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Northern Ireland Border

Volume 789: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to repeat the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in response to an Urgent Question asked in the other place today. The Answer is as follows:

“This Government have been consistent in their commitment to Northern Ireland as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. First, we will never accept any solutions that threaten the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. Secondly, we will not accept a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which would reverse the considerable progress made through the political process over recent decades. That position has been consistent, from the Prime Minister’s Article 50 letter through to our position paper published last summer and the PM’s Florence speech last autumn.

Most recently, the Government enshrined both those commitments very clearly in the joint report we agreed with the European Union in December. That set out very clearly our,

‘commitment to preserving the integrity of’,


‘internal market and Northern Ireland’s place within it’.

It also included our,

‘guarantee of avoiding a hard border’,

between Northern Ireland and Ireland, including any related checks and controls. These commitments were agreed collectively by the entire Cabinet and I believe they have wide support across the House. These commitments have not changed, nor will they”.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and I appreciate his comments about the Good Friday agreement, which were very clear. Certainly the Minister was very clear last week, too. Although he is clear, I am afraid that the Government appear less so, and certainly the bizarre comments from the Foreign Secretary have not helped the matter. Although we may find it amusing that he drew a parallel between London boroughs and the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, it is simply not helpful. It is not a joking matter; it is serious.

In addition to the Foreign Secretary’s comments, we have his private memo to the Prime Minister, in which he says that,

“it is wrong to see the task as maintaining no border”,

and that the Government’s task is to stop the border “becoming significantly harder”. He goes on to say:

“Even if a hard border is reintroduced, we would expect to see 95% + of goods”,

pass the border without checks. Just what are the Government considering here? Can the Minister tell us on what basis the figure of 95% was reached? What analysis was undertaken, and why are the Government considering this if, as the Minister repeated today, they are committed to the Good Friday agreement and a soft border?

It is also hard to understand why the Government are so critical of the EU’s proposals for a common regulatory area. The EU has been absolutely clear that this is a backstop if the Government fail to deliver on their very clear promise of no hard border. Does the Minister accept that most of us are struggling to understand how, without a customs union with the EU, the current border arrangements and the GFA can be maintained? Will he enlighten us? Will he be able to tell us how he can square this circle?

I thank the noble Lord very much for his question. The United Kingdom Government’s support for the Belfast agreement is unwavering, certain and clear. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has iterated and reiterated that on more than one occasion. The memo written by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is, I do not doubt, one of many papers that circulate at that level containing a number of ideas. That memo does not—I repeat, does not—represent the United Kingdom Government’s position and therefore it should not be seen as such. The position remains unchanged in this regard, and it is part of what I would like to term the joint report: that is, the agreement reached by the United Kingdom Government and the EU in December remains fixed at where we are today.

Noble Lords will be aware that there were three options in the joint report which were core and key. The UK and Irish Governments were very much of the view that they wish to see the border allow freedom of movement across it in a manner that does not fetter and is not restrictive. That remains the position of the United Kingdom Government. It is hoped that through the negotiations, which are ongoing and will continue into the near future, we will be able to bring about an agreement around what I would term “option A” of the joint report agreed by the EU and the UK Government in December of last year.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the report commissioned by the European Parliament, no less, and produced by Mr Lars Karlsson, the very distinguished former head of the World Customs Organization? It makes it very clear in some detail that technology solutions are available which make it completely unnecessary to have a hard border on the island of Ireland. Is it not the case that the European Union and, I regret to say, several Members of your Lordships’ House are wilfully closing their minds to these solutions as they attempt to exploit fears of a hard border on the island of Ireland in their misguided and misconceived attempts to thwart the wishes of the British people and keep the United Kingdom within the customs union?

I thank my noble friend Lord Howard for his intervention. He is quite right to draw the House’s attention to the report written by Lars Karlsson and published by the European Parliament. We are living in an age when technology is becoming far more widespread and we should not lightly set aside the available options. I commend all elements of that report to the House, as it is worth reading. However, I return to the point that I made before, which is that, through our negotiations, it is our intention in the next phase to secure agreement on that joint report and move this matter forward so that we can maintain a seamless border to allow trade to move north and south.

My Lords, I shall do my best to maintain the same level of objectivity as the noble Lord, Lord Howard, in these matters. This is a seminal moment, is it not? The publication of the withdrawal document and the Government’s robust response to it highlight that the Government’s position is to adopt mutually inconsistent objectives: no hard border, no customs union and, indeed, no full alignment, as the withdrawal document sets out. On the matter of electronic borders, let us remember that cybercrime is something against which we are obliged to take as many precautions as we possibly can. If you want to cause mischief in Ireland with an electronic border, you should embark on the kind of activity that allowed people to get into the Pentagon. If they can get into the Pentagon, they will undoubtedly be able to cause mayhem in any electronic arrangement for the border. My point is that, on the face of what is said in the withdrawal document and the Government’s response, we are heading for a hard Brexit. How would the Government fulfil their obligations under the Belfast agreement if there were a hard Brexit?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem. With regard to the notion of the cybercrimes that we have all been threatened with over the last few years, I note again that much of the movement of goods that come into the EU is dealt with through electronic consignment. The risks that are already established for all trade are real risks, and we must take them into account as we seek to address all the challenges as we go forward.

With regard to the question about the nature of the border, the issue I come back to again is that when we reached that agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom Government in the joint report of December, it was based upon a mutual understanding that we wished to see a border in name alone to allow movement to continue. That is the position of the United Kingdom Government and, importantly, also the position of the Government of Ireland—the two principal interlocutors in this matter. We must never lose sight of the fact that they are the most affected, and we must find and secure an agreement that suits both sides. On that basis, they form the principal component parts of the negotiation elements that will unfold in the coming months. It remains the objective of the Government to deliver a seamless border, as we have promised and as has been promised by the Taoiseach himself.

My Lords, reference has been made to the need to preserve the Belfast agreement, with which I am wholly in agreement. However, I draw noble Lords’ attention to the December paper, which made reference to regulatory alignment but did so in the context of cross-border arrangements under the Belfast agreement. That is the only part of the Belfast agreement relevant to this discussion: namely, the cross-border co-operation that exists and through which there is a good case for saying that there has to be regulatory alignment for a body that is operating on both sides of the border.

What is happening now is something quite different. Those minor provisions in the December paper have been exaggerated into something that, in effect, would mean that Northern Ireland was still in the European Union, and thus left behind as Britain moves out of it. That runs contrary to and undermines the main plank of the Belfast agreement: that arrangements and constitutional matters were to be based on consent. The papers that have come forward—I hope that the Minister agrees on this—deal with issues that are moving into constitutional areas and should, if Dublin and Brussels wish to push the matter further, invoke an endorsement in a referendum. But we are not and should not be in that territory, and I hope that the Government will stand firm on this matter.

I thank my noble friend Lord Trimble for his intervention. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the components of the joint report that emerged in December of last year. As we have stressed, the Belfast agreement must remain at the heart of our agreement. The challenge we face is that the publication by the European Union today and the remarks of Michel Barnier are, one might argue, unhelpful in that regard because they are a cherry picking of the joint report. One element of that report has been selected but there were three component parts, labelled a, b and c. The European Union has chosen to latch on only to part c. The point is that each must be a component part of the ongoing negotiations and any attempt to cherry pick risks undermining the Belfast agreement, which is at the heart of the positions accepted by the United Kingdom Government, the Irish Government and, indeed, the EU itself. I thank my noble friend for using the word “consent”. Consent must be at the heart of the approach to this, otherwise we run the risk of unravelling the very agreement which has done so much to bring stability to Northern Ireland.