Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to open this debate on an issue that is causing much concern. I happened to be in Castle Buildings on the night of 9 April and the day of 10 April 1998—Good Friday. Although I had no part to play in the negotiations, I shall never forget that long night of tension and the hopes which were finally realised late on Good Friday.
At the outset, I pay tribute to John Hume. He played a major part in moving the peace process along and bringing the parties together, and much of the breakthrough achieved by the Good Friday agreement is due to his efforts. Of course, many other people played a key part. If I went through the list, I would have to name all the people who were in Castle Buildings that night. But certainly my noble friend Lord Murphy played a key part—he will be speaking later in this debate—as, of course, did Mo Mowlam, who was Secretary of State. I pay tribute also to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who played a courageous part in achieving the agreement, as well as to Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and many others.
As we came to debate Brexit and approached a vote on the referendum, it seemed to me that, even if one was a supporter of leave—and I certainly was not—there was one argument to vote for remain: the Good Friday agreement, because that in itself would pose difficulties if we voted to leave the EU. So it has proved. Very few people would challenge the assertion that we face enormous difficulties as a result of trying to deal with the Good Friday agreement. We do not yet have any answers. Perhaps the Government will announce something in the next day or two, but we certainly have no answers yet. I have heard people say that we should forget about the Good Friday agreement because it has outlived its usefulness. I think that that is absolutely wrong. We are entitled to get more advice and guidance from the Government—perhaps we will get it today—as to the way forward.
I happened to be in Derry last weekend at the 50th anniversary of the civil rights rally, and there was widespread concern there about Brexit and what it would mean for Northern Ireland and the Republic. After all, many years of effort by the British and Irish Governments culminated in the Good Friday agreement. However, the agreement is not just about the border, although the border is a crucial part; it is also about the sense of identity that people in Northern Ireland were given through this document. It gave choices to unionists and nationalists. The more I think about the Good Friday agreement, the more I realise that it was a very subtle and sophisticated document. It is not as succinct as it might be because of course every page was negotiated toughly, together with the three strands of the agreement—human rights and other issues, to which I shall refer.
The Irish Taoiseach said recently that,
“it is hard to imagine the Good Friday Agreement being made without”,
Britain’s and Ireland’s,
“shared membership of the European Union”.
That formed the background to the debates and discussions leading up to the agreement. People say, “Don’t worry. Technology will solve it all. There will be no problem at the border—technology will deal with everything”. I challenge people to show me one border in the world where technology has done that. There is no evidence at all that it works. It might in five, six or 10 years’ time, but so far there is no evidence that it works. Let us remind ourselves that there is a 310-mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, with 257 crossing points. That compares with 137 crossing points on the EU’s eastern border, which is much longer, yet has fewer crossing points. I understand that 40 million vehicles move between Northern Ireland and the Republic every year. Furthermore, there is a single electricity market. Indeed, I have asked whether energy laws would be required to be implemented in Northern Ireland for the single electricity market to continue as it does now.
Members of the House will be fully aware of the enormous co-operation on food and agriculture. Milk imported from Northern Ireland is processed in the Republic, while wheat grown in the Republic is sent north for milling and then back to the Republic, and there is cross-border movement of lambs, pigs, cattle and other agricultural products. Indeed, 30,000 people commute across the border every day.
I heard Peter Sutherland speak just as the Brexit referendum was happening. He was an eminent person who knew a thing or two about these matters. He was formerly a European Commissioner, a UN special representative for international migration and director-general of the World Trade Organization. He said, rather ominously, that he saw no alternative to a hard border. I hope to heaven that he was wrong, but he issued that warning right at the beginning. After all, the Good Friday agreement is an international agreement between two solid states, signed as joint members of the EU. If we renege on such an agreement, can we be trusted to adhere to other international agreements? I think not—it would weaken our position.
If border restrictions are reintroduced, that will lead to a sense of disillusionment and the feeling that the Good Friday agreement is being steadily dismantled. People who know more about these things than I do say that it will provide a boost for dissident republicans. The chief constable of the PSNI has warned of possible violence if border checks are reinstated and has said that many of the gains of the last 20 years will be lost.
When I was in Derry last weekend, I talked to staff at the University of Ulster on the Magee campus. Many staff, students and teachers cross the border daily. I am taking as an example just one activity—the university. The Magee campus is less than 10 miles from the border, and I am told that 96 members of staff who work at the university cross the border every day, 66 of them, or 20% of the total workforce, travelling to the Magee campus. This easy movement of people across the border is quite phenomenal. The year before, I was at an event at a school in Newry. A teacher there told me that she came from Dundalk every day and crossed the border seamlessly. She saw that as the way forward.
As things stand, some people in Northern Ireland already have Irish citizenship. It would surely be wrong if we ended up with two classes of people in Northern Ireland who have different rights: those who have Irish passports and those who do not. People holding Irish citizenship in Northern Ireland should be entitled to the full rights of EU citizens, including freedom of movement and the right to work throughout the EU. To avoid creating new divisions, entitlement to EU citizenship should be extended to all people in Northern Ireland—who are entitled to Irish citizenship under the Good Friday agreement—without the necessity of applying for Irish citizenship.
There should also be a firm commitment to retaining the Human Rights Act for Northern Ireland regardless of developments elsewhere in the UK, and that the European Convention on Human Rights should be retained with respect to Northern Ireland. It might not be retained in Britain if the Conservatives have their way—I hope it will be—but certainly it is important that we have it in Northern Ireland. I refer also to the Charter of Fundamental Rights and to EU directives that relate to equality. Again, it is important that these should continue to apply in Northern Ireland. Otherwise, there will be a lessening of rights there as a result of all this. At the last election, I think that the Conservative Party’s position was that it would not proceed with the repeal of the Human Rights Act until Brexit had been concluded. After we have left the EU, it will be easier to cut or loosen the UK’s ties to the European Convention on Human Rights, making it easier to repeal the Human Rights Act. There are serious concerns as to how rights will be affected by Brexit.
It is also a serious concern that there might develop an imbalance of rights for the people of Northern Ireland compared to those living in the Republic. The point of the Good Friday agreement was to bring the sets of rights together, to have uniform rights across the island. However, there might well be different paths for rights in Northern Ireland compared to the Republic, despite the Good Friday agreement having talked of an equivalent level of protection of human rights in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The fact that we have no functioning Executive is a matter of serious concern, and it weakens the voice of Northern Ireland in dealing with the issues before us. Where is the voice of Northern Ireland in these last stages of the negotiations for Brexit? Surely the people of Northern Ireland have the right for their voice to be heard, not just by people here but by people in Northern Ireland who are close to the issues and could suffer the consequences.
As I have said before in a wider context than this debate, I cannot see how we can bring together the parties in Northern Ireland to re-establish the Executive unless there is some impartial facilitator of the process. Senator George Mitchell showed very clearly that there was a need for such an independent person to bring the parties together, to keep at it and to knock their heads together—if one can use such an expression. He did that brilliantly, spending years of his life on it. It is important that we have an impartial person to do this. I can think of various names offhand, but maybe it would be invidious to suggest them. However, I cannot see how the Government today can lean on the largest party in Northern Ireland, when that party is also a member of the coalition. I just do not think it can be done. One cannot have Chinese walls between these bits of Government. I fear very much that, without the parties coming together, the strength of feeling in Northern Ireland about the future of the Good Friday agreement will not be clearly heard.
I believe that the Good Friday agreement is fundamental to a peaceful Northern Ireland. It is one of the greatest achievements for peace on the island. It is a lesson and a model for other countries as to how painfully conducted negotiations can lead to an outcome that satisfies people who were in conflict with each other, the need for identities and, above all, the need for an end to violence. I hope that the Government will find a way to ensure that the Good Friday agreement is retained in its entirety as we proceed towards the final stages of the Brexit negotiations.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Dubs, who has a lifetime of commitment and work around peacebuilding and civil rights in Northern Ireland. He is good counsel for people like me who are on the EU Committee and have been working on this issue quite a lot in the last year.
The Good Friday agreement was the result of careful negotiations, and involved of course the building of trust among people who really were not very fond of each other. No peace process is ever delivered just by signing a document. I learned in government that, day in and day out, attention had to be paid to developing that trust, building relationships, building clarity and a level of trust that enabled people to move to the next stage.
When government changed in 2010, too many people took the Good Friday agreement for granted. Actually, bits of the Good Friday agreement had not yet been delivered, and there were certainly aspects that needed a lot of work. Now, partly because of that lack of attention in a day-by-day way which I know went on throughout the Government that I was a member of, there are too many siren voices who seem to suggest that the Good Friday agreement is now out of date and that we do not need to worry about it in relation to Brexit. I wish I had their confidence. As I say, the Good Friday agreement was a very precious and difficult negotiation and is still not totally there.
We need to remember that the DUP did not support the Good Friday agreement, and I know that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, took a bit of flak from the people to one side of him—I will not say whether from the left or right—who supported the DUP. Unfortunately, it looks as if now they still do not think and work on the detail in the way they need to in order to support that agreement.
Any peace agreement is hard-won, and this one followed 50 years of troubles, which were all part of centuries of difference and struggle on the island of Ireland. As one of those who were centrally involved in the peace process said to me, “Ireland had led to three UK Governments falling, and we never forgot that when we were negotiating”. I hope that this Government do not forget that and that they recognise the dangerous waters they are swimming in.
During the EU Select Committee’s last visit to Ireland and Northern Ireland, the committee met companies and public services operating across the border. The damage that Brexit inflicts on the Good Friday agreement goes beyond any border, and I do not want to talk in detail about those issues today. However, as my noble friend said, it strikes at the heart of people’s identity. We can see across the world that, in many cases, how people identify themselves has become the main driver of politics. In recent years, this has led to increased conflict and violence around the world for many countries.
However, for 20 years in the north of Ireland, identity politics was again, as a friend of mine who was involved in the negotiations said, sort of fudged. The agreement recognises the right of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and to be accepted as Irish, as British or as both, whatever they may choose. Some people therefore do identify as Irish. Others identify only as British. Many who want to move forward identify as both, and that has also led to a huge increase in applications for Irish citizenship because they also want to be seen as European. Each person’s identity is not under threat because their neighbour sees their identity as different, and that was a very important psychological outcome of the Good Friday agreement.
In a sense, identity was relaxed in the Good Friday agreement, and that created a relaxation in how the economy worked. When we were there with the EU Committee, it was difficult to see how breaking any of that ease and relaxation would have anything other than a detrimental effect on the economy. Now that identity has become interlinked with the possible re-establishment of the border—if a border of any sort comes back—by choosing your identity you could become a threat to your neighbour. Nobody is saying that that will happen overnight, but we are saying that there are straws in the wind that simply push people to make choices where the Good Friday agreement allowed them not to make choices. We must understand the seriousness of that.
Brexit has polarised opinion not only in Northern Ireland but in the Republic, and in the relations between the two Governments, at a time when the changing demographics are spooking unionists and reviving the siege mentality. The two Governments in the short term have to act quickly to visibly demonstrate that, whatever tensions there are over Brexit, there is a recognition of the shared interests, history and economics of the people of the north and south.
In the medium term, people have to think long and hard about how unionism can accommodate and show its respect for nationalism and vice versa, no matter what happens on the border. At the moment, that thinking may be well-intentioned, but it is vague and ill-defined. How would unionists reconcile a majority nationalist community to stay in the union? How would nationalists reconcile unionists to a united Ireland? In fact, we have to start and talk openly about such measures and issues, long before any point of decision comes. That thinking needs to be done in the north, in the south, in Dublin and in this House.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for securing this debate on perhaps one of the most important consequences of Brexit. When we reflect now on the arguments that were made and the issues that were raised in the run-up to the referendum in 2016, it is astonishing how little attention was paid in the rest of the UK to the consequences for Northern Ireland.
I do not need to tell any of the noble Lords taking part in today’s debate about Northern Ireland’s history, nor about the sacrifices and compromises that were made in Northern Ireland, not just by politicians but by ordinary people, in order to secure the Good Friday agreement. That agreement largely brought to an end the full-scale sectarian violence that had blighted Northern Ireland for over 30 years. However, the aspirations that we had for Northern Ireland in 1998 are far from being achieved. Northern Ireland is still a deeply divided society. It is still a contested space, with different people having different constitutional aspirations. Notwithstanding all of the progress in the peace process, Northern Ireland continues to have a major fault line.
The agreement provided a balanced settlement with full recognition of the principle of consent for Northern Ireland’s constitutional status alongside partnership government and a complex set of interlocking relationships across these islands. This provided people with the ability to lead their lives and do business as they chose on a north-south and/or east-west basis. Combined with a commitment to human rights and equality alongside power sharing, this balance of relationships essentially took the heat out of the constitutional clash. While in a strict sense the Good Friday agreement was not dependent upon the continued membership of the UK or the Republic of Ireland of the European Union, it was the joint UK and Irish membership of the EU, in particular of the customs union and the single market, that facilitated the freedoms across the islands that people quickly took for granted.
Northern Ireland works only on the basis of sharing and interdependence, yet Brexit, in particular a hard Brexit, entails new divisions, barriers and friction. Brexit has placed the constitutional question back on the table, in contrast to a situation in which it had been largely parked between 1998 and 2016. Brexit itself, and any potential mitigation of it for Northern Ireland, has become largely polarised along identity lines and there is little space for pragmatic, consensual solutions to emerge. This is of course not helped by the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive last year, as we have heard, along with the dependence of the Conservative Government on DUP votes in the Commons. It is worth noting that Northern Ireland’s economy has been held back by the legacy of division and violence. It significantly underperforms relative to other regions of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. A hard Brexit would compound this further.
However, the emergence of new border arrangements needs to be understood in more than just economic terms: borders are emotional and psychological. Any border down the Irish Sea would be seen by many as a fragmentation of the UK. In turn, as we have heard, any new border across the island of Ireland would be seen as a reversal of the gains of peace under the Good Friday agreement. Many people would see any checks, no matter how efficient or unobtrusive, as a step backwards. It is the symbolism of the checks themselves that is the issue. Brexit is an existential threat to the entire concept of a shared Northern Ireland. If a consensual approach cannot be found, we will return to the zero-sum approach to Northern Ireland that hampered the peace process for years. It is not hard to imagine the increasing frustration and alienation of the nationalist population, and indeed many others, in a hard Brexit UK, along with the return of siege-mentality unionist politics.
Finally, Brexit or a hard border will present challenges for all of our security agencies. They will be required to police a hard border along a 320-mile land border. Since 1998, the border has all but disappeared, with free, unfettered movement along with increased and positive interactivity between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Brexit challenges that progress. The Chief Constable of the PSNI has already made the case for an additional 490 officers to fulfil the requirements associated with a hard border. They are needed in support of other agencies, including the NCA, Border Force and HM Customs and Excise. The PSNI is already 500 below the minimum the Chief Constable says he requires, so in effect the PSNI has a requirement for more than 900 additional officers. So far, there is little indication that the Government are preparing to give the PSNI the budget it needs to expand to a realistic level.
It is also worth bearing in mind that, during the Troubles, the police and the Army were unable to secure the border with a total complement of 29,000. Nowadays, there is no military availability and the police service, even at its full complement of almost 8,000, is a long way from the point where it had to deal with a determined terrorist onslaught. The Government must act with some alacrity to address the shortfall. We do not want a hard border, but if there are to be border controls, we must ensure that the PSNI is properly resourced.
The consequences of Brexit for Northern Ireland are much more fundamental than any economic considerations. This is about the future cohesion of society. That is the real threat of Brexit to the Good Friday agreement.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for facilitating this debate at what is a crucial stage in the negotiations on Brexit. He has always displayed a keen interest in our problems and also our achievements. It is no exaggeration to say that, with that degree of interest, he has approached this debate and introduced it in a way which is most sensitive. In passing, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, on the first anniversary of his acceptance of the responsibility of dealing with those of us from Northern Ireland and our problems, and thank him for the way in which he has exercised that responsibility.
So, we ask, what will happen to the Good Friday agreement when we leave the EU? At one level—and I stress, at one level—the answer must be that nothing directly linked to it will change: it is a historic document and a milestone in the history of Northern Ireland. It came after many attempts to end our Troubles; it came about through the courageous work and vision of those who saw what it could achieve. Among the membership of your Lordships’ House, there are those who played a key and courageous role in that process. It found its place in history, and no one can rewrite what took place 20 years ago.
The fact that not all of its aspirations have been implemented cannot deny its place in our history—and not even Brexit can change history. Too often, not least in Northern Ireland, some try to gain significance through rewriting history. That is a dangerous occupation. It is a dangerous occupation in the affairs of Ireland as a whole. Let us be clear: as a historic document, the agreement is of historic significance. It cannot be rewritten and taken out of its historic context. In time, we may question the relevance of parts of it to changing circumstances—but that is a different matter.
History tells us that only one part of the story of the Good Friday agreement is contained in the question we face today—only one part. Through it, the community was given the opportunity to build a place of peaceful, democratic dialogue and of equality. Hope was rekindled. It was the basis for a joint community, where equality and democratic sharing through peaceful means became a possibility. So, when we ask whether Brexit will change the agreement in a historical sense, the answer is, simply: it cannot. Tragically, the collapse of Stormont has eroded some of those cherished hopes of 20 years ago.
Now, a new generation is asking what Brexit will mean for them—for their hopes, for their future. That generation was not alive when many of the considerations we are talking about today arose. They read about it in history books; they learn about it in schools; they hear it mentioned on television and on the radio—but they ask questions today that we cannot avoid. What will Brexit mean for those hopes? Will the achievements of 10 April 1998 mean a radical change for that new generation? Those questions are not just topical; they are moral. They are questions that no one in this House can avoid if we take our responsibility as human beings seriously.
The victims of the days and years before that day 20 years ago continue to confront us. As has been mentioned, we are still a divided society. Recently, some Members of your Lordships’ House suggested that it was time to consider the balance between the importance we give to the investigation of the past and the support of victims. This is a serious—and, again, a moral as well as a political—issue. We feel that it goes to the heart of much of the post-agreement Northern Ireland beyond discussion of issues such as Brexit. Perhaps later in the debate the Minister will be able to share his thoughts on what we have done. We may argue that certain details of the Good Friday agreement will require consideration as a consequence of Brexit, but the second aspect of this, as I have mentioned, is that the spirit, meaning and vision of what was contained in the agreement cannot be subjected to that sort of scrutiny.
I will conclude with two points. First, if in the latter stages of negotiations on how we leave the EU the Northern Ireland situation and the border issue stand in the way of agreement and compromise is apparently necessary, will the Government’s assurances given to us after the Good Friday agreement be protected? Will the situation in Northern Ireland not be used simply as some sort of political ping-pong in those compromise situations? Secondly, many projects during the Northern Ireland peace process have benefited from financial help from the EU. Have the Government given any consideration so far to the vacuum that could occur in that support after Brexit? Those who have stood beside me at many graves deserve answers to those questions.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on obtaining this important debate. Sometimes, there are those who are too quick to put forward and promote the idea that when the United Kingdom leaves Europe, the Good Friday agreement will be torn up, destroyed and made redundant as a consequence, leading to the recurrence of violence throughout Northern Ireland. I believe that this would not be the case. The vast majority of people across Northern Ireland, in both communities, and in the Republic of Ireland have no intention of allowing the men of violence to resume their destructive campaign. It is therefore important that the language we employ is measured, not to give encouragement and succour to the evil perpetrators of violence for their own selfish ends.
I assure the House that there is no support for a return to violence. Since the Good Friday agreement, substantial progress has been made in Northern Ireland. We have faced many difficulties and many issues remain to be resolved but, with hard work by all the political parties, agreement can be achieved. The young generation, who never experienced the campaign of violence, wish to move on and carve out a successful career for themselves and their families. It is therefore important to accentuate the positive aspects of the Good Friday agreement and move forward along with the rest of the United Kingdom when negotiations in Europe are successfully completed, and to isolate those who simply want to disrupt daily life in Northern Ireland.
Regrettably, we are holding today’s debate against the backdrop of a Northern Ireland with no locally accountable decision-making bodies in place. None of us wants to be in this situation, with no local decision-makers. However, it is important that all parties continue to work with the aim of returning to full local governance in Northern Ireland. We must remember that for a lengthy period we had stable and accountable devolved governance. We have relative peace in Northern Ireland—it is a much better place and has travelled a considerable distance during the last decade. Tourism continues to boom in Northern Ireland. Belfast’s skyline is littered with cranes as this building continues on new developments. Attractions are seeing increasing numbers of visitors too, and cruise ships from across the globe are now regular visitors to our capital city. Over the last two years, the hotel and hospitality sectors have grown significantly, with a rapidly increasing list of luxury hotels being erected, and this has created new jobs and new businesses for locally based suppliers.
Yet, even with these recent significant investments in Northern Ireland, if one were to listen to the demands of some, Northern Ireland would be stuck in a bizarre, solo customs arrangement with the European Union. Such a new scenario would prevent Northern Ireland benefiting from future deals put in place by the rest of the United Kingdom. Those who call for this are not only calling for the full integrity of the UK to be put into serious question, they are prioritising the 23% of Northern Ireland’s trade with the EU over the 77% of its trade with the rest of the UK and elsewhere. Recent investors and confirmed future investors in Northern Ireland have looked at all the risks involved and carried out their own research. They have invested, or plan to invest, because they know that Northern Ireland is part of a strong, outward-looking and independent United Kingdom, free to make its own deals with the world and an attractive place for them to grow their businesses.
On the Belfast agreement, Her Majesty’s Government, the EU negotiators and the Irish Government have all previously stated their commitment to avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Equally, the Government have previously confirmed that when we leave the EU, they will work closely with the Irish Government to ensure co-operation in the context of existing arrangements and the common travel area. If there is good will on all sides, this is achievable. My party leader, Arlene Foster, has been very clear in her recent meetings with the Government and EU negotiators that there should be no question of customs or regulatory barriers between parts of the United Kingdom being introduced. The nature of domestic trade between all parts of the United Kingdom, and with the Irish Republic, highlights the importance of finding a solution that protects everyone.
Regardless of any deal with the European Union, there is a need for a sensible approach on both sides of the border when we exit the EU. Key to all this is Northern Ireland’s economic and trading reliance on the internal UK market; total trade with Great Britain is significantly greater than Northern Ireland’s trade with the EU. This can be achieved by looking towards digital solutions and will work best for all sides, while ensuring the integrity of the United Kingdom and its internal market. Digital border controls are one way of enhancing security with minimal change. Indeed, measures such as this already exist, and have been introduced at borders across the world. Examples are the Norway-Sweden and the Canada-United States borders. According to the findings of Lars Karlsson,
“coordinated border management as well as trusted trader and trusted traveller programs can significantly reduce compliance requirements and make borders”,
virtually friction-free. Solutions are available, provided there is a mature approach and a willingness on all sides to examine them. Unfortunately, that will appears to have been missing on the part of some EU negotiators, and by some who regrettably continue to fight old battles by cynically using this issue to try to keep the United Kingdom tied to the EU. Indeed, some who raise this issue and who claim to respect the Belfast agreement—the Good Friday agreement—appear to have forgotten a key part of it: the principle of consent. As we leave the EU, we must do so together as one nation. I am confident that after Brexit a bright future will emerge for all the citizens of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Browne. I was looking forward to his speech but unfortunately ended up slightly disappointed. I had expected a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the DUP’s encounter with European officials yesterday. I am afraid that I shall have to fall back on my imagination in that respect.
I wish to draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, to one point. I will not take up any other points with regard to him because I have only seven minutes. It is that what he calls the Good Friday agreement—the Belfast agreement—does make reference to partition. It recognises the existence of partition and its legitimacy—it uses that word. The partition exists not just generally; there is a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for tax, VAT, currency, excise duty and security matters. All these matters are managed using technologies, without infrastructure at the physical border. With regard to that physical border, we have been assured by the CEO of HMRC and the head of the Irish Revenue that there will be no need for new customs facilities on the border. So I suggest that this issue has been somewhat overstated.
There is a matter of significance. We are now getting down to the European Union’s primary concern, which is that there might be an impact on the single market if there are insufficient checks on the borders in Ireland, because goods could come into the single market without complying with EU standards or tariffs. That is a genuine concern that can be met.
Cross-border trade on the island of Ireland mostly comprises regular shipments of the same goods. This repetitive trade is well suited to the established technical solutions and simplified customs procedures already available. Larger companies might take advantage of what are called trusted trader-type schemes. I recall a Member of this House saying to us in this context that he regularly brings ships into port in Southampton with 20,000 to 30,000 containers on them and there are no problems. The goods are all cleared as they are put into the containers. That is on a scale much greater than that of the transfers in Ireland, but it works smoothly.
Large companies might take advantage of these arrangements, but for all companies the requirements for additional declarations can be incorporated into existing systems used for VAT returns. For agricultural products, which is the key problem, the Government should agree equivalence between EU and UK regulations since EU and UK standards are virtually identical and will remain identical. This goes back to agricultural arrangements on what are called biosecurity matters. That all goes back to Stormont and the old Parliament, where we agreed to have the same standards of animal hygiene on both sides of the border. So all these things can be done without there being any significant problem.
However, a problem has arisen. Way back last December, in dealing with this, the Government indicated a willingness for continuing alignment on various matters with the EU, but the original draft of that paper was quite limited to those cross-border bodies that came into existence as a result of the Good Friday agreement.
There is a good reason for having it. Of those cross-border bodies, the one with the largest employment is Waterways Ireland, which employs more than 400 people, some in Northern Ireland and some in the Republic. They have to have the same contracts; there has to be uniformity in the arrangements under which they are dealing. That exists and it would not be a problem—but there was included in that agreement in December a reference to a backstop if in fact the alignment was not altogether satisfactory. I am inclined here to borrow a phrase from my noble friend Lord Lawson, who says that instead of saying “backstop” we should actually say “back-stab”, because that is what it has turned into. It has been exaggerated beyond the legitimate use that was there in the original draft last December and it has now been extended in such a way that it is going to cause enormous difficulties, which were touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Browne. We hope that those matters will be resolved.
It is a pity that there has not been a big enough recognition of the real problem that the Irish Republic is going to face. It is not affected by any of the matters on the border that have been mentioned so far. With regard to goods, only 1.6% of the output of the economy of the Irish Republic goes into Northern Ireland—so that is not a significant problem. The problem for Ireland is of a different character and it concerns tariffs. If tariffs are retained by the European Union, the Irish economy is going to find that between it and its principal market, which is across the water in Great Britain, there are now tariffs. There are no tariffs presently existing on goods moving from Ireland into and through the United Kingdom, but if the EU retains its existing tariff arrangements, this is going to have a huge impact on the Irish Republic. It will not affect us in Northern Ireland, but we know it is going to have an effect on the Republic. I have been disappointed to see that there has been no serious discussion of this that I am aware of, and I think that there needs to be one fairly soon. Otherwise, folk in the Republic of Ireland are going to have a rude awakening when they see the impact that this will have on their economy.
I have one further point. After the agreement we saw a considerable change in relationships between Dublin and Belfast and between the UK and the Republic. A good new relationship came into existence. That is now being threatened, not by us in Northern Ireland but by Brussels and Dublin—and they need to think again, particularly the folk in Dublin, about who their friends really are. I know that the EU is hinting to them, or saying to them, that it will look after them, but the EU does not have a good record in looking after small countries, and I think that Dublin should take that on board.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who was so deservedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with John Hume. Like the Minister, I have had the great pleasure of getting to know Ireland far better in recent months as we have grappled with Brexit. As a historian, I have always been alive to the terrible historical relationship between England and Ireland and to the largely depressing and deplorable history of Northern Ireland since its creation a century ago at a time of war and strife. Spending time in Ireland, north and south, has brought home to me the remarkable progress made in the last 25 years since Sir John Major and Albert Reynolds began negotiations to bring peace to a land ravaged by terrorism and violence, a process which led to the 1998 Good Friday agreement and power sharing.
However, my time in Ireland has brought home to me how precarious are the peace process, the prosperity of Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations. I tell the Minister frankly that almost everyone I meet says that relations between the British and Irish Governments are worse than at any time in living memory. The Government’s Brexit negotiating tactics, seeking to undermine and denigrate Dublin in Brussels, Paris and Berlin, has done deep damage. After nearly two years there is still no functioning Assembly or Executive in Northern Ireland, the longest period any democracy has been without democratic institutions in modern Europe.
The Government are substantially to blame for this, in my view. The Prime Minister has paid less attention to Northern Ireland, spent less time there and played less of a role of honest broker than any recent Prime Minister, and she is now seen as an open partisan of the DUP and its leader, Arlene Foster. In July, when I was in Belfast at the same time as the Prime Minister, she was never seen without Mrs Foster in attendance. Her speech in Belfast on 20 July, which disowned Sir John Major’s statement with Albert Reynolds that Britain has no selfish or strategic interest in Northern Ireland, and also disowned the provisions to protect Northern Ireland that she agreed in Brussels last December, is in my view the single worst speech or intervention on Northern Ireland by a Prime Minister since the start of the peace process.
Short of renewed violence in Northern Ireland, this debate could not have a bleaker backdrop. The question is whether we are going to make things worse still. That turns on whether Brexit happens. Any Brexit will do deep, lasting and probably irreparable damage to Anglo-Irish relations. From what both unionists and nationalists tell me in Northern Ireland, the result there will almost certainly be a prolonged constitutional crisis, which in a small number of years will probably result in a referendum on the creation of a single Irish state, with all the difficulties that that will entail. My view on this is the same as Sir John Major’s: the United Kingdom has no selfish or strategic interest in maintaining British governance in Ireland, and if it is the will of the people of Northern Ireland to create a single Irish state, this Parliament and this kingdom should enable that to happen with generosity and statesmanship.
However, if Brexit happens, its form—particularly the provision of the backstop on the border—is crucial to limit its damage. On the principles involved, let me say two things. First, what we should be thinking about is not “no hard border”, but “no harder border”. It is perfectly possible to have no hard border, regarding new border infrastructure, while in practice having a much harder border, regarding mobile checks and searches, and regulatory divergence which stifles trade and interactions across the border. This is certain to happen with any Brexit, but obviously the less so, the better. The best possible arrangement would be a backstop in operation that ensures Northern Ireland retains full membership of the customs union and the single market.
Secondly, let me turn to the Good Friday agreement. A lot is said, particularly by the DUP, which never supported the Good Friday agreement and still does not in reality, about it not specifying specific no border requirements. However, the whole philosophy of the Good Friday agreement is for no hard border, and a progressively softer border to encourage trade, prosperity and interaction. How else can one possibly read the preamble to the Good Friday agreement, which says in paragraph 3:
“We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands”,
or in paragraph 5 that,
“we will endeavour to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement”,
or in strand three of the Good Friday agreement in the declaration of Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity, which refers to,
“the right to freely choose one’s place of residence”,
“the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity”?
This leads me to four specific questions for the Minister. First, it is vital to prevent a new border for goods, or border-type arrangements for goods, by ensuring Northern Ireland remains in the customs union without time limit, unless there are equally frictionless border arrangements negotiated in place of the customs union. Is it still the Government’s policy that Northern Ireland should stay in the customs union or an equivalent arrangement without time limits?
Secondly, regulatory divergence will inevitably suppress existing and new trade and interaction. Last December’s joint report provided for full regulatory alignment between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Can the Government reaffirm that this too will be part of the backstop?
Thirdly, last week the Prime Minister announced that the freedom of movement of people will be abolished when we leave the European Union and that much existing freedom of movement, particularly of low-income migrants to the UK from the mainland, will no longer be allowed. What does this mean for the border within Ireland since, under this new immigration regime, the Irish border will inevitably become a major source of illegal immigration? What will the Government’s post-Brexit policy be to tackle illegal immigration across the Irish border and will it be possible for such a policy to be in place without checks or searches of some kind, either at or near the border and/or between Northern Ireland and Great Britain?
Fourthly, there is the timescale for Parliament to consider the extremely serious and grave issues which will be in the withdrawal agreement. How long will the Government give Parliament to consider the implications of a withdrawal agreement before it is voted upon? There is growing concern that Parliament will be railroaded by the Government into voting on Brexit within days of the signing of a provisional withdrawal agreement, after the European Council of this month or next. This would be frankly disgraceful. Parliament typically requires a standard 12-week consultation period not only for new policies but even for the most minor of regulatory changes. Similarly, local councils are given eight weeks to determine planning applications. Yet we are told that the parliamentary votes on the most important issues to be decided by Parliament in this generation—whether we leave the European Union; whether there should be a people’s vote; and whether the exit terms are acceptable—could be held within a few weeks or even days of the Prime Minister publishing a draft treaty.
Attlee famously said that democracy is government by discussion. There can be no credible or properly democratic decision-making by this Parliament on Brexit unless MPs and Peers have sufficient time to study and discuss the Brexit terms and to seek advice and views from the public. In conclusion, will the Minister tell us how long the Government will provide for consultation between the publication of a withdrawal agreement and the parliamentary votes? If it is less than eight weeks—I am bringing my remarks to a close—I tell him that there will be very serious concern in this House and the country that the whole process is fundamentally illegitimate.
My Lords, I remember when my father was posted as a lieutenant-colonel from the Indian Army to the British Army in Warminster, Wiltshire, seeing the Troubles as a young boy living among soldiers. I then went back to school and to university in India, and came back for my higher education here in the UK. In 1982, just as I was about to move into the International Students House in Regent’s Park, there was a tragic attack on our soldiers there. As an Indian coming over here, I have witnessed and felt the Troubles as a young boy and a student.
Later on, I had the privilege of going to Northern Ireland with the UK-India talks and seeing it on the ground after the Good Friday agreement. Anyone who goes to Belfast today will see the high fences and barriers that still exist, in spite of that agreement. The Good Friday agreement was precious. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who is not in his place, won a Nobel Peace Prize for it. We are grateful to everyone involved who enabled what is now an amazing 20-year-old peace process to have happened. What is happening today? For the sake of something called Brexit, we are threatening the very union and the very peace of the United Kingdom. At the heart of the Good Friday agreement was north-south co-operation and east-west co-operation—they were absolutely interlinked.
Look at the movement of people, to which the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, alluded. There is a free travel area between Ireland and the UK. We are not in Schengen. If somebody gets a visa for the UK, they can go to Ireland; if somebody gets a visa for Ireland, they can come to the UK. However, that is in the context of being in the European Union. People such as Arlene Foster say that the Good Friday agreement is not sacrosanct and praise Boris Johnson’s Brexit vision. But the Good Friday agreement was created in the context of the European Union and the free movement of people, goods, services and capital, and of the UK and Ireland united in this context.
Now we have the backstop. I remember sitting next to an EU Prime Minister who said, “We’ve got the backstop”. I said, “How can this backstop logically work? It cannot work”. There is no workable backstop in the way that it is being proposed at the moment. In fact, Sammy Wilson initially described a Canada-style trade deal as “too vague”. We have the DUP saying that it will not have a border between Ireland and the UK, and Ireland saying that it will not have a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. How will this work in practice?
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said that Northern Ireland is the Achilles heel of Brexit. Then, there are those who say that this is the tail wagging the dog. How can they say that? Let me put it into context. Two of our children were not old enough to vote in 2016, but before March 2019 they will be old enough to vote. They are part of the more than 1.5 million people who did not have the franchise at the time, and it is their future that has been decided by something that is two years out of date. What are we doing?
When we negotiate with European Union members, they are the baddies because they are bullying us. Hang on: we elected to leave and then we drew our red lines—no customs union, no single market and no ECJ. How will that work in the Northern Ireland situation? It cannot work in practice.
The irony is that the Government say that they are implementing the will and mandate of the people. However, the referendum was two years ago and the facts have changed—the world has changed. I remember taking part in a debate on a European Union Committee report before the Brexit vote. It said it was going to be so complicated that it would be impossible. The most complicated part is the Northern Ireland issue, but it is just one of the complicated aspects.
Goods move freely. Recently, I spoke at Board Bia in Ireland, where an example was given. Baileys Irish Cream is made in Dublin, goes to be bottled in Northern Ireland, comes back to Dublin and is then exported around the world. It is frictionless. There are goods going from Dublin across the sea and across the land to Calais. It takes 10 hours and is frictionless. If you try to take goods around, it takes 40 hours. Are we going to give up all this?
What about identity? What about the will of the people? The reality is that the latest polls show that 80% of the readers of an Irish newspaper reject sacrificing Northern Ireland peace for Brexit. The Northern Ireland result was 56% to 44% to remain. What about their will? On the one hand, we are told that we will have separate arrangements to keep them out. On the other hand, we are told that we have to respect the will of the whole of the UK. Will the Minister square that circle for me?
There is the sad and dangerous potential that Brexit could reignite conflict in Northern Ireland. I really hope that that does not happen. How will it work in practice if we have a common regulatory area and a separate customs union for the whole of the UK? You would need a single market as well to keep the Northern Ireland-Ireland-Britain relationship going. As the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, asked, what about the control of free movement of people? If there is free movement of EU people into Ireland, they can freely move into Northern Ireland and therefore they can move into the UK. This is an absolute nonsense.
The great Jacob Rees-Mogg says that any divide in the customs regimes governing Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK after Brexit will be completely “impossible”. So there we have it; he said it. And Nicola Sturgeon is now saying that, given that the Scots would be competing for investment as well, any backstop deal would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. I conclude by saying that it is Great Britain and Northern Ireland that make up the United Kingdom. Let us never destroy that.
My Lords, I begin by taking up the contributions that have just been made by my noble friend Lord Adonis and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, which touched on a very important point. There is freedom of movement within the island of Ireland—the common travel area, as we have always called it. You have the right to walk, drive or take a train anywhere on the island and never show any papers or go through any controls at all. It is of course vital that we keep that regime and it would cause a revolution—of which I should probably be a part, by the way—if anyone suggested removing those rights.
However, how can we possibly retain those rights when the Government are determined that the country will leave the European Union and no longer be a part of the freedom of movement provisions of the treaty? In such circumstances, anyone could take an aircraft from Bulgaria, say, to Dublin—they would have an absolute legal right to be admitted into the Irish Republic—and then simply take a bus or walk across the border into Northern Ireland and they would de facto be in the UK. Since I do not think there are going to be any border controls either between Northern Ireland and England, they could then come over to London. How is it possible that, after two and a half years of talking about this issue, we have still not had an answer to this from the Government? I ask the Minister today, if he does nothing else, to give us the answer to that very key question. It is disgraceful that it has never been answered by the Government up to the present time.
I was going to talk about something slightly different, relating of course to the Belfast agreement. I remind the House that, for two or three years after the agreement was concluded, I was shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I was determined to make what contribution I could to normalisation in those circumstances, in support of the principles of the Belfast agreement. I therefore made a point of meeting people on both sides who had been involved in the violence, which had been terrible. I made a point as well of going to places where no British politician had been for 40 years. Incidentally, I was the first British politician to meet the Loyalist Commission.
I was also the first British politician to go to Crossmaglen for 40 years, not being helicoptered into the sangar and out again but going in a perfectly normal way. I did a walkabout, went into pubs and shops, had a long discussion in the post office and so forth. I was treated with the greatest degree of friendliness. I have to say that that visit was controversial at the time; the Unionist Party—I see that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has left the Chamber—was not in favour of my doing it and the chief constable said he would not give me a police escort. I was deeply grateful; that was the last thing I wanted in those circumstances.
I also knew I was not running any risk. By that stage, I understood enough about Ireland, Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA to know perfectly well that, if the IRA wanted to kill me, they could do so without any difficulty any day they more or less chose. However, if Martin McGuinness said to me, which he did when I told him I wanted to go to Crossmaglen, “You’d be very welcome in Crossmaglen, Quentin”, I knew that I was entirely safe and that no one there would dare to harm a hair on my head. I cannot say that I always feel like that elsewhere. That visit went off very well.
I also spent quite a lot of time, again because of introductions by Martin McGuinness, in west Belfast. I remember many hours of conversations, usually at the Patrick Sarsfield club—I do not suppose any British politician had been there before either, for that matter— talking about things that interested me about Ireland. One subject I raised was how Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA were persuaded to agree to the Belfast agreement, to agree to peace and, above all—the most difficult thing for them—to agree to give up their arms. I learned what had actually happened.
Martin McGuinness had said—I dare say that Gerry Adams and other members of the Army Council would have said the same thing, but I only heard about what Martin McGuinness had been doing and saying from his people—“Well, okay, we have not got 100%. We have not got a united Ireland, but we have got the best deal we could have negotiated for the last 60 years and, in my judgment, the best deal we can negotiate for the next 20 years. Actually, we have an enormous amount of what we require—probably 80%”, because, as a result of the Belfast agreement, all the obstacles were coming down. The roads that had been blocked up were being reopened, there would be no procedures or difficulties placed in the way of moving around the island of Ireland. There was no greater difficulty driving between Dublin and Belfast than in driving between Limerick and Cork.
“What is more”, Martin McGuinness continued, “all-Irish institutions are being set up, and that is the way forward, and both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are now part of the European Union”—a situation that could not possibly have been envisaged when the Troubles started in 1969 and 1972, and obviously not in 1919 to 1922, during the violence referred to a moment ago. That changed an awful lot of things, because it meant that the British were equal partners with a constant necessary working relationship with the Irish in the European Union. As time went by, internal frontiers within the European Union became psychologically less important and physically less visible. Things were going in a direction in which it was all right for the Irish nationalist and republican movements to go along with the Belfast agreement entirely consistently with the objectives that they had always had.
Now we see the dangers of the present situation, because the British have said that we are leaving the European Union and all that is going for a burton. It is no longer clear that there will not be checks—I have already raised the question of borders of various kinds. A border is any line in the ground which, when you pass it, can have some legal or financial consequences. The issue is what happens to freedom of movement within the island of Ireland, as I just mentioned, and what happens to the movement of goods. Notoriously, there have been no solutions to that at all.
We are in danger of creating yet another case of a British broken promise, and Anglo-Irish history is full of British broken promises, which we have lived to regret over time, so I hope that the Government are not thinking of making and leaving in the history books yet one more British broken promise.
My Lords, I have lived all my 84 years in Northern Ireland. My home is in Belfast, but I also feel at home in Dublin, Cork or Galway. Like many other people living in Northern Ireland, I have visited, travelled and holidayed in the Republic. My brother lives in Dublin. It is not a foreign place as far as people are concerned. They are not aliens, they are not people we are glaring at through a forest of barbed wire, they do not seem different, like Othello’s people,
“men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders”.
There is a great deal more contact and friendship between people in Northern Ireland from different backgrounds than many noble Lords may be aware of. It goes without saying that, during the Troubles, tensions were severe. Those of us who lived through it and close to it, as I did—sometimes too close for comfort—are well aware that. It was a bad time and we never want to see it again.
Things have changed since then, thank the Lord. Even during the worst times, links were kept up. My own profession maintained friendly links with southern lawyers, as it had for generations and still does. It also worked hard to prevent steps being taken that might increase sectarianism within the profession. I am glad to say that we largely succeeded in that. Both Bench and Bar are well integrated institutions, and comfortably so. What I am saying is that things are much more normal, agreeable and as they should be. Go to Belfast or any part of Northern Ireland and you will find it much more recognisable as the place that it was, that you would like it to be, and that those in other countries are familiar with.
I will not try to say that it is all Pollyanna and lovely, with people kissing and making up all the time. There are tensions, and pockets where people are at odds with each other; there are people with atavistic attitudes and, of course, dissident republicans are a constant thorn. But, on the whole, I have a clear feeling that things are improving. People want it that way. I remember being asked a number of years ago in London, “What does Northern Ireland need now?” I replied without hesitation, “Twenty years of nothing happening”. We have got quite a long way down that road, and I think it is having an effect.
How does this bring us to the agreement of 10 April 1998? Its proper legal name is the multi-party agreement; one can call it the Belfast agreement, the Good Friday agreement or what you will. But it is there, an international agreement between states; whatever happens, that matter is not subject to change.
The focus of this debate is on what the impact—to use the precise word of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs—of Brexit on the Good Friday agreement will be. Noble Lords will remember that right at the core of the agreement are two fundamental safeguards. One is that any constitutional change in Northern Ireland will take place only with the agreement and consent of the majority of people of Northern Ireland. The second, complementary, safeguard is that if such consent came about and a majority of people wished to change the constitutional position, the British Government would not block this but would facilitate it. That is very proper. Whatever might happen in the future, one would hope that principled democrats will accept whatever is agreed by a majority.
In addition, the European Convention on Human Rights is given formal protection in the agreement. Nobody has suggested that this will be altered. It is separate and distinct from the European Union and agreements of the European Union; it is not under threat. Another thing not under threat is the common travel area. One can travel quite peaceably; there has been passage of peoples since 1923 and it has been perfectly easy. Noble Lords may remember my talking of riding my bicycle to Dublin without the slightest let or hindrance. Nobody has suggested that will change. Any such talk, I am afraid, is somewhat misplaced.
Where does this take us? The answer is that a lot of concerns have been expressed, but what are they? There are some, of course. Arranging a border is obviously a matter of difficulty and I shall not attempt to minimise it. I have given my views on it before and I have every hope that it can be resolved, but it does not mean that the agreement is affected by such difficulties. However, there is one facet that might have an effect and that is if a proposal is put forward and accepted between Governments to in effect create a border down the Irish Sea. I could see room for very strenuous arguments about that and where they might lead I do not know. However, I feel that other matters are ones of perception and inchoate fears. It is the responsibility of people such as, I hope, your Lordships to attempt to put them to rest and to persuade people that they are unfounded and that the agreement is safe and sound and on a solid base for now and the future.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Dubs for securing this debate and for his steadfast friendship with Ireland. I want to say a little about both the border and east-west relations.
The signing of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement on 10 April 1998—a day that made me proud to be both a member of the Labour Party and Irish—was the culmination of many years of difficult, often ugly, compromising backroom work by men and women whose goal was to find a sustainable peace in the blood and rubble of the past 30 years. Despite their great differences and fatigued history, they brought about an agreement that has stood the test of two decades and allowed Northern Ireland to begin to prosper and live in its skin as a modern European nation. Many of these peacemakers are past and present Members of this House—I see the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, in their places. My noble friend Lord Murphy was a proud member of the class of 1998 who did what had to be done and did it well and in the interests of us all.
The agreement marked a deliberate moving on from the Troubles, with their obscene death toll of over 3,600 people and many thousands injured. It set up key political institutions such as the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly, which I have had the pleasure of visiting and which needs to be reinstated urgently, as noble Lords have said. It also set up the North/South Ministerial Council to develop co-operation between both parts of Ireland. Today, we see an all-Ireland market in utilities, scores of cross-border business, tourism and environmental initiatives, and of course the EU-funded cross-border peace programmes designed to reinforce the peace process.
We have to continue that work of reinforcement and not allow Brexit to dismantle it. The Good Friday/Belfast agreement saw the border controls between the north and the south move from the security arrangements of the hard border of the past—the checkpoints, the barbed wire, the watch towers and the paramilitary violence—to the modern, peaceful, free-flowing, frictionless commercial border that we see, or hardly see, today.
It is easy to forget as we talk about possible technical solutions in the future, post Brexit, that in our lifetime that border was a graveyard and a battlefield. I listened to Boris Johnson’s “chuck Chequers” speech and I read the ERG’s September paper, half-baked as it was, and I can reflect only that it is as though the shadow of the gunman had never fallen across that border and never could in the future.
We are at a crucial juncture in these negotiations and I genuinely wish everyone involved success, although I have my doubts. I would never accuse the Prime Minister of not acknowledging the historical significance of the border question but I would accuse her of setting her face against practical EU compromises that could unblock the answer and of trying to row back from her official backstop commitment of 8 December. If she continues to be unbending, the whole of the Brexit negotiations are in jeopardy.
Mr Barnier’s clock is ticking, and we all know what that sounds like. I am a remainer, as I have said before until noble Lords are probably sick of hearing it, and if there is any chance for the country to vote again on the terms, no one will be more ecstatic than me. However, if that does not happen and we leave the EU at the end of March, we must stay as close as possible to the EU—the world’s largest trading block. Whatever happens in the next few extraordinary months, we in the UK must continue to have the closest and most friendly relationship with our nearest ally, neighbour and EU member, the Republic of Ireland, with which we share the busiest air corridor in Europe and the second busiest in the world.
That brings me back to the former Foreign Secretary’s speech in the fringes of the Conservative Party conference, when he told us of the fantastic trade opportunities soon to emerge between Peru—yes, Peru—and the post-Brexit UK. His implication was that our EU membership has corrupted our awareness of so many other exciting parts of the world. Now, I mean no disrespect to any Peruvian colleagues but I have to declare that Boris Johnson’s remarks drove me into the arms of the IMF DataMapper. This, as noble Lords will know, is the statistical library of the IMF and is available to anyone who can google. The source reveals that the GDP per capita of Peru is $7,200. The GDP per capita of Ireland is $80,000. The distance for trade between London and Limerick is 595 kilometres; the distance between London and Lima is 6,324 kilometres. Meanwhile, UK exports to Ireland are currently worth $45 billion. If my sums are correct, only about $9 billion-worth of Peruvian exports reach the EU each year, let alone the UK.
It is therefore the height of hucksterism to tell the British people that there is bound to be a pot of gold waiting for us in the Andes—a Brexiteer’s El Dorado— while our commercial relations with Ireland can be safely downgraded if necessary. I am sure that Peru is a wonderful place, but even if the whole of Britain gives itself over to a diet of quinoa and nothing else, Peru is never in our lifetime going to be a major trading partner for us. Ireland, however, is and can be. As the Irish President, Michael D Higgins, said of our two counties during his state visit to the UK in 2014, we live in the shadow but also in the shelter of one another.
The genius of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement was that it allowed different communities in Northern Ireland and in the south to identify with different parts of it and then with the framework as a whole. The open border between north and south and our east-west trade with Ireland, which is so central to the agreement, must be handled with great care in the dangerous slippery months ahead.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for securing this debate. I am well aware of his great experience of Northern Ireland and the time that he has given to it.
As a remain voter, I do not find it difficult to accept that the decision to leave the European Union has had destabilising effects in Northern Ireland. There is really no question about that; none the less, I am not sure that they have been carefully defined in this debate, nor has there been any attempt to sketch a way forward, given that this has happened. However, it is not just Brexit; alongside it is a perfect storm of the Irish language, the renewable heating initiative scandal and other issues relating to laws on abortion and gay marriage. All those things have come together in a perfect negative storm. It is not just Brexit but Brexit is the biggest issue and possibly the one that makes it harder to ensure the return of Stormont.
I accept that there needs to be clear evidence that there will be no hard border. I think it is in almost any conjuncture extremely unlikely—almost inconceivable—that there will be a hard border, but we need to have that in place. It needs to be visible for people before we are likely to get Stormont back.
I acknowledge the scale of the difficulty, but we have a way of talking about this that is not totally precise, and there is an ethical balance which is awry. For example, twice in this House today the fact that the DUP did not support the Good Friday agreement has been referred to. Sinn Féin also did not support it on the day. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was there on that day, and he knows it. The noble Lords, Lord Murphy and Lord Trimble, know it. It did not support it. The agreement came into being in effect as the result of a vote, a decision and an alliance between the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. Sinn Féin brilliantly claimed later that it owned it, but it did not support it on the day, and, without the vote of the SDLP, we would not have had it. We do not owe the Good Friday agreement to Sinn Féin’s vote.
But in this House it is only the DUP that was not there on the day. This indicates a certain sliding of the moral scales as we talk about this. It is a small indication, but an important one. As a matter of substance, just read Sir Jeffrey Donaldson this week. There is no doubt that the DUP has come to terms with the Good Friday agreement in substance—that it had effectively come to terms with it was part of the agreement on supply and consent with the Government. So there is a way of talking about this which skews the balance in a way that is not accurate.
If I may say so, there is no proper way of discussing the impact on the psychology of Northern nationalists, which I accept has been harmful, particularly on the Catholic middle class—perhaps more so than on any other section of Catholic society. The Good Friday agreement allowed people to consider themselves citizens of Europe—possibly evolving towards Irish unity, possibly not—and continuing to enjoy the National Health Service and their pension from London as before. It allowed a very happy set of slightly conflicting assumptions in people’s minds—but people like to live with slightly conflicting happy assumptions in their minds—and it has rather woken that up, because it is a certain type of assertion of the United Kingdom as a separate state, which is a problem. On balance, historically, I support the secret, very tricky—you could say dangerous—negotiations in March 1993 between the Major Government and the IRA. Let me point out to noble Lords the message from the British Government on 23 March, two days after the Warrington bomb which killed children, to the IRA leadership and Martin McGuinness:
“The final solution is union. It is going to happen anyway. The historical train—Europe—determines that. We are committed to Europe. Unionists will have to change … The island will be as one”.
Nobody disputes that this message was actually sent. One can talk about whether it was wise or not—I can understand why it was.
None the less, the truth of the matter is that we are now not committed to Europe. The message is extinct. It is dead. It is an ex-message. That is the reality of where we are now, and life has changed for a lot of nationalists in Northern Ireland who would like to believe that something like that message represents the truth of things. We have to accept that. That is why we have to be very careful to put in counterbalances. For example, I think the British Government should support completely the Irish Government’s recent suggestion that people in Northern Ireland should be able to vote in the Irish presidential election. We need to look at ways of bringing the scales back towards a compromise.
The fundamental choice referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is still there, however. If a majority of Northern Ireland votes to join the Irish Republic, it can so do. That part of the Good Friday agreement is still absolutely in place, and it is accepted now by the European Union that the so-called East German solution is available: if Northern Ireland votes to join the Irish Republic, it will automatically join the European Union. Fundamentally, the glide path that nationalists like to live with for constitutional change of that sort on a democratic basis is still in place and in no way changed by Brexit. It is very important to note that.
The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, rightly made the point that there is not enough discussion in London about the dangers to the Irish economy of a no-deal Brexit. But the clatter in Dublin now is massive. All the think tanks, all the serious economists, all the newspaper headlines, the central bank headlines and ex-ambassadors all say how dangerous a no-deal Brexit would be to the Irish economy. This therefore means that there really is an exceptional impetus on us all to compromise at this point. Regarding the outlines of that compromise, the poorly negotiated transitional agreement of December 8 none the less contains language in paragraphs 49 and 50, and even just in paragraph 49—the European press point out that Michel Barnier always looks slightly ill when paragraph 50 is mentioned, because he does not like it and is trying to wriggle out of it—laying its emphasis on the consent principles. When you are talking about future regulatory change in Northern Ireland, it must be done in a way that protects the Good Friday agreement. You cannot protect it by riding roughshod over the principle of consent as it affects the unionist community.
It seems to me perfectly possible to draw up—as is probably necessary as a fig leaf for the Irish Government—some kind of legal provision, which would, as long as it keeps to the real principles of paragraphs 49 and 50, embody those principles, and be something that we could all live with, as long as we stay on 49 and 50, and not on the later, more fanciful, proposals of March from the European Union. That is a critical thing to bear in mind. The Good Friday agreement was not an agreement—I even used to hear Irishmen talking about it being “signed”, showing that they do not understand what happened—between nationalists and a few human rights lawyers. It was an agreement between nationalists and unionists. It is as simple as that, and the agreement can still be made the basis for a reasonable historic compromise.
Finally on this point, the White Paper, which I know many people dislike, clearly moves substantially towards resolving this question, because of the degree of regulatory and customs alignment it proposes with the European Union. I understand if any noble Lords hate it—I have good friends who intensely dislike it—but it is not possible to say that the Government are not driven by a policy that the Prime Minister says day in and day out that she is pushing in large measure because she thinks it helps to solve the Irish question. It is clear that it effectively removes a number of the possible regulatory, customs-based and other issues that might arise in the short term. It is as simple as that. It may not happen, but there is no question that it is her intent, and there is no question that that is what it would do if we had a deal based on Chequers.
My Lords, what I have found immensely reassuring about this debate is the constant repetition of concern about real people living in a real situation, and real communities trying to meet that situation. I thank most warmly my noble friend Lord Dubs for having given us the opportunity of this debate, with all his very direct experience. I thought his speech was very telling. I also thought, in particular, that the way he emphasised people and identity, and the significance of all this in that context, was a very important way to start a discussion on this subject.
There has been, of course, rightful tribute to all those involved in the Good Friday agreement. All I can say is that, as far as I was concerned, I have always seen the Good Friday agreement as one of the great outstanding landmark achievements, not only in British and Irish history but in world history. As noble Lords will be aware, I have done a great deal of work internationally on community building, and I have been able constantly to refer to the Good Friday agreement as an example of how progress can be made in most difficult circumstances towards reconciliation and the achievement of a sensible way forward. To jeopardise that would be a major tragedy—in the real sense of the word; I do not use it lightly—in terms of present politics as against great history.
Various individuals have been mentioned, and I am glad that they have been—all those individuals involved in the negotiations that reached the agreement. Tony Blair was of course totally committed as Prime Minister, and that was important. But we should never forget that John Major did much of the groundwork that made the way forward possible, and a warm tribute is due to him as well as to others. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, is in our midst; of course there was international recognition for him in the form of the Nobel Peace Prize, but we all owe him a debt of gratitude.
I said that people and identity have been stressed. This was strongly underlined by my noble friend Lady Armstrong, who gave substance to that argument. My noble friend Lady Crawley made a powerful contribution, speaking emotionally, in the best sense, about what all this community of work had achieved.
I always listen with fascination to the thoughts of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, who again emphasised the importance of democracy and peacebuilding. It is very grave that we are approaching the conclusion of this saga of British membership of the European Union with Stormont not operating. We are talking about the people of Northern Ireland and all that this means for them, without there being a formal political institution in which they can speak for themselves and contribute to this issue. That is a grave matter that we need to take seriously indeed.
When my noble friend Lady Crawley spoke I thought of my own involvements in Ireland and Northern Ireland. I remember when I was Minister for the Royal Navy and had responsibility for the Royal Marines, I always made a point of visiting the Royal Marines when they were on service in Northern Ireland. When I was subsequently Minister of State at the Foreign Office, I was delighted on one occasion to make a formal visit to Dublin. The extent to which the atmosphere has changed is beyond belief. My noble friend Lady Crawley talked about the removal of watchtowers and all that, and how people are now able to live normal, real lives and to be active together.
My last point in this important debate is that there have been courageous people at very modest levels of society who have made their stand over many years. I have been chief executive of two organisations which worked with people in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic, before the agreement and subsequently. We have never had any difficulty whatever in the work we have been trying to do together on international understanding, reconciliation and peace. These people have shown us what commitment to a decent, caring and just society can mean and what it can achieve. Let us keep those people at the centre of our attention and not become involved in an intellectual rigmarole of constitutional and legal jargon, and all the rest. That is of course vital, but we are talking about people being able to build their society together when so many want to be able to do just that.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for giving us an opportunity to discuss this question, and I hope that this debate is part of a rather belated but important exploration of how we can find a constructive outcome to the situation we find ourselves in.
When the question of the Brexit referendum arose, colleagues here in the rest of the UK, knowing that I was pro-remain, asked if I would be prepared to run a pro-remain campaign in Northern Ireland. I said I certainly would not, and they asked, “Why? Have you changed? Are you pro-Brexit?” I said, “No, but I have spent most of my life trying to help people from different perspectives come and work together on practical political issues, and I know perfectly well what would happen if I were to do such a thing. As a former Alliance leader I would find lots of support in Alliance, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and people in the Ulster Unionist Party, but the DUP would immediately go in the opposite direction and we would have reinstituted a split that some of us have spent most of our lives trying to resolve”. They asked, “Are you going to do nothing?” I said, “Of course I’m going to do something. We’re going to conduct a public conversation about these questions and give a platform and an opportunity to people right across the political spectrum to express their views and engage with each other, and to try to find a way forward”. They said, “What about Nigel Farage?” I said, “We’ll give him a platform too”. Indeed, the more times we gave him a platform, the more things moved towards remain in Northern Ireland. In the end, the Ulster Unionist Party changed its position and said it was pro-remain—Mike Nesbitt told me that it was almost unanimous—and the DUP moved to a position where they said that “on balance” it was pro-Brexit. That means that there had been a lot of thinking about it and engaging in debate, which was constructive and good.
We are dealing here—we know this from our process—with a complex set of relationships, and relationships do not conform to regulation. You have to be careful how you handle them so that you do not make the situation much worse. In fact, the key development we discovered in the process in Ireland was that the problems we are dealing with are not primarily economic or social, or about legalities and policing and the administration of justice, although those are all important things. They are primarily about dealing with disturbed historic relationships. When you have addressed those issues, all those other things can come together in a sensible way. Of course, at that time we were enormously helped by the fact that the historic disturbed relationships within Europe as a whole and between Britain and Ireland were being much more fruitfully dealt with in the context of the European project—at that stage the European Union. Our relationships with the United States were also much improved at that time, because we had people in presidential office who understood the nuance and complexity, in their own country, in their relationship with Europe, and with the British and Irish Governments together.
There were therefore five key sets of relationships: those two I just mentioned, the relationships between Protestants and Catholics and unionists and nationalists in the north, between north and south, and between Britain and Ireland. All five sets of relationships are in trouble. They are not all in trouble because of Brexit; Brexit is an outcome of the fact that these relationships are all in trouble. We need to think an awful lot more about why the politics of the world has changed so that now political leaders do not regard themselves as great statesmen because they are resolving conflict but because they are conducting it. We have to face the reality of where we are, which is that these relationships are not good. Will the Minister take back to his colleagues the importance of addressing all these sets of relationships much more than the question of regulatory detail? I have certainly been passing the message to our friends in Dublin that the Taoiseach’s stance would be much more helpful if it were also addressing those sets of relationships and not just those within the 26 southern counties. That is a temptation for any Taoiseach, of course, but one that previous Taoisigh ignored for much of the last two or three generations.
But relationships change. In that marvellous book by Sellar and Yeatman published in 1930—a profound historical tome called 1066 and All That—they remarked that in his declining years, Gladstone had tried to find an answer to the Irish question, but just when he thought that he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the question. In those days, that was regarded as a negative thing, but people in Ireland are now changing the question in a positive way. No one in Northern Ireland looks at the south of Ireland as a priest-ridden state. On the contrary, social and religious questions in the rest of the island have changed much more dramatically than even in the north. Who is the Garda Commissioner now? It is Drew Harris. His father was in the RUC; he was one of the most senior members of the PSNI; he conducted the counterterrorism operations. My goodness, it was hard for me as Alliance leader to get a meeting with the Garda Commissioner. Now the Garda Commissioner is a member of PSNI, as was.
Things have changed and they have changed politically. A lot of talk has been going on about unionists and nationalists, but the major change in politics in the last 20 years is that there are now three components—three cohorts—in the politics of Northern Ireland. There are the unionists, the nationalists and republicans and a third cohort of largely younger people who have a wholly different set of understandings, socially, economically and politically. A number of colleagues from Northern Ireland have expressed this by saying how much things have changed, and they have. It means, for example, that the leader of the Alliance Party now does not feel that it is her job to bridge between the unionist and nationalist parties, but to present an alternative view in politics which she would describe as a progressive political view. That is different because it is a different place. Relationships have changed.
There is no prospect of going back to political violence because people on the republican side have come to realise that IRA violence was the thing that stopped leading to any sense of unity. It is more likely that over the next 20 years—or even the next three or four years—we could well be in a situation where Sinn Fein was in a coalition Government in Dublin and back in Belfast, and de facto, from its point of view, politically uniting the island of Ireland. Will republicans risk all that by returning to a violence that never worked for them or anyone else? I do not believe so. So I plead with noble Lords to recognise that history is important, but it is the past. In Ireland, we are trying to leave that painful and difficult past behind. Please do not push us back towards it.
Please resist the temptation to fight the battles that you want to fight here about Brexit by using us as some kind of vicarious battlefield. You will only make the situation worse, not better. Things there have changed and are changing for the better. Relationships do that. Relationships change, positively and negatively, but they never change in a linear way. They are complex. Sometimes, the things that you do to bring about one kind of outcome have the opposite outcome from the one that you expected, which we all know in politics. The more that Sinn Féin and politicians in the Republic of Ireland push in an angry way against Brexit, the more they will make unionists stubborn. The more they work to try to build a practical relationship by co-operating together, the more people will become more open. Indeed, if Brexit turns out not to be as successful as those people who voted for it hoped, it is highly possible that a majority of people in Northern Ireland in the next 10 or 15 years will say, “Maybe we would be better off in the European Union”, and will be prepared to vote in that way. If that is the case, the Good Friday agreement, as noble Lords have said, permits and facilitates that. It does not obstruct it. Please allow the relationships to grow and develop in whatever way they do and do not use us in an internal struggle here.
When it comes to relationships, they are mostly not about high principle and high-flown language, and they are certainly not about the low. They are about practicalities and emotionalities. When we were trying to get somewhere in our negotiations towards the Good Friday agreement, every time people started to speak in terms of high principle, the gap opened up. But when we started to talk about practicalities, it became apparent that we could work a lot together. The Foyle Fisheries Commission became a model because the practicality of fishing is that the fish do not recognise a border. If you are going to have fishing on both sides of the border you have to work together, and since the early days of Northern Ireland, that had worked.
To talk about practicalities, if the British and Irish Governments, for example, could reach an understanding on agriculture, the agri-food business and energy, and present that to the European Union and say, “You can do whatever you like with the rest”, that would deal with 95% of the cross-border trade. It would not deal with the England/Ireland trade but cross-border trade.
I appeal to noble Lords to allow the relationships that have been developing at home to continue to develop in a constructive and nourishing way. Who knows? We might, believe it or not, be able to set an example to other places about how we move through a transition, and our current political difficulty is largely one of making that transition to a new dispensation rather than sliding back to the bad old times.
It is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. He, like the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, myself and my noble friend Lord Dubs, who successfully opened this debate, were all members of the class of 10 April 1998—as of course was the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames.
It has been a fascinating but difficult debate, because these are difficult issues set against the background of a number of things. First, we are now obliged by law, by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, to consider these matters in the question of how we deal with Brexit. We decided that only weeks ago. Secondly, it is against the background of the current uncertainty about how we deal with the Brexit negotiations—central to which, of course, is the position of the Democratic Unionist Party. Thirdly, it is against the background of 56%—a clear majority—of the people of Northern Ireland voting to remain in the European Union.
Can the agreement actually survive Brexit? Of course it can. I have not the slightest doubt that the Good Friday agreement is as robust as it has always been. It has been challenged, but it will survive. The basic principles that underlie it of consent, parity of esteem and the other issues that we discussed during the lead-up to the Good Friday agreement have not changed. After all, people in the north and south of the island of Ireland voted for it and I have absolute confidence that, were there to be another referendum on the terms of the Good Friday agreement, north and south would vote for it again. The biggest threat is not Brexit but the fact that the institutions of Northern Ireland are not up and running. There is no Assembly. There are no north-south bodies and everything else that goes with that. That is the real threat to the Good Friday agreement.
Also—and this is important to understand because a number of noble Lords have raised it—there are strains that are having an impact on the Good Friday agreement as a result of Brexit. Of course there are. Community relations have been strained because of it. There is no question but that some nationalists and republicans believe that Brexit gives an opportunity for a border poll to achieve a united Ireland much more quickly than anybody would have thought, and there are some unionists, although by no means all, who see it as a way of securing the union and strengthening their Britishness. The border is inevitably an aspect of strain on the Good Friday agreement. It is also obviously an issue in itself, otherwise we would not as be stuck as we are at the moment trying to resolve it.
I was in Ireland last week and I travelled for the first time on the train between Dublin and Belfast—a packed train, incidentally, with not a seat available on it. As you come up to and cross the border, you do not know you are doing it. The only way I found out that we were actually in Northern Ireland was by asking my travelling companion about the number plates on the cars—and even that does not always give you the answer. It is a seamless border and there is no question but that over the past 20 years what had been a border rooted very much in security at the time when the Good Friday agreement was being signed has now gone. The border is blurred. The borders between people in the north and the south and between the peoples of the north of Ireland have been blurred—so that is without question an issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, raised an interesting point: the impact of Brexit on the Republic of Ireland will be greater than on any other country of the European Union—and in many ways greater than the impact on Northern Ireland itself. Over the past months and years we have seen the obvious technical and legal insistence by the Irish Government to be part of the 27 in the negotiations. Because Ireland knows a lot more about what happens on the island of Ireland than the European Union, there should have been more bilateral discussions between the Irish Government and the British Government. I do not have the slightest doubt on that. When we made the agreement in 1998, we were all members of the European Union; it was the backcloth to what we were doing. Right through the agreement in strands 1, 2 and 3, reference is made to the European Union and our common membership; we were in the same club. Because of that, it was much easier to make the agreement.
While I was in Ireland, both north and south, last week, I looked at the issue of security, which I am not sure has been given sufficient attention in our negotiations over the past months. The police forces on both sides of the border are deeply troubled by the possibility that any sort of border apparatus or establishments might be set up which could then be targets for attack by dissident republicans. There is no question at all but that that is a huge issue. Putting that apparatus back up would create a huge security problem, as would the absence of the European arrest warrant and the fact that we would no longer be members jointly of Europol and Eurojust. All of those things will make it more difficult to catch criminals who flee to either side of the border. These are issues that ought to be considered and I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us something about them.
This week the House gave a Second Reading to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which will have an effect on the common travel area. There is no question about that. It could mean, for example, that trains are stopped in Portadown and Newry and people’s passports checked in a way that they are not at the moment. There may be good reasons for that from a security point of view, but it is an aspect of our leaving the European Union that, again, has an impact on the very old common travel area. The idea that somehow we cannot treat Ireland differently from the rest of the European Union is negated by the fact that we do have a common travel area between our two countries and we treat the situation in a unique way that we do not elsewhere.
My noble friend Lord Dubs raised the issue of citizenship. One of the most significant aspects of the agreement is that in Northern Ireland you are able to be Irish, British, both or, I suppose, neither if you so wish. Under the new dispensation, if you are an Irish citizen holding an Irish passport but you come from Northern Ireland, presumably you are a citizen of the European Union and therefore you will be allowed all the privileges that that citizenship gives you, whether it be free movement to other countries, access to health services in France and other European nations or whatever. That of course puts the British citizen at a disadvantage who does not have European Union citizenship. That is another issue which will have to be grasped over the next few months.
Strands 2 and 3 in particular of the agreement, covering north-south and east-west, will inevitably be affected by our leaving the European Union. The north-south bodies rely heavily on European money. What will happen when the money disappears? Will the Government guarantee its replacement so that what those bodies do, reliant as they are on EU money, can continue? Also, as has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords, because of Brexit, relations between the Irish Government and the British Government are not as good as they have been. We have to ensure that those relations are dealt with and improved as the months go by.
There seem to be two problems. We are facing two major negotiations in Northern Ireland at the moment, one on Brexit and the other on the restoration of the institutions. We have no Northern Ireland Ministers having an impact on these negotiations, which is tragic. I hope that the institutions will be restored as soon as is humanly possible. I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State are now in intensive talks with the parties in Northern Ireland. They have to talk about Brexit and its impact on all the matters that have been discussed in this debate—but, most significantly, they have to ensure that over the next few months we return to the restoration of those institutions so that we can have up and running a proper Assembly and Government in Belfast which will themselves be able to deal with the issues that your Lordships have dealt with in this debate.
My Lords, I always come to the Dispatch Box with a prepared speech, but I always find, during the first half of the debate, that while that preparation may have been broadly useful, it is not necessarily instructive. I find myself again paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for calling for this debate at this time. Perhaps now more than ever, this is the critical aspect of the ongoing negotiations between the UK and the EU.
Let me try to find a way to begin the journey into the discussions we have had. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement is an historical document; it is history, and as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, has reminded us, we cannot rewrite that history. There is a quote from Seamus Heaney that is helpful here:
“If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way”.
That is where I believe we are right now. There is no doubt that, in this House, support for the Good Friday agreement is solid and sure. I am always seeking out synonyms for “steadfast” and “unwavering”, so I will add “abiding”, “unfaltering” and “resolute”, to the vocabulary I used the last time we discussed these issues. The key thing about the Good Friday agreement is that it brought about change for the good. Many noble Lords in this House were the mechanics who were instrumental to ensuring that that change could be put into writing. That in itself is an extraordinary thing.
There has been a peace dividend from the agreement. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, reminded us, anyone who has spent time in Belfast of late can cast their eyes towards the horizon and look at the cranes and gantries being used to build a new Belfast. I stood on one of the upper floors of Ulster University looking at the extraordinary investment being made in the future of the young people not just of Northern Ireland, and not even just of Europe, but across the globe as the university recruits the brightest and the best into Northern Ireland. That is an extraordinary thing.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, has been paying attention. It is indeed my first anniversary in the job. As many noble Lords will be aware, the traditional gift for an anniversary of one year is paper, and I can think of no greater paper than the White Paper which has been put forward by the Government—I gently segued that in there. But in modern parlance, the gift now being given is not paper; it is a clock. Who could think of a more telling metaphor right now than the clock as it ticks its way towards that point next March when we will reach the end of our current relationship with the EU and begin to forge a new relationship with the EU?
There has been talk in the debate of the backstop position. The backstop position, mentioned in the joint report published in December last year, has been parsed, examined and marshalled in different ways. Let me stress at the outset that the first and most important aspect of the backstop position is that it should never need to be used. The backstop is there to provide a safety net for the discussions, during which we can forge that new relationship with the EU and, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, reminded us, importantly, with Ireland itself.
I concur wholeheartedly with the noble Lord’s view that the bilateral discussion between Ireland and the UK should have been more significant. Whatever way one wishes to look at this, the EU 27 will be able to negotiate strongly together, but the island of Ireland itself is at the heart of this: it is where the rubber meets the road; it is where the border is a counter between the EU and the UK. Those discussions should have been prioritised alongside the others. They should certainly have been there.
As we consider that we are in the middle of negotiations—actually, we are not in the middle anymore, let us be frank; we are probably past the final furlong post and now in the home stretch—noble Lords will be aware of the elements of the current Chequers arrangement. That seeks to find a means to secure a common rulebook for agri-food produce and manufactured goods—again, this is the bulk of the trade which crosses the land border and, indeed, the sea border between Ireland and the UK.
Now the position which the Prime Minister has adopted has been published and is available, and the question is: what emerges then from those negotiations with the EU? There have been various different noises, all from various comments being passed, but the clear thing right now is that an agreement is in everyone’s interest. As a number of noble Lords today have pointed out, we would suffer and struggle through a bad or no-deal Brexit—there is no question of that. Ireland, too, would be at the sharpest point of its experience. It too would suffer and struggle through that particular process.
Indeed, that is why the backstop position is there: to ensure that, should we not in this particular moment be able to secure the appropriate relationship, the UK as a whole—not divided up across any internal borders—remains within the customs union until such time as we can secure the appropriate, developed, sensible relationship between the EU 27 and ourselves. Let us hope we do not need that backstop, because, at the present moment—
I did not say, “which is satisfactory to the Republic of Ireland”. I said that the situation is that, if we are unable to secure an agreement, we would then need to invoke the backstop as it was drafted in the joint report, which was published in December 2017 and is still available. That backstop position is clear: we will not allow one part of the United Kingdom to remain in some union with the rest of the EU 27 while the rest of the UK is not in such alignment. There needs to be a position whereby the UK as a whole experiences no internal divisions, no internal borders, no means which restrict the flow of goods or services across the Irish Sea or across the Irish border.
The key aspect of this, and the core aspect, is to negotiate and deliver a settlement which means that the backstop is just historical, a document which you can read, but which has never been invoked; which is instructive about our engagement with the process, but is not being moved forward because it is simply an historical document.
It is important that we recognise that Northern Ireland will remain a part of the UK, based upon the principles of consent enshrined and framed within the Good Friday agreement. Again, nothing will influence or change the language of that agreement. At that time where there is a movement in the province of Northern Ireland, the Good Friday agreement will support that movement in that particular direction. That was its purpose. That was why the agreement was so subtle and so clever in putting together that particular aspect.
It would be useful for me to spend a moment or two talking directly about the four questions which were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, because they were, in some ways, instructive. I believe I have answered the first, the question about whether Northern Ireland will be in a customs union while the rest of the UK is outside, even if only on a temporary basis. The answer to that is no.
Regarding suppression of trade, or any of these aspects, the ambition right now is to ensure that that soft border remains until such time as it is replaced by the appropriate relationship between the 27 and the one—between the UK and the remainder of the EU.
Regarding freedom of movement, there has been talk again of the common travel area. As a number of noble Lords have noted, this dates back to 1922. It will not change, and it will allow the freedom of movement of people within the island of Ireland. Now, I see the noble Lord, Lord Davies, looking quizzically at me, because he asked a very different question about that, which was about what then happens if you find an EU national who, by one means or another, finds himself in Ireland with the freedom, then, to cross the border into the north. I may be paraphrasing slightly, but I believe that is the core of it. In truth, there is a risk of that today. That is why the intelligence shared between Belfast and Dublin is so strong.
If I may answer the question first, the noble Lord can bob up afterwards. The reality remains that, right now, were someone to come into the EU via Ireland from outside the EU, they too could go to ground by crossing the border if they were so minded to do so. They would remain an illegal migrant at that particular point, and they would be unable to draw upon any of the services or opportunities of employment in the north or in the rest of the UK. I will give way.
I thank the Minister for giving way and for addressing my question, but I do not think that he has fully understood it. At the present time, that Bulgarian in my example can come here, either from Ireland or Calais, because we are part of the European Union, with a system of freedom of movement. If we leave the European Union and the area of freedom of movement, so that the citizens of the other 26 countries in the Union will not be able to come here freely as they can at the present time, and if we still have freedom of movement within the island of Ireland, then my question is clearly relevant. If the Bulgarian comes to Ireland, which he can do today quite legally, it will no longer be the case that he can come here quite legally without any formalities at all; however, he is physically able to do so because of the absence of any restrictions—rightly, in my view—either between the border of Northern and south Ireland or between Ireland and Britain.
Schengen is an important aspect, but I do not believe that Bulgaria is part of the Schengen arrangement as yet, nor is Ireland. Ireland would be responsible for tracking any individuals who cross into it as a third country, because that is broadly what they are able to do. If somebody held a Bulgarian passport, that would mean that their ability to find work in this country would be subject to the various immigration restrictions which pass for that particular passport. That is how it would work in practice. I would like to make a little bit more progress on some of the other points.
The final question which was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was how long the Government will give. I could be clichéd and say, “sufficient time”, which would be correct, in that sufficient time will indeed be given. The important thing is not to create some sense of bounce, so that the democratic institutions of this country are somehow or other caught off-guard, and, lo and behold, in the darkness of night, we are looking backwards to discover something has happened in the rear-view mirror. That is not the intention, nor the ambition. I do not doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, will make that point strongly in many other good offices as well. I think that the key thing here will be that adequate time is given to ensure that what emerges from the negotiations that will take place over the next few months will be brought back here, to the other place and to this particular Chamber, for full debate and discussion. I do not doubt, given the choppy waters that the previous Bill experienced, that there will be serious debate in both Houses, and that that debate itself will be of the highest standard. I will take the noble Lord’s point through very quickly. I am now on a time limit.
I certainly think that time will be given. Whether indeed it is two weeks and that is deemed adequate, I cannot answer. I suspect that that will ultimately be above my pay grade. What I will say and can say is that, if this House or the other place have not completed their deliberations, I do not believe either Chamber will allow this to move forward on that basis. I believe that matter will rest with your noble Lordships here and with the Members who speak in the other place too. I do not believe that we will find ourselves hustled and huckled into an agreement on such a historic, defining aspect of our relationship with the EU and our integral relationship with Northern Ireland. I do not believe that will be done in a swift, “You looked away one moment, you came back and suddenly discovered it had been done in your absence” manner. I do not believe that that will happen, because I believe that noble Lords here would not allow it to happen, nor would those who sit in the other place.
The important thing, if we can find ourselves in the right place, is to recognise a core aspect, the vision aspect, of where we are. The Government will not allow lines to be drawn that divide the component parts of home nations of the United Kingdom. That is the first red line. The EU appreciates that, I believe. It is not in its interest to try to create a situation whereby that becomes a problem.
By their very nature, negotiations are best served without a running commentary. We have had a problem over the past few months with so many commentaries running in so many directions and given by so many participants that it has been difficult for the wider public to appreciate what is going on. More importantly, as a number of noble Lords have said, there is almost a surrogacy aspect in Northern Ireland, in that the citizens of Northern Ireland find themselves the cat’s paw for bigger discussions on a particular aspect of the wider trade relationship, freedom of movement or some such thing. We are left with what is, at the heart of this, the most important thing to stress: the people of Northern Ireland are important. That is the end of the sentence. They are not important because of what they offer to other aspects of the debate. Clearly, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement must remain at the heart of our engagement with the EU.
The issue of funds was raised. Again, the EU is an important participant in the funding of the cross-border arrangements. It will continue to fund those because, of course, it will still be partly responsible. The UK will meet its obligations and responsibilities in this regard. There will be no issue of underfunding cross-border institutions to their detriment; that would be short-sighted and foolhardy. We will not move forward with something like that.
It is important to recognise that, in the coming weeks, a number of the issues that have given concern to your Lordships today will be resolved. That is the purpose of the negotiations. If the terms of the Chequers agreement, which forms the basis of the negotiations, remain as they are drafted today, I believe that they will deliver the freedom of trade that will ensure the softest possible border with the Republic.
Importantly—this will be important for our shared democratic institutions—the people have to be able to appreciate what those terms are. To go back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, we cannot bounce the public of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland or anywhere else into some sort of deal that does not stand the test of close scrutiny shining the sharpest possible light on it. The trade that passes east-west and the trade that passes north-south are absolutely integral, and it is upon those foundations that we find ourselves able to build that peace dividend. With that economic certainty, we can deliver an outcome for the people of Northern Ireland.
It is correct to say that the voices of politicians in Northern Ireland have not been heard as they should have been in the Brexit discussions. We understand the reasons for that, shameful though some of them may be. The Northern Ireland Civil Service has played a significant role in ensuring continued dialogue, but that is not how it should be. That is not what is meant to be happening; I cannot stress that enough. The key aspect over the next few weeks, during the window that will be opened by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to give the final impetus to ongoing discussions there, will be delivering an Executive. It is not too late to do that. I hope everyone here will join me in hoping that we will secure an outcome that delivers an Executive in good enough time to be part of the final stages of the Brexit deliberations and discussions.
It will not be an easy journey. I suspect that all those who have said, sometimes erroneously, that this was always going to be easy may have been slightly exaggerated in their assertion. The reality remains that this is a challenging time; it was always going to be so, frankly, because these are negotiations on such critical aspects. The EU is defining itself without the UK and the UK is defining itself outside the EU. This is the moment of maximum turbulence, as often happens just before landing on a runway. Now, the key is making sure that we land with all wheels on the runway, taxiing to a gentle stop out of which emerges a safe and secure Brexit—one that is good for Northern Ireland, Ireland and the people of the United Kingdom and which allows us the foundation to develop an important relationship, building on the one we have had for the past 40 years, with the rest of the EU. That is our ambition and where I hope we will be, but we are at the end-point of the negotiations. We may still be heading towards the runway, but the rubber has not yet met the tarmac.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who took part in the debate. I must say I found it particularly fascinating. I cannot do justice to what has been said; there were too many interesting speeches. I will just say that I hope the result of all this is that the people of Northern Ireland and the people of the Republic do not feel let down. I hope that we will bring this to a satisfactory conclusion that reflects the high aspirations of the Good Friday agreement, which will continue to be the keynote or basis for future relations in Ireland.