Northern Ireland in the Commons, living with the problems there, facing the difficulties of Brexit as it affects Northern Ireland, who articulates the voice of those who are not represented by Protestantism as opposed to Catholicism, what is the case in your Lordships’ House? Of the Northern Ireland Peers, I am the only one who is Catholic. All the others are Protestant or something else. We do not represent anyone, as Members of the other place do, but it is an unfortunate reality that I am the only Catholic living in Northern Ireland who has the right to speak in this place or the other place. Does it matter that the voice of constitutional nationalism is not heard? Does it matter that we have no Assembly? We are in limbo.
Unionist voters will tell you that they voted DUP because they would take on Sinn Fein. SDLP voters will tell you that they voted for Sinn Fein because they would take on the DUP. But it is not working. Among many people in Northern Ireland there is a sense of a democratic deficit. There are many causes of the deficit, but how is government going to deal with it? What message does it send about the rights of Catholics, non-unionists or nationalists, and what are the risks attaching to that deficit in all its manifestations?
The fight against terrorism and organised crime is critical to the economic stability of Europe. Many think that our problem is solved. I am afraid that it is not. The PSNI statistics for the year ending March 2017 tell us that last year there were five security-related deaths, 61 shooting incidents, 29 bombing incidents, 66 paramilitary-style assaults and 28 paramilitary-style shootings, and 75 kilos of explosives and 2,635 rounds of ammunition were recovered.
We do not have an Assembly and we do not have true peace. A generation is growing up who have no experience of the Troubles as we knew them. They are less likely to be drawn into violence, but economically we are not in a good state, and it was in the marginalised and deprived communities that terrorism, both loyalist and republican, had its roots.
At this time of unpredictable, difficult-to-counter global terrorism, it is essential in the interests of all 28 states that we maintain co-operation on EU databases on crime, the European arrest warrant, exchange of information, Eurojust judicial cooperation, European investigations, and so on, because those processes facilitate fighting crimes such as human trafficking, drugs, black market economies and international terrorism.
Brexit could affect our fragile peace process. We need, even at this time, to remember those who were injured, maimed and bereaved in Northern Ireland but also those who live here—those who still bear the scars of the Troubles after the bombs and attacks in Birmingham, Warrington, Manchester and so on. We should remember and provide for those people but we are not doing so—I met a group of them last night.
The politicians could deal with these legacy issues—we know how to do it—and the Government could hand over the money that they have committed to it, but they have not done so. Just today, the Lord Chief Justice has expressed his frustration yet again that he cannot conduct many of the inquests of those who were murdered in the Troubles.
For many in Northern Ireland, Ireland is and was the “Free State”—that tells you how they regarded Northern Ireland. Those issues of a people divided are part of our history but they are also part of our present. We were fractured in many ways. Our common EU membership and the courage of many people enabled peace—visibly and psychologically our divisions became less. The border disappeared, and the EU was a big part of that. Northern Ireland will have a problem with immigration unless there is a mechanism by which immigration is allowed across the borders from European states and which will facilitate not least the 30,000 cross-border workers and the 7% of employees from the EEA. Sixty per cent of our agricultural income derives from Europe. There are so many things that need to be done to protect us.
We need a soft border. No one has yet identified technology capable of maintaining an accurate record of the cross-border movement of goods without physical checks. The other day I heard a man on the radio say, “Are they going to get all the sheep out of the lorry and count them and then put them back in again? That’s what they used to do”.
If we withdraw from the single market and we do not negotiate some form of agreement with the EU or a bilateral UK-Irish agreement, all the evidence is that we will have to have some form of border or customs checks on parts of the 300-mile border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. They were not effective in the past; there is nothing to suggest that they would be effective in the future; and they would be very damaging.
The situation in Northern Ireland is very difficult at the moment. The problems of our internal divisions and our inability to govern ourselves using devolved powers are crippling our health service, our education and other infrastructures, we have an ongoing terrorism situation and confidence in our constitutional process has been eroded. The Brexit negotiations cannot result in the predicted economic difficulties as a consequence of something for which the people of Northern Ireland did not vote. Nor should they result in further constitutional instability. There is too much at risk here.
My Lords, very inadequately I follow the wise and sobering remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan.
The fine report, which is the subject of this debate, stresses the crucial point that nowhere else in the EU are the implications of Brexit so profound as in Ireland, north and south. Nevertheless, the report continues, these profound implications,
“are often overlooked on the British side of the Irish Sea”.
Indeed, they were almost entirely overlooked during the unsatisfactory and unhappy referendum campaign last year, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay, pointed out in his memorable introduction.
What is needed when grave issues that have been neglected in English political life suddenly come to the fore, as has happened as regards Brexit’s Irish crisis since the referendum? The first requirement is surely a full, authoritative and detailed account of the issues. That is what our European Union Committee provided in its report published at the end of last year. The report marshals an immense amount of information as the basis for judicious and measured observations about the principal ways in which Brexit will affect Ireland, north and south, from the economic sphere to the peace process. This is a document of enduring worth against which we can test the progress of those involved in trying to solve Brexit’s Irish crisis.
The debate today will at last provide us with an opportunity of hearing the Government’s response—we are all hoping that it will be substantial—to this powerful report, following the production of a letter this morning. Is it not regrettable that substantial intervals so often occur between the presentation of reports and the reaction of the Government to them? Greater ministerial and official engagement with the reports of the committees of this House would serve the Executive and Parliament well. The arrival of a letter shortly before the start of the debate on a report published nine months ago is frankly insulting. It is no wonder that the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top—a member of the committee—and the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, are so annoyed.
I was struck by the manner in which the noble Lord, Lord Jay, highlighted one of the report’s central recommendations, to which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, also referred. The best way of resolving the many contentious issues, the report suggests,
“would be for the EU institutions and Member States to invite the UK and Irish Governments to negotiate a draft bilateral agreement, involving and incorporating the views and interests of the Northern Ireland Executive”.
The noble Lord, Lord Jay, told us that there were difficulties attached to this recommendation, but there are difficulties attached to almost every side of this matter. Perhaps the Minister could indicate the Government’s view of this recommendation when he comes to reply to the debate.
Whatever form consultations may take, we are all united across this House in believing that the two sovereign Governments must work closely and constructively together if the issues identified in the committee’s report are to be resolved. We would surely all endorse the hope expressed by the leading Irish historian, Professor Roy Foster, that,
“the closeness of Anglo-Irish relations highlighted by the remarkable royal and presidential visits a few years ago will remain”.
Events over the summer were far from reassuring. Some harsh comments were delivered by Irish Ministers. But there may perhaps now be a better prospect of sustained Anglo-Irish understanding following the recent publication of the Government’s position paper. The paper underlines the Government’s determination to find a solution to the crucial issue of the border in a manner that is acceptable on every side. The immense difficulty of this has been highlighted again and again in this debate. Some of the ideas in the paper may be fanciful or impractical, but their wide range and ingenuity ought to increase confidence in our Government’s commitment to meeting the greatest challenge that they face in the Irish context.
One of the central contributors to a successful resolution of Brexit’s Irish crisis has been off the field since the start of the year. The European Union Committee’s report concludes the section on the Northern Ireland Executive with a firm statement about the latter’s weighty responsibilities: its members,
“need to ensure, as Brexit negotiations begin, that Northern Ireland’s interests are effectively communicated to the UK Government, the Irish Government, to the EU and to other Member States”.
That is a tall order for the ramshackle coalition of political incompatibles embodied in the Executive, but they cannot even attempt it if they are not in existence. In July, the Government signalled the likelihood of a breakthrough in the interminable talks to try and find a way of restoring the Executive; by the very next day, the likely breakthrough had disappeared.
It would be surprising if the Government did not shortly make a further effort—surely their final effort pulling out all the stops, using all possible resources—to bring about the return of devolved government. They will hope for success, but must plan for the possibility of failure and the construction of some alternative means of ensuring that Northern Ireland’s interests are effectively represented throughout the long Brexit negotiations. Ultimately, it is the Government’s task to ensure that the needs of Northern Ireland—its business community and its position within the union—are all properly safeguarded. In the absence of devolution, the role of Parliament becomes of the greatest significance.
There are some who would be content if the United Kingdom left the EU without an agreement. There are some who would apparently welcome it. Our duty to our fellow countrymen and women in Ulster and our responsibilities to our nearest neighbours and friends in the Irish Republic surely compel us to reject such a dishonourable course.
My Lords, I can state my views on this subject fairly rapidly. To me the whole thing is a sad nightmare. What we are doing is destroying and throwing away a great human achievement, in this case an economic institution, that of the single market. We are setting at possible risk—I put it no more highly than that, and in saying these words, I simply summarise my impression of what has been said by 15 or 20 speakers in the debate—a delicately and carefully balanced negotiated deal in the Belfast agreement. We are also depriving ourselves in the case of Ireland by leaving the European Union of hundreds of opportunities in the course of any year for collaboration with Irish officials and politicians, for working together and finding a common ground for solving problems within the context that we are completely equal because we are both equal members of the European Union. If we take those three things together, it would be quite surprising if there were not some nasty consequences. All of this, as far as I can see, is for absolutely nothing at all. I look around 360 degrees and I cannot see a single gain or benefit that we will derive from this destruction, and that is very sad.
Does this paper before us from the Government help or hinder? I cannot say that I find it a very impressive production. I rather dislike its tone and I find the content distinctly weak, jejune and rather muddled. I will mention the tone first. I was quite shocked because I thought that it was distinctly arrogant. There is not the slightest trace in this document, from beginning to end, of any sense of recognition of or sensitivity towards, let alone any form of apology for, the disruption that we are causing our neighbours. I say that because it is true. No one here in the House of Lords is going to disagree with my view, but it does not sound like that in the document at all. We have decided on the Brexit project and this document is saying to the Irish, “Right, this is a new ball game now, and you have got to move. You have to move quickly too, because we are impatient and we cannot wait around. By the way, no action is not an option, so get on with it”. That is how I read this document and that is exactly how it is drafted. It seems to me that the Brexit department needs to take on some people with a background in diplomacy. Perhaps they can make a bid for a few good ambassadors. It might help the department in packaging what is anyway the pretty unpalatable material that it produces.
As for the substance, which I suppose is more important still, it seems that the department officials had not looked at it for more than two afternoons. They start by saying that, given that 80% of the cross-border trade in Ireland is carried out by small traders, that is all right and they can continue to trade as they do now. But what will happen with the remaining 20%? You might say, “If it is all right for 80%, why not take a risk and let the entire 100% carry on with the present regime?”. After all, we are taking risks with immigration into the common travel area. In the future, if you ask a Romanian, a Pole, a Frenchman or a German who is living in this country how long he or she has been here, they will not be able to verify the answer because they will say, “I came through Ireland”. If we are taking some risks in that area, why not take some risks in the area of trade?
But what the Government are suggesting is a quite different proposal for the 20% of businesses that do not qualify for the small traders’ exemption—I think they call it the authorised economic operators scheme. It is clear that there are a lot of potential problems with it, none of which it looks like the Government have identified because, if they had done so, I suppose they would have mentioned them. The idea is that if a country is exporting to the United Kingdom and the resulting exports are going on to the Republic of Ireland or elsewhere in the EU, or the other way around, the exporter will pay at the first frontier he comes to, whether it is the UK or the single market frontier, the duty rate which is the maximum duty as between the EU and the UK. If their product carries a duty of 0% for the UK but 10% in the EU and it is landed initially in Ireland it then pays 10%, but it is going to the UK so it does not need to pay 10% but 0%. Then, when the goods have been shipped into the UK, there is a rebate of the duty that has been paid at the frontier.
That raises all kinds of problems. First, there is the administrative cost of doing that. Secondly, how do you follow through those goods? What kind of document is required? You can hardly wait for an invoice to be met. You do not have bills of lading in contexts of that kind with land borders. You certainly do not get a stamp at the land border because there is not a land border, according to this paper. That is left completely open. It is unclear how that will happen. What is more, if you are a country that has done a deal either with the EU or the UK to have zero-tariff access to what they think is your country and they then find that it is not zero-tariff access any more—that you have to pay a 10% tariff, even though you are not due to pay it, then you get it refunded but you might not get it refunded if various risks arise—then the whole deal you originally signed in your free trade agreement has been retrospectively changed. Quite legitimately, you would complain and demand compensation under the WTO rules and so forth and invalidate that particular kind of agreement. There is an enormous number of problems about this, none of which has been gone into in this paper at all. One reads it without any sense whatever that the people who have written it have really dealt with this matter thoroughly and seriously, which they ought to have done.
The other thing is that it seems the Government do not understand what the single market is that we are destroying. What they have in this paper is a picture in which there is a variety of different regimes and different types of people. It is immensely complicated. The whole market is fragmented. You might be a small trader. You presumably have to go through some bureaucratic process to prove that you are a small trader, or a bigger trader, or a trusted trader. What about the new business? What about the guy who is not registered? How long does it take to get registered? Why should we impose some penalty on new businesses, or just on ordinary individuals who decide they want to ship goods from one side to another? Since you have said that all the other procedures that have been developed will obviate the need for a border, what happens to those who are not part of the special deals? Where do they stop? Where do they get policed? Where do they get checked, or do they not get checked at all? Since the paper says there will not be any physical border, where and how are these people monitored and checked? What they have done is to go through the border without paying any duty. None of this is gone into at all.
It seems to me that, if we are to have useful debates on these papers, it is important for us to be quite frank about what we see as their shortcomings. Maybe that will help the Government to get them right for next time round when they bring them to the attention of the Irish—our potential partners in any special arrangement—or in the negotiations that go on in Brussels. Even though I am sure some people have not enjoyed my remarks, they may nevertheless find them useful in due time.
My Lords, I want to make two points, or rather two pleas: a plea for realism on the issue of the border and a plea for greater political engagement to save the Good Friday agreement. The border is well covered in the excellent report from the European Union Committee. The most amazing thing about the report, which is exactly nine months old, is that it has not dated at all. It has not been overtaken in any way by events. It says at paragraph 85:
“Despite ministerial recognition of the substantial implications Brexit could have for cross-border economic activity on the island of Ireland, there is still significant uncertainty over how the UK plans to mitigate these effects”.
That is still precisely true, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, pointed out.
Having read both the little reader’s digest essays published in August—we cannot call them “negotiating documents” because there was nothing in them for a negotiator to get his teeth into, but they are nice little aspirational essays—I can say they both bear on this debate and they still do not give us any idea of the UK Government’s concrete proposals. There are not any concrete proposals.
The impression given is that it is time that Brussels came up with some helpful suggestions here, and we occasionally suggest options, or avenues that might be pursued, and then if they do not go terribly well, we can always say, “Oh, that was just blue-sky thinking”, and put them back in our pocket again. This is not the basis for a negotiation. An honourable exception is the paper on citizens’ rights, which was a much more substantive paper and provided the basis for a real negotiation. It looks to me as if there is a real negotiation going on on citizens’ rights and I would expect sufficient progress by October on that dossier, but I cannot see it on this dossier, on the basis of the documents that we have put forward. The trouble is that the 27 do not think that it is for them to put forward solutions. They think that we created this Brexit problem, we are demandeurs for a solution, so we had better come up with some. And they are still waiting.
Another, greater difficulty on the border issue is that we are actually, in practical terms, between a rock and a hard place. This is not so much on controls on people. If we want to change our immigration policy, if we want to make it more employment related, if we want to say, “Well, let’s not worry so much about the frontier”, we can do that. The non-UK, non-Irish EU citizen may pop across to Dublin, pop up to Belfast, pop across, and we could turn a blind eye to that if we want to. That is not the problem: on controls on people it is really for us to say what we think we need, but on controls on goods it is absolutely not for us to say. When the inner-Irish border becomes the frontier of the customs union, it will be the duty of the Irish Government. They will hate it, but it will be their duty to apply the rules that apply at all the external frontiers of the European Union.
Two-thirds of the member states of the European Union have the duty of controlling a part of the external frontier of the European Union. Many of them, too, have a region just across the frontier, just outside, with which they have very close ties—a region in the neighbouring country—but they nevertheless have to apply the rules that they have all agreed: rules of origin, customs checks, sanitary checks, health checks, environmental checks, all the procedure at the border. Do not blame the Commission. It is the member states that have agreed this and if there is to be any change in respect of Ireland, it is going to be very hard to persuade these people that they should not have a change too. So it seems to me to be an unlikely way to proceed.
It is also the case that technology is not going to save us. I am sure the EU Committee’s report is correct when it says, at paragraph 105:
“The experience at other EU borders shows that … while the burden and visibility of customs checks can be minimised, they cannot be eliminated entirely. Nor, while electronic solutions and cross-border cooperation are helpful as far as they go, is the technology currently available to maintain an accurate record of cross-border movement of goods without physical checks at the border”.
The Swedes are the world leaders at this kind of technology and they say that that is correct. For their border with Norway, which is the border of the customs union, they do have to conduct spot checks, which means that the border has to be manned, and X proportion of the trucks have to be stopped and investigated—I do not know what X is. The report is not coming up with a judgment, it is a fact, and magical thinking will not magic it away. It probably means that some of these 300 roads will have to be blocked. It certainly means that the roads that stay open across the frontier will have to have some sort of control. It will not be our control, unless we want one, it will be the European Union’s control which the Irish will have to operate. All of us saying, “This is going to hurt Ireland”—that is true, of course it is going to hurt Ireland—is not going to save Ireland. Ireland is going to be required to do it because Ireland will be manning the external frontier.
I understand the Government’s difficulty in admitting this. If you are in partnership with the DUP—a party that wants out of the single market, wants out of the customs union and absolutely does not want a hard border—you have a problem. The combination is an impossible one and that will become clear, even to the DUP, at some stage. I do not know what will happen then. I am not surprised the DUP wants an impossible combination because it was what it was told by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was going to happen. Ms Theresa Villiers promised that there would be absolutely no change at the border after Brexit. I am not surprised that some in Northern Ireland thought that might be true. It cannot be true.
I recall when the noble Lord, Lord Lawson—who is not in his place, sadly—then leading the leave campaign, had the intellectual honesty to slap down Ms Villiers. She replied that he was improperly briefed. He was not improperly briefed. It is the case that if we leave the customs union there will have to be some kind of hard border. What is puzzling is that although Ms Villiers left the Government, the Government seem to be still singing the Villiers song, not the Lawson song.
Of course, I understand why the unionist community —the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, made the point eloquently, as did the noble Lord, Lord Empey—absolutely rejects the slightly less implausible alternative of a special regime for Northern Ireland, with checks on movement to and from the rest of the United Kingdom. That is unacceptable. I am afraid I do not think that the solution proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that Ireland should leave the EU’s customs union in order to have a customs union with us, is legally feasible, and I do not think it is or is likely to become the policy of the Government in Dublin, although I am sure they will be grateful for the suggestion.
If one rules out the impossible, the unacceptable and the fanciful, the choice for the United Kingdom is really quite simple: either we are in customs union with the EU or we are not. That is the choice. If we are in, the border can be reasonably frictionless. If we are out, I am sorry, it cannot. We have to be realistic about that and fudging the choice by talking of association with the customs union only excites suspicion in Brussels. How comprehensive, binding or long-lasting would such an association be—could it be, given Dr Fox’s remit and Mrs May’s rhetoric? In Brussels it sounds like cherry-picking, free riding—having the cake and eating it. It also sounds, including to me, WTO non-compliant because unless EU concessions to us covered substantially all trade, which Dr Fox would hate because it would cramp his style, or the EU offered the same deal to all its other trading partners, which obviously it would not do, the WTO would not have it. It would have to be one or the other.
I cannot see the EU buying any of this anyway, even if we put it forward a lot more concretely, convincingly and committedly than in our little August note, and even if we could persuade Mr Varadkar to act as its advocate in the European Council. I have seen no evidence that we have even tried to convince Mr Varadkar. We do not appear to be talking to Mr Varadkar very much. Yesterday his Foreign Minister dismissed the paper on the border issue as unrealistic. Dr Varadkar gave his own view on the issue when he visited the Canadian-American border. His interests are the same as ours—he does not want a hard border either—but his policy deductions seem a bit more realistic. We and Northern Ireland need to listen to him, because the European Council will. At the moment when the European Council takes its decision on this, we will not be in the room but he will. At the moment when people ask, “Are we making sufficient progress on the Irish question?”, he will be the man who speaks first. If he says, “Yes, I think so”, then the odds are that they will agree but if he says, “Actually, we’re not getting anywhere on the frontier because we’ve had no serious proposals from the Brits”, that is it—we are stuck.
This brings me to what I want to say about the Good Friday agreement.
My Lords, bearing in mind the late hour I wonder whether the noble Lord might conclude his remarks.
I realised the hour was late. Nevertheless, I would like to say something quite serious about the Good Friday agreement.
I am alarmed. Although the Government’s policy on Brexit and Ireland is no clearer than it was when the Select Committee’s report was published, the situation has worsened in at least three ways. First, the strand one institutions are, as we know, in abeyance. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, whom I am glad to see in his place, that whatever the reality is—and I do not know—the perception matters, and many in Northern Ireland will think it is more difficult for the Government to play the role of honest broker, cracking the present impasse, now that they have a political alliance at Westminster with the DUP. That may not be the case but it will be the perception of some. It is more difficult for the Government to appear to the nationalist community to be impartial. I put it no higher than that.
The second development was in the point so movingly put by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan.
My Lords, the noble Lord should consider concluding his remarks pretty rapidly, as he is on 14 minutes. The guide time for speeches is eight minutes and the hour is late. I hope that the noble Lord will agree to that.
I will bow to the House if it feels I should say no more. I want to make two more points but if the House thinks that I should not make them, I will sit down. Shall I carry on?
Secondly, on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, where is the voice of moderate constitutional nationalism now to be heard? Where is the voice of the majority of Northern Ireland, who voted to remain? With Stormont closed and the Assembly shut down, and nobody in the House of Commons—of course the root of the problem there is in Sinn Fein not taking its seats—this is a serious problem.
Thirdly, the strand two and strand three institutions seem to be mothballed. The North/South Ministerial Council, which brings Dublin in, has not met this calendar year; nor has the British-Irish Council, to which the noble Lord, Lord Cope, referred. It met three times last year but has not met this year at all. Lack of dialogue is very damaging. The peace process came about because successive Prime Ministers got extensively involved. I watched that happen from my perches in Brussels and then in Washington. I have yet to see a sign of the British Prime Minister’s engagement with the Taoiseach and directly with the parties.
My Lords, I apologise for having to get up a third time but I invite the noble Lord to conclude his remarks immediately. I hope that it is the mood of the House that he should do so.
I shall say three sentences. What we need from the Government today is a clear policy which delivers a soft frontier across the island of Ireland, and that means a customs union. What we need to make sure that we do not let the peace process wither on the vine and the Good Friday agreement fall into complete abeyance is active, high-level UK Government political engagement, including with the Taoiseach, to protect the interests of the north and the interests we all share in active co-operation on a basis of equality across the Irish Sea.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Jay, for leading this important debate and in wishing the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, a speedy recovery. Like many people in Britain, I have a part-Irish heritage. I have not yet pursued an application for an Irish passport, to which I believe my mother’s birth in Dublin in principle entitles me, but I have not ruled it out. Therefore, even for me, let alone for people in Ireland and Northern Ireland, there is a personal dimension to the sundering of our common membership of the EU. That common membership reflected at a political level the cultural and personal family links that we in these islands enjoy.
The Government’s position paper rightly says that issues of identity go to the heart of divisions in Northern Ireland but, as the report points out, the loss of EU membership undermines the sense of an all-Ireland identity. It also undermines the enjoyment of multiple identities by many British and/or Irish and/or European people that many of us have been enabled to hold. As the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said, Brexit is indisputably disruptive for the island of Ireland. Indeed, it is arguably the most disruptive consequence of Brexit and, as other noble Lords have observed, it was shockingly neglected in the referendum. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, we are at best engaged in a damage limitation exercise. The advantage of shared EU engagement has been to allow a certain blurring of identities and allegiances in the supportive framework of a bigger European whole. It undoubtedly facilitated the Good Friday agreement, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, and it helped to achieve that delicate equilibrium, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Jay. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, spoke movingly of the achievement of peace and of the continuing divisions in Northern Ireland.
When I first went to work in Brussels 40 years ago this month as a stagiere in the jargon—an intern—I had a lot of Irish friends, and there was sometimes a slightly chippy, although cheerful, attitude to Brits. The ensuing decades have enabled the relationship to relax and mature so that, as the outgoing Irish ambassador Dan Mulhall said, it is the best ever. I was puzzled by the confirmation by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, of something that my noble friend Lady Suttie mentioned: that some people are seriously suggesting that Ireland should follow the UK in exiting the EU. I find that really quite arrogant as well as totally unrealistic. The Republic of Ireland no longer clings to the UK’s coat-tails, and the idea suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, of a customs union between the UK and Ireland suffers from the same delusion that Ireland wants to sever itself from the EU. As the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, said, the UK does itself no favours by failing to recognise and respect the integrity of the EU.
There are many cart-and-horse problems on the movement of people and goods. For instance, the Government want an agreement on protecting and upholding the common travel area to be concluded at an early stage, while wider questions on the future operation of UK border and immigration controls on EEA nationals can be addressed only as part of the future relationship, and indeed once UK immigration policy, on which the Guardian appears to have obtained a leaked document today, is settled—so which comes first, the cart or the horse? As the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, that issue is probably more soluble than the movement of goods.
The Government want to avoid a hard border, as we all do, but their dogmatic insistence on ruling out the customs union and the single market in the long term means that proposals that could charitably be described as innovative, less charitably as fantasy or pie in the sky, and by the Secretary of State himself—as we have had occasion to observe already today—as “blue-sky thinking” show no practical reality. As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said, they were “breathtakingly short” on detail. My noble friend Lady Suttie said there is a lot of “wishful thinking” and “crossed” fingers. We are no more enlightened, nine months after the report, on the concrete solution on the free movement of goods outside the customs union and the single market.
The Government expect, in regard to goods,
“waivers from security and safety declarations, and ensuring there is no requirement for product standards checks or intellectual property rights checks at the border”.
I have not worked out how that is meant to work outside a single market. The Government propose regulatory equivalence in the agri-food area and cite the Swiss example. But my understanding is that Switzerland simply adopts and applies the EU sanitary and phytosanitary regime. That would mean, presumably, having to keep up with it as it evolves, not statically adopting it on day one. Is that what the Government intend to do?
As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, stressed, continued access to justice and home affairs co-operation, such as through the EU databases—the SIS II database particularly—and the ability to make use of the European arrest warrant, is vital to avoid undermining the fight against terrorism and crime. How will the Government avoid going back to government decisions as opposed to judicial decisions on extradition, which caused so many problems in the past? I think everyone has been glad it is judges who decide these things—it takes a lot of heat out of the situation. How are we going to manage in that area?
To conclude, all speakers in this debate—I am no exception—want to avoid rolling the clock back in Ireland. But the Government have so far not adequately supplied answers to how that can be done, certainly outside the customs union and the single market.
My Lords, it has been a long evening, but an interesting one. Much accumulated wisdom has shone through the various individual contributions to this important debate on the excellent report which the Select Committee produced. Like other noble Lords, I send my best wishes to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, for a speedy and quick recovery.
The noble Lord, Lord Jay, in opening the debate with a very good speech, my noble friends Lord Dubs and Lady Armstrong, and others all said that it was a great mistake that the business of Northern Ireland and of Ireland did not feature in the referendum campaign and debates. Would it have made a difference? I doubt it, certainly not in my area, where, unfortunately from my point of view, the constituents I used to represent voted to leave the EU. Nevertheless, it would have been wholesome had there been a proper debate which would have covered the issues which we are covering tonight.
I also have to agree with a number of noble Lords—including the noble Lords, Lord Carlile and Lexden, and again my noble friend Lady Armstrong—about the response which the committee had from the Government a few hours ago. It has taken nine months to produce this paper. To be perfectly honest, they would have been better off not producing it. If this took nine months, God only knows what is going to happen with the negotiation with the European Union generally, because frankly it is an empty and vacuous paper. I suppose in my ministerial lifetime I probably produced a few of these, but it is not really very good. Its intentions are okay, the observations are okay, but like the position papers, there are no solutions in there—nothing about possible options and solutions to the issues that we have been describing today. I am not suggesting for one second that there are easy solutions to any of the problems that we have discussed for the last five hours, but nevertheless to produce this so late really does the Government no good at all.
However, we are told, and the Minister will tell us later, that there has been some progress with regard to citizens’ rights and the common travel area, and that is to be welcomed. The paper of course recognises the importance of Ireland to everyone concerned—the EU, the Republic and the UK. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, certainly acknowledged that the implications of Brexit for the Republic of Ireland are in themselves unique. No other country is going to be affected by Brexit more than the Republic. Trade between our two countries—over €1 billion a week between the two economies, with about half a million jobs involved—will inevitably be affected dramatically. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, made a very important point about goods from Ireland travelling through the UK, which again is something that I have not seen mentioned in many of these debates and discussions. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, remarked that the effect upon the economy of the Republic could perhaps be the most significant result of Brexit.
Inevitably, the Good Friday agreement has been touched upon on a number of occasions over the last few hours. I believe that the agreement was tied up with our membership of Europe. George Mitchell, who, as your Lordships know, chaired the all-party talks, said only a few months ago that our joint EU membership with the Republic of Ireland was an important factor in the success of the agreement. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney was a significant figure in those talks. He is a committed European, and has been all his life. I recall that in May 1997 a contact in the Belfast Telegraph congratulated me on being made the first European Minister for Northern Ireland.
It is so important to understand that it is not necessarily the wording in the Good Friday agreement that is significant. The agreement between the two Governments said that they wished,
“to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union”.
The fact that we were part of the same club, the same institution, meant that all the barriers between the two countries that had been there for 50 or 60 years disappeared, because we were meeting all the time as members of the EU. In part of this excellent report, the outgoing ambassador from Ireland indicated that there were maybe 25 meetings a day in Brussels in which British and Irish Ministers and officials interchanged all the time. From a human point of view, that has meant over the last 20 or 30 years that it has made a difference to the relations between ourselves and Ireland. That is why, in all three strands of the Good Friday agreement, there is reference to Europe. It is not that technical reference that matters, though; it is the fact that we were all members of the same institution. In fact, just after the new Assembly was established in 1998, as some noble Lords will remember, the entire Assembly went to Brussels to talk to European parliamentarians and Commissioners about the importance of Europe in Northern Ireland.
The border has been mentioned by, for example, my noble friends Lord Hain and Lord Dubs. From listening to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, it seems pretty impossible to solve this one. We could make it easier—there are technological solutions that could doubtless be used, although having read them I personally find them very baffling—but that would not solve the problem. The only real way in which the problem can be solved is, obviously, for us to be in the same customs union. That is the only way in which it could work. I do not think any of us in this Chamber, or indeed in Britain and Ireland, want a return to the border that we all witnessed, particularly during the Troubles, but I just do not see any easy way out of this.
The report also emphasised the unique nature of the relationship between Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland as it concerns Brexit. That uniqueness needs to be addressed. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, addressed it at the beginning of the debate. The Irish Government are nervous about bilateral agreements between the British and Irish Governments. I can understand that, because of the position they are in within the European Union, but it is unique. There is nowhere else on the whole continent of Europe where the situation of Ireland is replicated. Nowhere has had a peace process such as this. Fifty-six per cent of the population of Northern Ireland voted to remain, more than those who voted to leave in the rest of the United Kingdom. They will be ignored, despite the fact that the principle of consent is written into the Good Friday agreement.
It seems to me that the two Governments, which are, after all, the joint guarantors of the Good Friday agreement, have to work together in a special way. I know that to many unionists, the idea of special status is anathema, and I do not argue for that; I argue for special arrangements to be made. The Good Friday agreement was in any event a special arrangement, different from devolution in Wales and in Scotland. It was a special arrangement, so why can we not have a special arrangement between the British and Irish Governments within the structure of the European Union negotiations, to deal with these difficult issues? Perhaps we cannot, but it is something that we should consider.
Of course, none of this can happen properly unless the Northern Irish parties are engaged—it is a waste of time. Throughout this debate, many Members of the House referred to the fact that we are without an Executive. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, referred to the fact that there is now no nationalist voice in the House of Commons. When I was a Member of that place for 30 years, there always was; there is no more. Some of the solutions to the issues of Brexit lie in the institutions which have developed in the past 20 years. The British-Irish Council has not met recently. There is the joint ministerial committee, which involves all the different Ministers from the different devolved Administrations. There is not a single Northern Ireland voice on any of those bodies. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference needs to be revitalised, and there is of course the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, an excellent institution which I once chaired, but ultimately, if these bodies do not have on them proper representatives of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, we cannot properly hear the voice of the people of Northern Ireland. That is a distinct tragedy.
It is now up to the Government not simply to negotiate with the European Union about what happens in Ireland and Northern Ireland but to negotiate with the political parties in Northern Ireland to get a solution to the problems there which mean that we have no Executive. I understand that the Secretary of State has begun further talks in Belfast. Unless those talks are successful, it seems to me that the situation with regard to Brexit in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will worsen. Although those other issues which the political parties are dealing with in Northern Ireland—those of the past and of the Irish language—are very important, it seems to me that the issue of Brexit should dominate discussion politically in Northern Ireland at the moment. It is up to the Government, the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Prime Minister to go across the Irish Sea—as previous Prime Ministers have done—to ensure that these negotiations are successful, because the key to the success of Brexit in Ireland and Northern Ireland and to the future prosperity and stability of Northern Ireland lies in those negotiations in Belfast.
My Lords, in addition to the best wishes expressed by other noble Lords, I wish the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, a very speedy recovery and return. We very much miss his wisdom and good humour. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, I hope that he will be back very shortly.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jay, very much indeed for his presentation of the case expressed in a very thoughtful paper. I apologise to him and to others who have expressed very reasonable chastisement, including the noble Lords, Lord Murphy and Lord Carlile, the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, and my noble friend Lord Lexden. Part of the delay can be explained by the very difficult political situation—elections and so on—but that does not excuse it. I totally accept that and apologise on behalf of the Government.
I set out the Government’s commitment to maintaining and strengthening the unique relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland, which has been expressed by so many Peers in this debate. We are indissolubly tied by centuries of history, geography and trade—and, as many noble Lords have said, familial ties. The present very close relationship is something that the Government welcome, cherish and want to nurture. I did not recognise one or two descriptions of poor relations with the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. That is not recognised by the Government; the Prime Minister has a very good working relationship with him, and they met very early after his appointment. I think that his first meeting with a leader from another member state was with the Prime Minister, and she has been very clear that she wants to see the relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland deepen and strengthen after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. Furthermore, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland maintains a regular dialogue with the Irish Government, and particularly with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, as well as with Frances Fitzgerald, the deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Justice and Equality. Of course, discussions are held at official level as well. There is a very warm relationship, and we share many objectives in this area. In particular, there is really not a cigarette paper between us on the desire for a frictionless, seamless, invisible border, which we have at the moment.
I turn to express some general thoughts about the Government’s approach and the recent position paper on the Northern Ireland and Ireland situation, published on 16 August, to which many noble Lords have referred—some even in a complimentary way, expressing agreement with the objectives and four key priorities that we set out in the papers, upholding the Belfast agreement in all its parts. In that context, I welcome and acknowledge with thanks the massive role played by the noble Lord, Lord Hain—I thank him for his kind comments—and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, in relation to their ability to bring parties together in Northern Ireland in a lasting way. That has been tremendously important and remains very much valued in Northern Ireland.
We want to ensure protection for citizenship rights established under the Belfast agreement. Like the Government in Ireland, we stand resolutely behind the Belfast agreement in all its respects, without question. We want to maintain the common travel area and associated rights, and to avoid a hard border for the movement of goods. We want to preserve north-south and east-west co-operation, including on energy. I hope to say something on that later, if I have time.
That is the bedrock of where we are in relation to the Belfast agreement and it is central to ongoing good UK/Irish relations. This was referred to by many noble Lords during the debate, including my noble friend Lord Suri and the noble Lords, Lord Davies, Lord Carlile, Lord Hannay, Lord Cotter and Lord Dubs. I associate myself with some points made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, about dispensing with logic and looking at what can be done in a unique situation. The noble Lord, Lord Jay, also referred to the need for flexibility and imagination in bringing this to a happy conclusion. I make no apology for repeating that our constructive relationship with Ireland, also referred to by my noble friend Lord Lexden, is central to how we feel.
Many noble Lords who have particular experience of this, including the noble Lords, Lord Murphy, Lord Hain and Lord Whitty, spoke of our responsibility to get the political parties in Northern Ireland—which share the responsibility—back in a working Assembly. I agree that this has to be central. All possibilities as to how we can help to bring that about are looked at by the Government on a regular, daily basis. As the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has said, the Secretary of State is at the moment heavily involved in seeking to bring together the parties in Northern Ireland. They must look to their responsibilities on this key issue, which is more lasting than some of the others which seem to be holding up progress. Getting all the political parties, not just the two major ones, involved is of overwhelming importance and is central to what we seek to do. My noble friends Lord Trimble and Lord Empey and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, also referred to the intricate nature of these discussions and the importance attaching to them.
One or two noble Lords, perhaps including the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, referred to the progress made on citizenship rights. Noble Lords may be unaware that even Michel Barnier, who is not normally associated with loosely using the word “progress”, is on the record as saying that the Brexit discussions on the Northern Ireland/Ireland situation have been fruitful. It was always recognised that the discussion on customs arrangements would take longer. There are clearly more involved areas here and intricate discussions need to be gone into. That will take time, but we should not lose sight of the fact that all the parties involved—the other 27 EU member states; Ireland; the UK Government; and the political parties in Northern Ireland, which I regret do not currently have the voice that we need them to have—share the same goal. There is no material difference in what we want and that is a pretty good starting point to have. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, that we have a pragmatic approach here which is likely to succeed. We have a shared interest with Ireland and Northern Ireland. My noble friend Lord Howell made the point that 90% of goods going to Europe go through England and Wales. We have perhaps not acknowledged the role of Wales and we should: an awful lot goes through Holyhead and Fishguard. That is significant and important and will not be lost on the remaining member states of the EU. There is work to be done there and a positive, pragmatic approach, which the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, touched on, is important.
Many noble Lords referred to the importance of preserving the frictionless, invisible border that we have at the moment. The noble Lords, Lord Morrow and Lord Kilclooney, referred to the fact that they live very close to it, so they speak with great personal experience. Two things were brought home to me some years ago after the Belfast agreement when I was staying with friends in Enniskillen that influenced my approach to this issue, and I think this is shared by other government Ministers. One was when I said to the person with whom I was staying in Enniskillen, as we were going into a pub there—I probably put my foot straight in it—“Is this a Protestant pub or a Catholic pub?”. She turned to me, her eyes filled with tears and she said, “It doesn’t matter anymore”. That is what all of us seek to preserve in Northern Ireland. The other point that was brought home to me on the same visit was when we were going south from Enniskillen into County Cavan and I asked, “Have we crossed the border yet?”. She said, “I don’t know. We will only know when we get to a petrol filling station and see whether the prices are in euros or sterling”. That is something we have to preserve. It certainly influences my approach and, I think, that of the Government as we know just how important this is.
I do not seek to minimise the fact, and neither do the Government, that there is a lot more to be done on this issue. Nobody is saying that we are home and dry on it. We are not remotely home and dry on it, but we have made progress and that is not a bad position to be in.
I certainly have loads to learn in this role, but this point came home to me again in the summer when I was in Clogher, which for the uninitiated is a village in County Tyrone which has a massively important agricultural show in the summer. People come to the show from across the border, which almost does not exist, as well as from the local community. When you speak to them, you do not know initially whether they are from the south or the north. They say, “It is vital that we maintain the present position whereby people can come here from across the whole of Ireland”. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Bew, mentioned the importance of the agri-food sector. The noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Whitty, talked about how agriculture is central to this sector. The Government are very conscious that there are discussions to be had to ensure that we get this right and preserve the position as near as possible to how it is now. That is certainly not without challenges.
I will ensure that this very good debate is sent to the DExEU Ministers so that they can pick up the extremely effective points that have been made. That is important. I will write to noble Lords, picking up points that have been made during the debate. Some specific issues were addressed to me which I will pick up in the circular letter. I will take away the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Carlile, so that they get a more meaningful response than I am able to give from the Dispatch Box this evening.
The overriding point to which I come back was made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs—namely, that we need to set high ambitions. Logic does not necessarily determine this. It did not necessarily determine the success of the Belfast agreement. We need to be ambitious and seek to do what may now seem close to impossible. We need to ensure that we do two things. I can understand the very strong feelings of many noble Lords about Brexit—I campaigned strongly to remain, so I know where they are coming from on that—but we have to move this on and decide how we cope with the fact that we are coming out of the EU. How do we square the circle on this and seek to preserve, as closely as we possibly can, the border as it is now with all the ramifications that has for excellent north-south relations? Those relations have improved immeasurably in our lifetimes but certainly in the last 10 and 20 years: indeed, they are scarcely recognisable. We need to ensure that the economies of both the north and the south are protected as well as that of the rest of the UK. That is something—which, as I say, is a really good starting point—that all parties want to preserve.
If it has not come across that this is really central to the Government, let me restate that, as the Prime Minister early on did make it clear, this is central to what the Government want: not just to protect Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, though that is important, but to protect southern Ireland. She recognised then that there was a particular interest in protecting Ireland, and we do owe responsibilities to our nearest neighbours and close allies, so that is something that is also desirable. The Irish border is not a pawn—I think that word was used, perhaps in the context of a question. It is vital to us; it is a prime priority. We do need to seek a bespoke deal of the sort that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs was hinting at, with flare, flexibility and imagination, as was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, in his excellent introduction.
I thank noble Lords for their participation in what, I think, has been a very good debate, not without emotion, which I fully understand. I undertake to write to pick up the points that I have not been able to cover in any detail in this response. I assure noble Lords that this debate, which has been an excellent one, will be passed to DExEU Ministers for their consideration.
If my noble friend is writing to noble Lords, will he give an assurance that he will address the issue of who speaks for Northern Ireland, and what input there is going to be as we go through the Brexit negotiations? This is a matter which I raised, as did the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and a number of other noble Lords. Who is going to feed in that response, and will the Minister undertake to address that?
I am grateful to my noble friend for that. Without going through all the things that I have not touched on, and giving separate details of what I will set out in the letter, that is an important point and I recognised that he made it. In short, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, in the vacuum that exists with the absence of an Assembly and power-sharing Executive, will be doing that. That does not detract from the fact that we are working hard to make sure that the power-sharing Executive are brought back as soon as possible. In the meantime, work is being done at official level and at ministerial level from the Westminster Government.
My Lords, I too am grateful to all those who spoke in the debate, whatever their point of view, and to the Minister for his thoughtful reply. We have heard some powerful and, indeed, moving speeches this afternoon. The debate has shown clearly the complexity, the sensitivity and the importance of the negotiations before us. I am sure your Lordships’ European Union Committee will wish to continue to focus on the implications for Ireland, north and south, as the negotiations continue, drawing on the wisdom of all those, including in this House, with real expertise and knowledge.
House adjourned at 10.28 pm.