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Brexit: Irish Border

Volume 787: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what response they have received from the European Union negotiating team to their proposals on the Irish border problem.

My Lords, there is much agreement between the UK and the EU on the proposals for how to address the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland and Ireland in the light of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. We remain firmly committed to avoiding any physical infrastructure on the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We welcome the Commission’s commitment to this in its guiding principles paper.

My Lords, see how grateful the DUP is for the £1 billion of taxpayers’ money to keep Mrs May in power without any real mandate. Will the Minister please tell Mrs May what is now obvious: Brexit is becoming a total disaster and the PM must now save our country’s future and the precious Anglo-Irish agreement?

I congratulate the noble Lord on having the foresight to get a Question on this on the Order Paper for today. He will be unsurprised to know that I do not agree with him. There was a referendum on the subject. We feel we have to respect the results of that referendum.

My Lords, why was anybody surprised by yesterday’s negotiating car crash in Brussels? Unionists were quite legitimately always going to insist that they could not be put in a status distinct from the rest of the UK. At the same time, to maintain the Irish border as open as it has been alignment would be needed on trade, customs and regulation. Surely the answer is to apply that alignment across the UK, then the problem is solved.

As the noble Lord is aware, we are leaving the customs union and the single market. Northern Ireland will be leaving them with us.

Will the Minister agree that a lot of the problems yesterday stemmed from the fact that people were leaking inaccurate accounts of what was in the Government’s paper, and were not making it clear that the proposal for some form of regulatory alignment was heavily conditioned and of very limited application? If that information had been put into the public domain earlier in the day, would not things have gone much more smoothly?

My noble friend speaks with great authority on this subject, having been one of the architects of the Good Friday agreement. We all know the political sacrifices he made to bring that about. I pay tribute to him for that. I do not think it would be helpful for me to go into a blow-by-blow account of whataboutery on the negotiations. We are only half way through the negotiations. We will come back and make a Statement when we have agreement, but at the moment this is an ongoing, delicate situation.

My Lords, I had always understood that if you are not in the customs union you cannot have frictionless trade; there would have to be some form of documentation and checks. Will the Minister confirm that or explain to us what sort of magical technological solution there is that can provide frictionless trade without common membership of the customs union?

My Lords, we have always been very clear that the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland require unique solutions. That is recognised by the European Commission and it is recognised by Ireland. Michel Barnier has said that. The model that we use for the Northern Ireland-Irish border will not necessarily be a precedent for what happens elsewhere.

My Lords, this really is not acceptable. It is the turn of the Cross Benches, then we will hear from the Labour Benches—but one Member of the Labour Benches.

My Lords, as one living on the border with the Republic of Ireland, I ask whether the Minister is aware that most people in Northern Ireland welcome the Government’s proposals for maintaining the common travel area, for having no physical structures at the border and for 80% of our trade not to be controlled by customs. Can he confirm that, even today, in the context of membership of the European Union, Irish customs and United Kingdom customs operate not at the border but on either side of it?

The noble Lord speaks with great authority on this subject and I know he has contributed a lot to the peace process over the years, which is something we want to maintain. There is a lot of truth in what he has said.

My Lords, is there not some confusion here between regulatory alignment and regulatory recognition? Is not the latter principle one on which there is perfect freedom for the whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, to make arrangements for outside trade in due course for continuing the smooth and reasonably frictionless low or non-border controls in Northern Ireland? What is the problem?

Of course, the wording is very important, but I am very clear that alignment is not the same as having no diversity.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that nobody has asked him to give a “blow-by-blow account”, which is how he referred to the questions he had been asked? Noble Lords have asked him to give a straight explanation, first, of what went wrong and, secondly, of how the Government propose to rectify it.

I thank the noble Lord for his helpful question. We are trying to reach agreement at the moment. This is an ongoing negotiation. We were always very clear that Monday was the first staging post towards this. I have no doubt that there will be further discussions towards the end of the week. When we have reached agreement, we will come back and report it to the House.

My Lords, should we not heed the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, but at the same time remember that in the referendum on 23 June last year a significant majority of the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain?

The referendum was held on a UK-wide basis, and the people of the UK voted by a majority to leave the European Union.