Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the Report from the European Union Committee Brexit: UK–Irish relations (6th Report, Session 2016–17, HL Paper 76).
My Lords, it is a privilege to introduce this debate on the EU Committee’s report, Brexit: UK-Irish relations, published in December 2016. I do so in place of our chairman the noble Lord, Lord Boswell of Aynho, who, as many noble Lords will know, is convalescing after a period of ill health. The noble Lord, Lord Boswell, did an excellent job in guiding the committee through this extremely important subject and I know he regrets not being able to be with us today. I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing him well.
The committee launched this inquiry a year ago out of a conviction that the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland, and on north-south and east-west relations, had been largely missing from the Brexit referendum debate and its immediate aftermath—at least on this side of the Irish Sea. As the former Taoiseach, John Bruton, told us,
“The impact on Ireland was virtually ignored”,
during the referendum campaign. His words are, I suggest, an indictment of the way the referendum campaign was conducted on both sides. This is particularly regrettable given the long and complex history of UK-Irish relations, our close and unique historical, geographical, economic, social and cultural ties, and the way in which our bilateral relations have been positively transformed in recent years, symbolised by the reciprocal state visits by Her Majesty the Queen and President Higgins in 2011 and 2014.
In undertaking this inquiry, we wanted to report quickly, so as to contribute to the debate over the future shape of post-Brexit UK-EU and UK-Irish relations. We heard evidence from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the then Irish ambassador and from two former Taoisigh, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern. In a two-day visit to Belfast and Dublin, we heard from a cross-section of unionist and nationalist politicians, academics and other key stakeholders. Nevertheless, given the time constraints, we were not able to go into as much detail as we would have liked.
In particular, we did not hear from representatives of the Northern Ireland Executive. This was not for want of trying. The committee invited both the DUP and Sinn Fein to meet us in Belfast, but we did not receive any responses to our invitations. We understand the difficulties the two parties face and were pleased subsequently to meet representatives of both parties separately here in London. Their contributions, along with invaluable evidence given to us by the noble Lords, Lord Trimble, Lord Alderdice and Lord Hain, have helped inform our follow-up inquiry into Brexit and devolution. That report was published in July, and I hope it will soon be debated in the House.
In our UK-Irish relations report, we outlined the particular implications of Brexit for Ireland, north and south. The economic consequences would be serious, particularly given the extent of cross-border trade and the agri-food sector’s reliance on EU funding. We warned of the consequences for the Irish border of potential restrictions to the free movement of goods and people. We pointed to the implications for the common travel area, which, though it long predates either country’s membership of the EU, has never had to co-exist with a situation in which one country is inside and the other outside the European Union. We also drew attention to the right of the people of Northern Ireland to Irish—and therefore EU—citizenship. We warned of the potential impact on political stability in Northern Ireland and in particular on the confidence of both communities that their interests and aspirations are being respected. We pointed to the challenge that Brexit presents to the north-south and east-west institutional structure established under the Belfast or Good Friday agreement.
We therefore stressed that the unique position of Ireland, north and south, must be fully taken into account in the Brexit negotiations. We called on all parties to the negotiations to give official recognition to the special, unique nature of UK-Irish relations in their entirety, including the position of Northern Ireland, and the north-south and east-west structure and institutions established under the Belfast agreement.
The committee is therefore glad that both sides in the Brexit negotiations have agreed to give high priority, alongside the negotiation of a withdrawal agreement, to the resolution of issues affecting the island of Ireland, and the reported progress in last week’s round of negotiations is encouraging. At the same time, it is important not to underestimate the legal and institutional difficulties of translating recognition of the importance of these issues into a final agreement. The unique nature of UK-Irish relations requires a unique solution, and this will continue to demand flexibility and imagination on all sides.
The report was broadly welcomed upon publication last December, both here and in Dublin, but I acknowledge that concerns were expressed, in particular by elements of the unionist community in Northern Ireland. Some of the comments I saw appeared to respond to media accounts of our report rather than the report itself, so I hope it will help the House if I seek at the outset to put the record straight.
First, we did not argue that Brexit would lead to a renewed outbreak of the Troubles. Indeed, we stressed that it would be irresponsible to overstate the threat to peace posed by Brexit. Instead, the report takes as its starting point that the Belfast or Good Friday agreement established a delicate equilibrium between the unionist and nationalist communities, and that Brexit must not weaken this equilibrium or the commitment and confidence of both communities in the political process.
Against this backdrop, it would be foolish to deny that Brexit has been politically divisive in Northern Ireland. This is underlined by the fact, put to us by Professor Jonathan Tonge of Liverpool University, that almost 90% of nationalists voted to remain, while almost two-thirds of unionists voted to leave. This is one reason why it is so important that the power-sharing institutions are re-established as quickly as possible, to ensure that the voices of all communities in Northern Ireland are heard in the Brexit negotiations.
Nor did we advocate “special status” for Northern Ireland, or that Northern Ireland should remain in the EU, single market or customs union, while the rest of the UK left. As I have said, we called instead for giving,
“official recognition to the special, unique nature of UK-Irish relations in their entirety, including the position of Northern Ireland”—
language that has been echoed not only by the Irish Government and the EU but by the Prime Minister herself in her 29 March letter triggering Article 50.
Finally, we were clear, to quote from the report, that,
“strengthened checks for UK and Irish citizens at the sea boundary between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would be politically divisive and inherently undesirable”.
Maintaining an open Irish land border is essential. Any reimposition of border controls or restriction on the movement of goods would be fraught with danger, but moving the border to the Irish Sea is not a price worth paying.
The Irish Government expressed reservations about one aspect of our report: namely, our call for the UK and Ireland to negotiate a draft bilateral agreement, which would then be agreed by EU partners. We must all respect Ireland’s continued commitment to EU membership, and we fully understand the Irish Government’s emphasis on the need for unity across the EU 27, and their decision to entrust negotiations on the question of the border to the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. But the committee continues to believe that the UK and Irish Governments, with full input by the Northern Ireland Executive, are best placed to devise potential solutions to the border question while keeping the EU 27 fully informed and involved at every stage.
Since we produced our report last December, a lot has happened. We have seen the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive, Assembly elections, the triggering of Article 50, the general election, the Conservative-DUP confidence and supply agreement, the start of Brexit negotiations—including the establishment of a negotiating strand on Ireland—and the appointment of a new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, followed by an apparent hardening of the stance in Dublin.
Then, just three weeks ago, the Government published their position paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland. The publication of that paper is welcome; indeed, much of its analysis chimes with that of the committee. This is also true of the letter from the Minister, received this morning. I confess that I have not yet had time to read the Government’s response to our report, which was received about an hour ago. It would have been helpful to have had the reply in time to read it before today’s debate.
The Government’s position paper acknowledges the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland and Ireland, as well as the important north-south and east-west trade and economic links. It stresses the need to uphold the Belfast or Good Friday agreement and the common travel area, to avoid a hard border for goods and to maintain north-south and east-west co-operation. It acknowledges the need to find flexible and imaginative solutions and to uphold the peace process. It calls for the citizenship rights set out in the Belfast agreement to remain in force and for the continuation of PEACE funding to Northern Ireland and the border counties of Ireland.
Yet for all its positive aspirations, the Government’s paper is short on detail, not least on the retention of an open border for goods. The Government’s proposals remain untested, unprecedented and highly ambitious. The EU has made it clear that there must be “sufficient progress” on resolving these questions before discussions on the UK’s future relations with the EU can start. That does not mean resolving every detail. I have some sympathy for the Government’s argument that it is impossible to resolve the Irish border question without first agreeing at least the parameters of the UK’s future relationship with the EU. In particular, clarity is needed on the UK’s relationship with the customs union before the implications for the Irish border can be fully understood.
Yet I can also understand why the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney, has warned against the UK Government using the issue of the Irish border as a pawn to press the EU into agreeing a broader trade deal. The potential implications of Brexit for Ireland, north and south, are potentially far too serious for game playing, and I hope the Minister will be able to reassure the House that that is not the Government’s intention.
Closer UK-Irish relations and stability in Northern Ireland need not, and must not, become collateral damage of Brexit. In an era of blossoming bilateral relationships, after long years of mistrust and misunderstanding, the Government must be sensitive to the implications of their actions for the people and communities of Ireland, north and south. Anything less would diminish the efforts of all those people who have worked so long and so hard for peace across these islands. I look forward to the debate, and beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on introducing this debate. I join him in sending good wishes to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, for his recovery. As the noble Lord said, the report was published last December and much of it has been overtaken by events, particularly the publication of the UK paper on Ireland. I was very glad to hear an interview on the radio last week with John Bruton, the former Taoiseach, in which he acknowledged that that paper had gone a very long way in recognising the problems they have, so I shall not try to deal with the whole scope of the report introduced by the noble Lord.
I shall focus first on the proposals in the report for a special status for Northern Ireland, which are set out on page 58 and the following pages. The report contains two boxes describing the Belfast agreement, or the Good Friday agreement, as it is commonly known. They are Box 4 on page 39 and Box 5 on page 48. Both boxes focus on strands 2 and 3 of the agreement, but the important constitutional provisions of the agreement are in strand 1, which is not mentioned in the report. That is particularly unfortunate as some of the proposals in the report can and will be seen by unionists as undermining the guarantees in strand 1 of the agreement.
I shall elaborate on that a little. Paragraph 241 refers to,
“the circumstances on the island of Ireland as a whole”,
but constitutionally, that island is not a whole, and its divided existence is guaranteed by strand 1 of the Good Friday agreement. As the noble Lord said, the paragraph goes on to suggest that there should be some form of bilateral agreement between the British and Irish Governments, but there already is such an arrangement in the Good Friday agreement, to which the Northern Ireland parties have access, so what is the point of another if it is not to exclude the Northern Ireland parties from it? That would be a very dangerous way to proceed.
There is more precision in paragraph 262, which sets out a number of bullet points. The sixth bullet point reads:
“Acceptance of the Northern Ireland Executive’s right to exercise devolved powers … about the free movement of EU workers within its jurisdiction”.
That is a very interesting concept, a,
“right to exercise devolved powers”,
on a particular issue, because devolved powers are necessarily, by definition, of a subordinate nature. When you talk about a right to exercise those powers, you are trying to move the nature of the power away from being devolved in a different direction. That, again, is rather dangerous. The intention of this novel right is clear. It if were implemented, there would be three immigration polities within the British Isles; the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain would have different provisions. Northern Ireland would, in this way, be excluded from this aspect of United Kingdom policy. That, again, is something that we would be very concerned about. Your Lordships may feel it is just a matter of impression, but there is a serious issue there.
Paragraph 239 is also interesting. It mentions a debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on a motion supporting the concept of “special status” for Northern Ireland. The paragraph starts by expressing concern about unionist “sensitivities” but ends by saying:
“The motion was defeated by a single vote, following opposition from the Unionist parties”.
We know what that means: it was just a single vote, which means it is virtually agreed and we can press on. That is what some people would want to do, arguing that it is only one vote and that they will change their position. Compare that with the rules for agreement within the inter-party talks, subsequently written into the legislation and observed in practice by the parties of Northern Ireland and by both Governments over the last 20 years. Those rules for decision-making are quite simple. They are there in a similar but slightly different form in the Act, but as originally set out in the agreement, they involved a majority of unionists, a majority of nationalists, and the agreement of both Governments on strands 2 and 3 and of the British Government alone on strand 1.
Those are the decision-making procedures and to have them just set aside, as it were, as is implicit in the way the report is framed, will simply not be acceptable—not just to unionists but to the other parties in Northern Ireland that have benefited from the procedures that are in the Good Friday agreement and have been implemented in the Executive. I agree with the comments that have been made about the need for the Executive to be reinstated, but we say this again and again and I am afraid it always falls on deaf ears, because Sinn Fein is determined not to do it until it has milked this situation for as much as it possibly can. It is prepared to dig in, so that we might possibly break the record set by Belgium for operating without a Government—but that is by the way. Those are the points I wanted to make about special status. The Government’s report is not going down that well, and we should endorse that.
I will just continue with a number of comparatively brief observations. Point 5 in paragraph 262 calls for the creation of a “customs and trade arrangement” in the event of the United Kingdom leaving the EU. Does the Minister agree that “customs and trade arrangement” is, like the single market, an expression of the EU, and that if you are participating in them you have not left the EU? Is it not also the case that if special trading arrangements are offered to one party, under the WTO rules, those arrangements must be available to all trading partners, so that option is not viable?
Does the Minister not also agree that we simply cannot settle these issues until we know, in a fair amount of detail, the trade arrangements that there will be for UK-EU trade? On that matter, do we in principle still support free trade? On Saturday, David Davis was quoted in the newspapers as saying:
“Britain is unlikely to secure anything but a hard customs border with the European Union”.
Is that the Government’s position? In any event, what is the point of saying that so early in the proceedings? If the EU insists on tariffs, will we still stick to the undertaking given that there would be no structures to enforce such tariffs on our side of the border? That would be one useful contribution.
I also urge the Minister that we should stop talking and briefing about money. The payment of money from the UK to the EU is one of the strongest cards we have, and it should be held in reserve and not regularly splashed all over the papers, with people seeming to invent the sums. Again, do our interlocutors understand that in a negotiation of this nature, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed?
Finally, I have a personal observation about something that worked very well for me in the negotiations we had. If you are not prepared to walk away, you have no leverage, but you must be prepared for the insults that will follow.
My Lords, I too was a member of the Select Committee and of the group that travelled to Belfast and Dublin as background for this report. I join the noble Lord, Lord Jay, who gave an excellent introduction, in recognising the importance of the contacts that we made there. I also join him in regretting the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, and echo his good wishes. The noble Lord, Lord Boswell, conducted major negotiations to get us to see everyone that we could in Belfast and Dublin.
Those that we saw from business, civic society and trade unions, as well as the politicians who talked to us, conveyed to us a pretty substantial degree of anxiety about the danger to Northern Ireland in Belfast and to the Republic of mishandling the Brexit arrangements, particularly the question of the border. Border trade is of course the major concern but there is also the question of east-west trade, issues of transport and infrastructure in Northern Ireland and the border regions, the interests of Northern Irish agriculture and some of the health and other social services that are now delivered in part under cross-border arrangement, as well as some concern about the peace process. It was clear to all of us that it would not be in the interests of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland or Great Britain for sudden and drastic changes to be introduced to the border and to the customs and regulatory structure. That brings me to the central theme of what I am saying: all this need not be done at the same time, and maintaining some degree of continuity through a transition period—or a phased implementation period, if that is the phrase you prefer—is going to be important in handling this properly.
Maybe I should depart slightly from my script in response to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, because I have some sympathy with the immediate point that the report did not fully reflect the views of Northern Ireland unionist politicians. That was in part because of the failure to discuss with us until very late in the process, and it worried me slightly during the course of the inquiry. I accept that unionist opinion does not want Northern Ireland to be treated under a special status. Having said that, though, without differentiating the constitutional position of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, there are issues in Northern Ireland that need to be treated specially—relations between the north and the south, and trade relations with Great Britain—without pre-empting the fundamental broader long-term constitutional position.
I was going to say this later, but there is a responsibility on the main political parties in Northern Ireland in particular to ensure that Northern Ireland’s interests are protected but also that they are engaged constructively in this process. That requires a clear voice from a reconstituted devolved Government. Without that, we will fall into the dangers indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, that decisions will be taken over the heads of the political leadership in Northern Ireland.
The report is pretty substantial. The Government’s recent position paper takes things a little further, although I am afraid the letter we have received today has not really taken us much further than that. However, the position in Northern Ireland has not significantly advanced—in fact, it has gone backwards from when we were in Belfast in the conduct of this report. One area that I shall take as an example because I know something about it, which will be differentially impacted and needs a differential solution, is Northern Ireland agriculture. It may well be true that a lot of Ulster farmers actually voted to leave the EU but they are engaged in the CAP, and the fact is that much of Northern Ireland’s agriculture and the food industry in Ireland as a whole is interrelated. Livestock and products cross the border, while in many respects manufactured products cross the border several times before they finally go into the distribution chain.
It is therefore important that regulations on food standards, food safety, animal welfare, animal disease, movement of animals, hygiene and phytosanitary regulation is pretty much equivalent across the whole of Ireland. The Irish agricultural and food industry needs to relate more to the European context, albeit that Great Britain will also continue to be a major market for that produce. If the UK as a whole were to depart from the standards that have hitherto been set in Europe, the effect on Irish agriculture as a whole and Northern Irish agriculture in particular would be severe, so we need a mechanism which may require some cohesion between the north and south in Ireland, and which certainly restrains British regulatory authorities from departing too far from European standards in future. That is one example.
Part of the problem today is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, recognised, the approach to negotiations by all parties has aggravated the problem. The EU insistence that the Northern Ireland border should be part of the “divorce settlement” or withdrawal treaty before anything else is settled is illogical. We cannot have a final, settled position on the Irish border until we know what will ultimately be the trade arrangements between the EU and the UK and the migration arrangements, if any, between Ireland and the UK. That is obvious in relation to trade but is also the case in relation to the movement of people. The common travel area pre-existed the EU in different contexts throughout the troubled Anglo-Irish relationship for the past near-century, it relates to not having substantial border controls for people, and it is nationals of Ireland and the UK who enjoy the rights under it. Those rights to work and to live do not extend to nationals of other EU countries who may or will be residents of the Irish Republic. That means that Ireland may be seen as a back door to the United Kingdom under a more draconian border control system in the UK.
I do not want to be too alarmist about it, but there are anecdotes that suggest such moves are already taking place. You can imagine the reaction of some of the British press and its effect on Anglo-Irish relations if Ireland were seen as a back door and a soft touch to get around the new British immigration controls. So while this is most importantly about trade north-south and east-west, it is also about people. For the interests of all the people to be represented, we need a cohesive approach and engagement by the political parties of Northern Ireland. I regret to say that, so far, neither of the main parties has demonstrably shown that commitment. The DUP perhaps thinks that it has more interest in influencing the Westminster Government than in establishing an effective Executive in Northern Ireland, and Sinn Fein has resurrected its all-Ireland ambition and perhaps thinks that after the next Irish elections it will have more influence in the Dáil. That is a denial of its primary role, which is to represent the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, to establish a degree of devolved government in Northern Ireland and to help the British, Irish and EU authorities to come up with an effective solution to what is a serious and complex problem.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful for the opportunity to debate this very important and comprehensive report on UK-Irish relations following Brexit. As a member of the EU Select Committee, I pay particular tribute to the staff on the committee, whose workload has increased substantially since the referendum last year, and they have risen admirably to the challenge. I also pay tribute to the EU Select Committee’s chair and our acting chair, the noble Lord, Lord Jay. Like other noble Lords, I pass on my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, for all his hard work over the last year, and send him my very best wishes for a speedy recovery.
As the noble Lord, Lord Jay, has said, work on this report on UK-Irish relations began a year ago. Last September, much of the political attention was focused on Scotland and its likely role in the Brexit process, so at the time of drafting the report we were genuinely concerned in the committee that there was insufficient understanding or awareness of the very significant impact that Brexit would have on so many aspects of the economy on the island of Ireland, most particularly in the agri-food sector.
In the course of the inquiry, we heard deep concerns about how to safeguard the long-established freedom of movement of people, services and goods across the border—a border that has become so much more relaxed over the past two decades. Everyone has agreed that there must be no return to a hard border, and all the negative elements that that would entail. Several witnesses expressed genuine concern that there were potential risks to the peace process too, and they were anxious to see no reversal of the commitments set down in the Good Friday/Belfast agreement as a result of Brexit.
A year since work on this report began, it would be fair to say that the issues regarding the island of Ireland are very much at the top of the Brexit agenda. They are well understood by both sets of negotiators. Indeed, Michel Barnier was personally involved with introducing the EU’s Northern Ireland PEACE programme to support peace and reconciliation. Demonstrable progress on the Irish border issues is one of the three areas where progress is required before Brexit negotiations can move on to phase 2 regarding our future relations with the European Union.
However, despite the large consensus about the key issues and desirable shared objectives, progress on precisely how those objectives can be achieved in practice has been painfully slow, especially given the timescale involved and the continuing ticking of the clock. The Government’s position paper published three weeks ago repeats many of the issues that the committee report spelled out last December on upholding the Good Friday agreement, safeguarding the common travel area and ensuring that the border is “seamless and frictionless”, and this should be strongly welcomed. However, on reading the Government’s paper, it seems as if their central proposition is that, if we keep our fingers crossed, nothing will change at all. That seems based on an awful lot of wishful thinking. The UK Government’s proposal that we can be both in the customs union while simultaneously maintaining free trade agreements with other states is to misunderstand the EU’s wish to preserve the integrity of its customs union and common external tariff, just as the UK will in due course wish to protect its own trading relationships with the rest of the world. I quote my good friend the Irish former President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, in a recent interview:
“There is a mutual inconsistency between wanting to remain almost in, while at the same time wanting all the privileges of remaining fully out … what you can’t ask is to have your cake and eat it”.
While we all wish to avoid a hard border, any difference in the customs and tariff regimes between the UK and the EU would require administrative burdens and some form of physical checks. Even light-touch borders such as Norway and Sweden have a physical frontier. The Government are being overoptimistic in expecting that technological and regulatory solutions can entirely avoid the need for at least some form of targeted checks on the movement of goods. They should also not underestimate the importance of identity in Northern Ireland, and the psychological effect that Brexit has had. As our EU Committee report acknowledges, common EU membership laid the groundwork for the development of the peace process, as the border diminished visibly and psychologically. In particular, it allowed nationalists in Northern Ireland to develop a sense of common identity with fellow EU citizens across the border.
At the meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Kilkenny in July this year, I was very struck by some of the comments expressed both publicly and privately by some of the Unionist parliamentarians present. Those views were echoed by some Brexit-supporting British Conservatives present at BIPA. They expressed the view that the logical consequence of Brexit was that the Irish would inevitably follow suit and have also to leave the European Union. I find such views deeply out of touch with the reality of modern Ireland.
As the report states so clearly, the Republic of Ireland will be the EU member state most directly affected by the economic consequences of Brexit. However, the economic strength provided through continued membership of the EU should also not be underestimated. As the report says in paragraph 40:
“As an English-speaking member of the Single Market, Ireland may be able to attract increased inward investment post-Brexit”.
On an anecdotal level, I have heard that many multinational companies are making inquiries about setting up offices in Dublin.
In conclusion, this EU Select Committee report has played a very important role in raising awareness of the many and highly complex issues facing the island of Ireland after Brexit. This has perhaps been all the more important at a time when there is no Executive in place in Northern Ireland or present to have its voice heard at meetings of the joint ministerial committee which discusses the Brexit negotiations. I hope that in his concluding remarks the Minister may be able to give your Lordships’ House an up-to-date briefing on how the Government are ensuring that the views of all political parties will be adequately heard during the continued Brexit negotiations, as this is clearly a matter of such importance to all people in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, who spoke with her usual clarity and authority on this most difficult area. I associate myself with her comments on our staff, who have worked so hard in the past year during which we have produced 19 Brexit reports. I also add my good wishes to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, and wish him a very speedy recovery. He has a bottomless pit of anecdotes which keep us going very well.
I too am a member of the European Union Select Committee. This was the very first inquiry launched after the Brexit vote, and rightly so given the context and history between our two nations. Published as it was on 12 December last year, I note with regret how little progress has been made since then. As has been observed, the government response finally arrived at lunchtime today. An update report would have been thin. It would have recited the sorry tale of the current lack of a Northern Ireland Executive and the fact that the Davis/Barnier negotiating structure has yet to produce anything concrete. More encouragingly, it would have mentioned the UK position paper package of 16 August. I will make two points today. The first concerns people, corresponding to section 2 of the UK position paper, and the second concerns commerce, which corresponds to section 3.
Turning first to people, the position paper package estimates that 110 million personal crossings of the Northern Ireland border take place every year. There is inspiration in the EU local border traffic regulation 2006. This specifically does not apply to either the UK or Ireland, arising as it does out of the Schengen acquis. It does, however, show in a practical way how the EU deals with neighbourly relations and borders with third countries. The regulation regime covers,
“the regular crossing of an external land border by border residents in order to stay in a border area, for example for social, cultural or substantiated economic reasons, or for family reasons, for a period”,
and it does not cover,
“access to and exercise of economic activity”,
or “customs and taxation matters”.
Given that there are 110 million personal border crossings a year, the regulation regime itself would not quite suit the Northern Ireland border, but would do with some tweaking. The principles work well already in other EU and third-country situations. I cite as evidence Ex Borea Lux, a report into cross-border co-operation on the EU’s eastern border, published in November 2012. This careful report details the experience of a number of successful situations where local border traffic agreements have been concluded, particularly between Finland and Russia and Poland and Russia. A similar regime would go a long way to smoothing out the people side of things on the island of Ireland. It would also fit well with paragraph 31 of the position paper, which seeks to find a solution,
“consistent with the European Commission’s Directives”.
Therefore, I ask the Minister whether he will comment on this thinking.
On my second point concerning commerce, I urge the UK and Ireland to work together overtly to make progress on commerce and the like matters in line with our recommendation at paragraph 261. This represents a departure from paragraph 74 of the position paper, which states:
“The UK proposes that it should work intensively with the EU over the coming months to address the issues”.
I—I think with many—fear that this simply will not happen. In any event, and as we argued in our report, I feel that our two nations know best about the totality of the situation and are thus vastly better equipped to design new arrangements that are as,
“seamless and ‘friction-free’ as possible”.
A concern voiced to us in Brussels on one of our committee visits since the Brexit vote was that Ireland might become some sort of gushing conduit for trade in goods that somehow avoided EU duty, tax and regulation. I firmly reject that as being a material concern. I note that at the height of summer there are only seven ferries a week from continental Europe to Ireland, and that this drops to four in the depths of winter. Therefore, I cannot see how a trade in goods would work. Thus bad behaviour of a material nature would be instantly visible. I feel that the problem is reduced, therefore, to whether the UK and Irish commercial counterparties can be trusted to comply with a new reporting regime. In other words, the innovative approach foreseen in paragraphs 50 and 51 of the position paper seems to me to have a high probability of success. Therefore, I am very sorry to disagree mildly with our acting chairman on that point.
Our two countries enjoy strong regulatory, auditing and tax compliance regimes and I fail to see how a material amount of bad behaviour between commercial counterparties could exist. The great thing is that, were I to be wrong, the UK and Ireland, whose Exchequers would presumably suffer, would quickly become aware of this and could—and, I submit, would—work together to sort matters out. In any event I feel that a solution put to the EU 26 by a joint UK and Irish team would carry great moral weight and thus, in the absence of political chicanery, I think would win favour. I ask the Minister to comment on that thinking as well.
My Lords, I was not a member of the Select Committee on European affairs that produced this excellent report but, as the last surviving member of the 1972 Whitelaw mission and a survivor of the 1973-74 Sunningdale agreement, I thought it might be helpful to your Lordships to bring some reflections and memories into the discussion when, as we all know, memory is such a vital part of Irish politics, and when the Government sometimes frankly seem a little short of memory. As I say, it is an excellent report and was superbly introduced by my noble friend Lord Jay, who I congratulate. It is reinforced and marginally overtaken by the position paper issued by the Government in July.
I shall touch on three issues. First, as regards the unionist community in Northern Ireland, it is worth remembering—as some people clearly do not—that the unionists of the period, in the 1960s and 1970s, in the House of Commons always voted with the Conservatives almost regardless. This was so even though over in Northern Ireland, where we worked as a team, Willie Whitelaw and others were constantly accused of being somewhat anti-unionists and too biased in favour of the minority parties. This was particularly so when it was revealed that we had talked in secret to the Provisional IRA leaders themselves. In fact, the unionist support at Westminster made not the slightest difference to our policy in the Province, and I do not believe that the Commons support by its unionist descendants—that is, today’s DUP, which is a very different thing from the old hard-line DUP all those years ago—makes the slightest difference to our policy now. Anyway, as I understand it, the DUP is just as much against replacing border controls of any kind as are the nationalists and republicans and the south. There may indeed be questions about why Northern Ireland needed an extra £1 billion to carry on with its usual support at Westminster but I refute entirely the suggestion that it need affect the Government’s impartiality or the balance of policy in any conceivable way.
Secondly, I want to say a word about the integrated and ingrained nature of the economies of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which I believe is far greater than even the report acknowledges. As the report and the position paper confirm, the preservation of the common travel area for all Irish citizens coming to the UK, and vice versa, together with the full rights it confers, is absolutely vital and central; that we all believe to be so. Even Monsieur Barnier—who has been involved in these affairs in the past, as we have been rightly reminded—appears fully to accept that fact.
What is less realised is that the bulk of the Republic’s goods traffic, via roll-on, roll-off HGV container traffic, actually goes into the EU markets via British ports and British infrastructure, whether first through Northern Ireland ports or direct to England. There is a brilliant paper, which I strongly commend to your Lordships, by Marcus Fysh MP, who puts the percentage of Irish traffic this way through Britain as high as 90%. That figure—which seemed to me when I first read it extremely high—is in fact confirmed by the Irish maritime port authorities and organisations. Even if it is, in practice, becoming less than that, it means that in effect we in Britain are Ireland’s land bridge to the European Union and to northern European distribution centres in France, Belgium, Holland, et cetera.
This makes two things absolutely essential: first, there has to be absolutely no interruption or barrier to any goods moving between Ireland and the United Kingdom, whether across the land border with Northern Ireland or direct to Britain, regardless of whether they are for the British market or onward transit to the continent. Secondly, it becomes essential for the British and Irish Governments to work very closely together in ensuring there is minimum transhipment disruption at either English Channel ports or cargo airports in trade with the European Union. In effect, we and Ireland will have a common trade border with the rest of the EU, and since Ireland, like us, is not a party to Schengen, a common travel border as well. So any change in north-south open border arrangements is totally unnecessary and can be avoided. The increasingly close financial links between Dublin and London cement the situation even further. This means that we have an overriding common interest in ensuring a frictionless UK-EU border with complete customs co-operation, common transit conventions, zero tariffs, VAT netting and all the rest, for free trade to continue between the whole UK-Irish common area and the UK mainland. We obviously should move towards that as quickly as possible and build the customs partnership which the government position paper describes.
My third point concerns north-south co-operation in the island of Ireland. I am very fond of the people of Ulster and have worked and served there with great pleasure and enjoyment. I hope the Province remains a full part of the United Kingdom as long as its people want it to, as is prescribed by law. I also see big opportunities for growing co-operation with the Republic as the modern digitalisation of economic life proceeds and technology opens up completely new possibilities. A common energy market for electricity and gas is one area where integration can go forward, as the government position paper and report suggest, and of course railway network integration is another. I very much hope the work of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and the North/South Ministerial Council continues with new initiatives vigorously, particularly in agriculture, education, environment, tourism and transport. I also hope that the growing interest of the Republic in association with the modern Commonwealth network will help bring the two parts closer together. The Royal Commonwealth Society, in which I declare an interest as president, also has a very lively Dublin branch—one of our liveliest.
We hear so much that is negative in comment about the United Kingdom becoming more divided and separated and the British Isles less united. On the contrary, in this age of total connectivity, I see the long, bloody and sad saga of Irish-British relations finally fading into history. I look forward to a new era in British-Irish relations of increased harmony, co-operation and combined impact on the international scene. I believe that that can be achieved.
My Lords, it is not the fault of the Minister, whom I like and admire—he is from Wales, after all—that the important issues raised in this report are no nearer to being addressed now than they were when it was published a year ago. We are supposed to be engaging in negotiations with the most profound implications for our country since the Second World War, yet we are alarmingly ill prepared.
First, the Chancellor proposed that there should be a transition period up until the next election in 2022, during which time arrangements would stay more or less as they are now: the Labour leadership has now rightly argued that we would remain in the single market and in the customs union. But within days the Chancellor was forced to perform what is colourfully known in sections of the British media as a “reverse ferret”. So we have the International Trade Secretary prodding at the accelerator, the Chancellor grabbing the handbrake and the Prime Minister sitting in the back staring out of the window as the cliff edge gets nearer and nearer.
The Government’s paper on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and between the UK and the EU is long on good intentions and aspiration but breathtakingly short on practical detail as to how it will actually work after Brexit. It restates that no one wants a return to the hard border of the past and that there should continue to be free movement of people and goods. It calls for “flexible and imaginative solutions” eight times. No wonder this repeated rhetoric has left EU diplomats rolling their eyes.
References to maintaining the integrity of the Good Friday agreement run through it, but the reality is that once the UK leaves the customs union in less than two years, the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will fundamentally change. It would seem that the Government’s favoured way to deal with how to square this particular circle is to pretend that the circle does not exist and invite the EU simply to ignore the border on the basis that 80% of north-to-south trade is carried out by,
“micro, small and medium sized businesses’.
Since, in the words of the paper, it is not “economically significant international trade”, it can be waved through: all 80% of it. So there will be no border checks and indeed no,
“physical border infrastructure … for any purpose”.
That means not just no border security posts but no CCTV cameras or number plate recognition equipment—none of the earlier-promised fairy-tale technology replacing customs officers. It is not so much a frictionless border as a telepathic one. Rather like the poor, “smugglers” will always be with us, it would seem. This is less a solution to the problem than pie-in-the-sky fantasy. No wonder that, reacting to the Government’s Irish border paper, the European Union accused the UK of “magical thinking”.
But are not the Government playing a much more ominous game than that? They are in effect saying to the EU, and Ireland in particular, “As part of the divorce settlement you can have the border. Do what you like with it. The Irish border will be your customs union frontier—you deal with it”. If the EU wants to know who or what is coming from outside the customs union into the EU through Northern Ireland, that is up to the EU, Ministers say. If that means a “hard” border, that will be the EU’s fault, not ours. That is a very dangerous game to play with the peace process in Northern Ireland.
A hard Brexit will undermine and destabilise the delicate balance of the three strands of the Good Friday agreement: relationships within Northern Ireland, between Belfast and Dublin and between London and Dublin on which the peace settlement is based. But cynically dumping the border problem on Brussels leaves one obvious problem for the advocates of the hardest of Brexits: how to reconcile the demand that we “take control of our borders” while leaving open the one that is closest to us: a back door through the Irish border to illegal, uncontrollable migration and easy jihadi entryism.
The Government invite us to believe that this long, winding and porous external European Union customs frontier—with 300 or so crossing points along its 300-mile length and farms with a foot in each jurisdiction—can be safely left unpoliced. Smugglers, customs fraudsters, people traffickers and terrorists will behave impeccably out of respect for Irish solidarity. Small companies, accounting for 80% of cross-border business, do not matter. Large ones will nobly abide by all the rules and standards required of the single market and voluntarily pay all their tariff duties.
In the much-vaunted new free-trade nirvana that awaits post-Brexit Britain with no Irish border controls, US chicken, New Zealand lamb, Australian beef, Chinese steel and Indian cars can be imported into Belfast, sent a couple of hours down the road to the ports of Dublin or Cork and exported tariff-free to France or Germany. Surely this is nonsense on stilts.
However, my major concern is not simply pious platitudes by Ministers on the border; it is that the border looks like becoming just another bargaining chip in the negotiations with Brussels. But these thorny and intractable issues around the border would not arise if we remained in the customs union, as the Taoiseach has rightly argued. In my view, the only way of resolving the border conundrum is for Northern Ireland to be within the same customs union and single market as the Republic—either Northern Ireland alone or, far more preferably, the whole of the United Kingdom. It is a fact that you can leave the European Union and still stay within the single market and the customs union. That is a fact, despite the Government’s dogmatic denials. However, the International Trade Secretary believes that he can find free-trade suitors after the UK’s divorce with Europe. Good luck to him and all who sail in him, I say.
But is a bad free-trade deal better than no free-trade deal? Anyone who has read the transcript of President Trump’s interview with the Wall Street Journal in July will know that he expects chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef to be on its way here before the ink is dry on any free-trade deal. If there is no EU deal and we end up trading on WTO terms, the Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association has said that,
“our export trade will be decimated”,
and that it,
“would have immediate and devastating consequences for jobs in farming, processing and the wider rural economy”.
If the farmers of Northern Ireland have a problem with that, who speaks for them? For there is still no Executive and the Government continue to wring their hands and dither, as indeed they have done so disturbingly for most of this year.
What if post-Brexit trade deals on whatever terms have an adverse effect on Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales? The International Trade Secretary’s solution is simply to bypass them. We are told that he does not even want representatives from the devolved Administrations to sit on any new board of trade that may be set up.
The proposals set out in the position papers and elsewhere, even as negotiating gambits, are delusional, contradictory and potentially very damaging. They do not address the very real issues that the excellent report of the European Committee has raised. In Alice in Wonderland, the White Queen told Alice,
“I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”.
Judging by what the Government are putting before us, she is clearly not alone.
What is proposed is not a Brexit for the United Kingdom nor even for Britain; it is a Brexit for the ideological hard right and we go down that path at our great peril, especially for Northern Ireland and the hard-won peace and democratic process, which, tragically, this Government seem airily casual about and so ignorantly indifferent to.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Jay, on his excellent presentation of the report and join others in extending to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, wishes for a quick recovery.
The report, unfortunately, is almost history. A lot has happened since December 2016. I am in rather a unique position: I live near the border. But for two years in Brussels, I have lived the rest of my life near the border and have felt the implications of that border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. I certainly recall that in the Second World War I used to nip across the border to get nylon stockings for my mother. They were not available in the United Kingdom. I also recall, as I got a little older, the southern Irish Government signing the book of condolence when Hitler died. Those things make an impression in Northern Ireland.
Then, in my teens, I remember the first IRA campaign—the border campaign, which is rarely mentioned now. For four years it went ahead killing Protestants and security forces right along the border. It was not in Northern Ireland but only on the border. That meant that when I went to university I became a very strong supporter of Northern Ireland remaining British and within the United Kingdom. It influenced my life and it influenced thousands throughout Northern Ireland—the majority community.
I then saw, as I got older, a Republic of Ireland where the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin excommunicated Catholics if they dared to go to Trinity College, Dublin. I also saw the other university, UCD, requiring an A-level in Irish to gain entry. That was of course a means of discriminating against Protestants in Northern Ireland, because they did not learn Irish; we knew what it meant. Then we saw, in the constitution of the Republic of Ireland, the special status of the Roman Catholic Church over and above the Anglican, Presbyterian and other churches in that part of Ireland. I am glad to say that those three problems at Trinity College and UCD and in the constitution have now been changed. Times are moving forward. But it made an impact on the people in Northern Ireland and it should not be forgotten.
Worst of all was the Irish constitution refusing to recognise the existence of Northern Ireland. “Therefore”, it was said, “Since it does not exist, we cannot co-operate with you”. There was no co-operation in the island of Ireland because the Dublin Government refused to recognise Northern Ireland. Yet again, that has been overcome by the success of the Belfast agreement. Now, Northern Ireland is recognised by the Republic and we co-operate, and thank goodness for that.
Living near the border myself, I was very keen that there should be co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic. I became chairman of the Ulster Young Unionist Council. In the early 1960s, I showed some courage and decided that we should have a meeting with Fine Gael in Dublin. The Ulster Unionist Party nearly went bananas and said that if we dared to do that we would be expelled from the Ulster Unionist Party. We went ahead. We went down to Dublin and had our meeting with the central branch of Fine Gael. We had a great meeting supporting co-operation in the island and issued a statement asking for recognition and so forth. I went back to Belfast with no problem. I was not expelled from the Ulster Unionist Party. I looked at the Irish Times two weeks later and I discovered that the central branch of Fine Gael had been expelled from the Fine Gael party. I learned a lot about Irish politics after that experience.
At university, I was a keen European and became an active member of the European Youth Campaign. I strongly supported UK membership of the European Economic Community. After that, for 10 years I was a Member of the European Parliament and subsequently spent seven years in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
This report has great content, but I regret that it did not have evidence from the main representatives of the unionist community, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay, stated. To me, it is a weakness of the report. I cannot understand why the committee did not ask, for example, the Liberal Democrat Peer, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, a former leader of the Alliance Party, or the noble Lord, Lord Empey, a former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, or the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, a former First Minister of Northern Ireland, for evidence. Yet it went ahead and sought evidence from every possible nationalist it could find, including every living former Taoiseach of southern Ireland. I am sorry to have to say that it was a somewhat biased exercise. As the noble Lord, Lord Jay, acknowledged, that has not gone down well with the majority in Northern Ireland. Opinion was also taken from the very persuasive former Irish ambassador in London, Dan Mulhall. It must be remembered that he is probably the only ambassador at the Court of St James who refused to visit Northern Ireland even after the Belfast agreement. That is his attitude towards Northern Ireland.
As I have said, this report was not well received by unionist opinion in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein and the more extreme nationalists suggested that Brexit would lead to a united Ireland or a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. They preferred to ignore the economic challenge to the Republic itself. Fear of Brexit has already meant the closure of five mushroom plants, with the loss of 150 jobs in the Republic. It has meant a fall in Irish beef prices because the meat cannot be exported to Great Britain due to the depreciation of sterling. There have already been demonstrations by farmers in Tullamore about this problem. Thousands of Irish people are now going to Northern Ireland every day to do their daily shopping. This is all happening because of the fear of Brexit. What will it be like when Brexit becomes a reality and not simply a fear, as it is at present?
It was then stated that Brexit would damage the Belfast agreement. That is not so as the EU is hardly even mentioned in the agreement. People are mistaking the EU for the Council of Europe. There is a whole, fairly large chapter in the agreement on human rights, the European Commission of Human Rights and the Council of Europe, but it has nothing to do with the EU. The EU is barely mentioned in the agreement; I was one of the negotiators of that agreement and I know exactly what is in it. Of course the EU has financed cross-border schemes and I am glad to say that recently Her Majesty’s Government have confirmed that they will continue to finance such schemes after Brexit.
Then there were campaigns in Dublin for a special status for Northern Ireland. That has now, thank goodness, been overwhelmingly rejected by the European Parliament. People have also said that there should be a new border between Ireland and Great Britain down the Irish Sea. In practice this would mean that UK parliamentarians would have to present their passports to travel from their homes in Northern Ireland to attend their national Parliament at Westminster. Economically it would not make sense as Northern Ireland prefers the single market of the United Kingdom to which its exports are worth £11 billion per year as compared with exports worth £3 billion to the Republic of Ireland. I cannot understand why the noble Lord, Lord Hain, suggested that businessmen in Northern Ireland would be better off having a single market with the Republic, to which only 20% of their exports are sent, rather than a single market with Great Britain, where they send 80%. It is certainly not a message that has been well received by business in Northern Ireland.
Of course, the border between the EU and the UK is an issue. It would not be if the Republic of Ireland left the EU on the same day as the UK; after all, it joined the EEC on the same day. We have the common travel area, already mentioned in this debate, between the United Kingdom and the Republic. Its importance is accepted by the European Union. Monsieur Barnier has said that progress has been made in this respect and that this has been welcomed by the Republic of Ireland and its new Foreign Minister Mr Coveney. There is every reason to expect that movement rights of UK and Irish citizens between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland will be retained through the common travel area.
Then there is trade. Some people are laughing at the suggestions from the Government but I think they are a way ahead. The Government’s position paper, Northern Ireland and Ireland, is very helpful and is greatly welcomed across Northern Ireland. There will be no restrictions on smaller or medium-sized hauliers. Brexit would have no impact on 80% of the trade between the two states in Ireland. That is very important. I hope there is a positive response to this suggestion by Monsieur Barnier. There would then remain the issue of large hauliers crossing the border. That is a problem I have yet to see the resolution of, but there is good will in London, Dublin and Belfast. I remain hopeful that this problem can also be resolved.
Overall, Brexit is a major challenge to the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. I do not expect the Republic of Ireland to exit the European Union, as the nationalism of the heart, rather than the economic sense of the brain, will prevail. But the alternative must be a special status for the Republic of Ireland in the European Union, otherwise Brexit will greatly damage the economy of the Republic in the years ahead. That would be bad news for Northern Ireland as well. We do not want that to happen.
My Lords, I too, like the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, live close to the border. In my teenage years I lived a stone’s throw from it, but unlike him I will try to keep my eye on the clock and make sure I do not outstay my welcome.
I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Jay, on his speech and presentation, but let me say that, from a very young boy, I have been a member of a party that has been Eurosceptic. Believe it or not, even though I am an older person now, I have not really changed my mind that much. We opposed the United Kingdom joining the European Economic Community but respected the national referendum result in 1975. In the intervening years we consistently highlighted the encroachment of the European Union into our national life, contrary to promises when we joined. We fully supported the question of our EU membership being put once again to the British people. More than 17.4 million people voted on 23 June for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, with a margin of some 1.3 million. It appears at times that that is often forgotten.
The referendum question on the ballot paper was about the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU. Northern Ireland is a constituent part of the kingdom. Before the referendum, we made it clear that we would accept the decision and work to get the best deal for Northern Ireland, regardless of the outcome. We believe it is right that, as part of our exit, we leave membership of the single market and the customs union. Future success will be based on trading globally, and we support the pursuance of maximum access to current markets and developing trade links with new ones.
As a party, we will seek to ensure that local businesses have the confidence and capacity to maximise opportunities presented to them by our exit from the EU. Rather than some, seeking to rerun the referendum, we would need to get on with the work to make the period ahead a success, to write our own laws, to secure new trade deals, to control immigration, to deliver policies for farming and fishing shaped to our needs, and to lift the burden of unnecessary bureaucracy.
There are some important principles through which we, from a Northern Ireland perspective, view the exit discussions. First, Brexit means Brexit—at least, so we are told—and that means that the whole of the United Kingdom leaves the EU. We joined the EU together; we voted on Brexit together; we will leave the EU together. I welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Jay, to some extent clarified that point also. Secondly, the economic and social benefits for us in Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom are far more important than our relationship with the EU. Thirdly, any deal should recognise the reality of Northern Ireland’s geography and history. Fourthly, we will work to support the best deal for Northern Ireland at home and abroad.
The recently published UK Government paper entitled Northern Ireland and Ireland - Position Paper is a constructive step by the Government, but it is not a complete paper, I believe. It is clear that the Government have listened to various voices in Belfast, Dublin, Brussels and London about how the United Kingdom’s only EU land border could be managed after we exit the EU. We welcome the commitment to a seamless border and movement of goods between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is also welcome news that the Government will not countenance any new border in the Irish Sea.
As set out in our 2017 Westminster manifesto, we will focus on getting the best deal for Northern Ireland as we exit the European Union. The Northern Ireland and Ireland - Position Paper has rightly been welcomed by those who take a sensible approach to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. I draw the House’s attention to that paper, in particular to page 13 and paragraph 38. We are pleased that the document reflects many of the positive ideas we have put to the Brexit Secretary and the Prime Minister over the last number of months. The document has plenty of ideas as to how, technically and administratively, the movement of people and goods can be addressed.
We support the continuance of the common travel area. It predates our EU membership and allows seamless movement of people between the two jurisdictions. The Republic of Ireland and the UK have different visa arrangements for people from 13 countries across the world. There is no reason why leaving the EU should present any difficulties on movement of people.
We welcome the proposal in the recent Government paper to exempt small businesses whose trade can be treated as less than economically significant from trading restrictions. Furthermore, the mutual recognition of authorised economic operators, or trusted traders, for larger businesses and the negotiations around a customs partnership, along with many other proposals in the document, show that it is possible to avoid a physical customs border with the EU. It should be noted that the EU has entered into waiver arrangements for Cyprus, Croatia and Bosnia and, as HMG have pointed out, a precedent has been set.
Since last June, Sinn Fein and others have made a special designated status their big-ticket priority for Brexit. Their plan would see Northern Ireland remain under Brussels control while the rest of the UK leaves. This would prevent Northern Ireland from harnessing new opportunities which flow from Brexit as an integral part of the union. Critically, it would also cut us off from the GB market, by far the most important marketplace for local goods and services from Northern Ireland.
Within the European institutions there is widespread recognition of Northern Ireland’s unique position in respect of our land border with the Republic of Ireland. Across the spectrum, there is a willingness to give particular attention to these circumstances in the exit talks that have begun. However, we are clear that any solution agreed must respect that Northern Ireland will be an integral part of an independent United Kingdom.