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Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland: Border Controls

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 4 February 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the impact on the operation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland of (1) the withdrawal of local and European Union officials from border control posts in Northern Ireland, and (2) the suspension of inspections on goods entering Northern Ireland at the Ports of Belfast and Larne.

My Lords, I know that the whole House will join me in strongly condemning all threats and intimidation. These will never guide the actions of Her Majesty’s Government. But there has been strong concern right across the community at the EU’s actions on Friday. Urgent action is now needed to restore confidence and address outstanding issues with the protocol, which we will take forward urgently with the EU next week.

My Lords, while all intimidation by members of paramilitary groups must be totally condemned, does my noble friend agree that the strength of feeling in Northern Ireland is the entirely predictable consequence of the one-sided approach adopted by the European Commission, which has only ever seen these issues from an Irish nationalist perspective? Indeed, I warned Monsieur Barnier directly of this when I saw him in June 2018. Does my noble friend agree that the time has come for the Commission to show flexibility, pragmatism and sensitivity over the implementation of the protocol, respecting all parts of the Belfast agreement and the constitutional and economic integrity of our United Kingdom? If it does not, then surely the Government must consider more robust measures.

My Lords, I underline what I said in my first Answer. It is clearly hugely disappointing and surprising to many that the EU proposed to take such a significant step without any notification—indeed, without even notifying the Irish Government. I profoundly agree with my noble friend that it now behoves us all to take appropriate and lasting action to address the questions of concern.

My Lords, Michael Gove has said that the problems with the protocol are not just teething problems. What did he mean by that? Does he now recognise that the protocol was a flawed document in many ways but that repudiation would be a political disaster and, indeed, a longer period of grace on its own would not resolve the problems? What is needed now is not a blame game but an intense period of co-operation between the officials of all four jurisdictions to make the total system work, north-south and east-west.

My Lords, I agree that we need practical and urgent action. I certainly do not engage in any blame game; I simply draw attention to the fact that it was the EU that invoked Article 16.

My Lords, the threats against port staff in Larne and Belfast are totally unacceptable, as is the graffiti that has been sprayed on Alliance Party offices, including on the office of my friend Stephen Farry MP. Does the Minister agree that it is time for calm language and concentrating on finding practical solutions to make the protocol work for all, such as working to achieve an EU-UK veterinary agreement, which would genuinely UK food producers?

I strongly agree with the noble Baroness’s remarks about violence. The safety of staff at our ports is our top priority and we are engaging actively with the PSNI to understand and follow the situation. Again, I would agree with her that it is now incumbent on all parties, including the EU, to address practical and lasting solutions to the issues that remain.

I applaud the Minister’s answers. I am sure he is right. I am also sure that the joint committee could agree and will agree extensions of the grace periods until trusted trader schemes are up and running. However, SPS checks, which we agreed, and some supermarket shortages cannot possibly constitute the exceptional circumstances that annexe 7 to the protocol says would be required before Article 16 action was envisaged. Yet we have—the Prime Minister has, on 13 January and again yesterday—clearly threatened Article 16 action. Does the Minister believe that, if we were to destroy the protocol, the European Parliament would proceed to ratify the trade treaty?

My Lords, I am not going to follow the noble Lord in a litany of “what ifs”. We should address “what now”, and the EU has a responsibility to help to address that.

My Lords, the red tape of the protocol has made much business between GB and Northern Ireland uneconomic. EU spokespersons have publicly advised that the way in which to avoid the cost of the checks is to source more goods, particularly food, from the south. Is not the risk that the Northern Ireland economy will gradually drift away from the UK single market and east-west trade will be increasingly replaced by north-south trade? That will have potentially profound political implications. Is it not that which is alarming people? I ask my noble friend to confirm that, if these matters cannot be sorted out through the joint committee, the Government will not rule out unilateral action.

My Lords, the position of businesses and the impact on them are obviously something that the Government monitor and watch with concern. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has told Vice-President Šefčovič that our focus must be on making the protocol work in the interests of people and businesses in Northern Ireland. As to the last part of my noble friend’s question, I do not resile from, indeed I support strongly, what the Prime Minister said in the other place yesterday.

My Lords, cool heads and dialogue are needed in such difficult circumstances between all the institutions of the UK, Ireland, Northern Ireland and the EU. I welcome the joint statement’s commitment yesterday to the Good Friday agreement and to avoiding disruption to the everyday lives of the people of Northern Ireland. What further changes to arrangements for the movement of goods arising out of the joint committee agreement of 17 December are still to be enacted, and when will they be?

My Lords, this is an ongoing process and obviously, as the noble Earl will know, my right honourable friend sent a further letter to Vice-President Šefčovič this week embracing a wide range of matters that we believe need to be addressed. However, I certainly agree with the noble Earl’s original remark that cool heads are required in this situation.

My Lords, while condemning the intimidation aimed at border control staff and deeply regretting the European Commission’s attempt to invoke Article 16 or, indeed, any attempt to do so, does the Minister agree that what is now needed is calm negotiation between the Commission and the Government and, above all else, between the political parties and their respective leaders in Northern Ireland itself?

I strongly agree with the tone of the noble Lord’s remarks and recognise his experience and wisdom in this area.

My Lords, some of the disarray of recent days is a result of the insistence of the EU and the acceptance by the British and Irish Governments that all significant bilateral issues must be dealt with by UK-EU meetings instead of British-Irish meetings. How many times has the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference established under the Good Friday agreement met since the triggering of Article 50? What were the dates and venues of those meetings? If the Minister is unable to provide that information at the moment, which I would understand, will he write to me and put a copy of the letter in the Library?

I certainly undertake to do that. The noble Lord has asked a number of detailed points and I will write to him, but while I am on my feet, I will say that I believe that the Irish/UK strand is an important one that might help in assisting to resolve some of these problems.

Is the recent imposition by the EU of a land border between southern and Northern Ireland, for however brief a period, by invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol and without even informing the parties to the agreement, including the Irish Prime Minister, a serious violation of the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, to which the EU claimed to attach so much importance during the withdrawal negotiations?

My Lords, I believe that it is highly regrettable, and this point was made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister yesterday. We should all attach importance to the Good Friday agreement and I hope that the Commission will now give lasting attention to that point.

My Lords, I join other colleagues in condemning the intimidation. Northern Ireland has been used shamelessly by the EU and others as a political football during the recent negotiations. However, to what degree are Her Majesty’s Government prepared to look at genuinely at alternatives that can be negotiated with the European Union and with the parties in Northern Ireland, and will those parties be properly consulted about the way forward? I ask this because many feel that they have been ignored.

My Lords, my noble friend has made an important point and he is quite right about the involvement of the parties. One of the sad aspects of this has been the bypassing of the parties in Northern Ireland. My right honourable friend set out a detailed set of proposals which are in the public domain, and he has indicated in those that if it is not possible to agree a way forward in the way we have proposed, the UK will consider using all the instruments at its disposal.

My Lords, the Irish protocol does of course contain the flexibilities that can resolve this impasse and it is a treaty that is backed by Parliament. Surely the Government must accept that the chaos facing many Northern Ireland businesses trading across the Irish Sea is the predictable consequence of their hard Brexit stance, which is backed enthusiastically by the DUP, coupled with the Prime Minister’s ludicrous promises of unfettered access from day one. It is no good complaining about the protocol when it is the consequence of the very hard Brexit that the Tories and the DUP wanted, despite Northern Ireland voting decisively against that.

My Lords, we have moved from “what if?” through to “what now?” to “what then?” The fact is that a decision was made by the British people to leave the EU customs territory and the single market, and we must proceed having accepted that solution.

Will the Government follow the precedent they set after our formal withdrawal from the EU with regard to the transition period and lay down with the EU a firm deadline for the reform of the protocol as a stage towards its replacement by arrangements that are capable of commanding the confidence of our fellow country men and women in Northern Ireland, as the protocol patently cannot?

My Lords, I will not anticipate from this Dispatch Box what might be the progress of negotiations. I take note of the point made by my noble friend, given his great experience. In the first instance, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Maroš Šefčovič must get together to address, we hope, the substantial range of points set out in the Chancellor’s letter.

I too condemn all threats made against anyone in Northern Ireland, including the previous threats made by republicans against those working on the Irish border. Last week, the European Union showed no regard for Northern Ireland. It demolished the rationale behind the Northern Ireland protocol, lowered the bar for the triggering of Article 16 and demonstrated its one-sided, pro-nationalist approach by disregarding the Belfast agreement. Does the Minister agree that the problems are real, having been brought about not by the Government and the parties in Northern Ireland but by those who, like the noble Lord, Lord Hain, advocated the Northern Ireland protocol? They need to be fixed either through renegotiation or through action by the Government. Will he robustly defend the need for this Parliament and Government to protect the internal market of the United Kingdom?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. I will end as I began, by condemning all violence and threats of violence. Flexibilities have been invoked. They are required on both sides, as are pragmatism and proportionality. In the negotiation, we need to provide a reassurance that all parties will respect the basis on which the protocol was agreed. That includes full recognition of Northern Ireland’s status as an integral part of the United Kingdom, respecting its place in the UK’s customs territory and internal market and recognising the integral social, economic and cultural ties that bind the UK as a whole, and safeguarding the streamlined flow of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland on which so many lives and livelihoods rely. We are also respecting the need to maintain the support of both communities. That is our objective and it is the one to which Her Majesty’s Government are dedicated. I hope sincerely that our counterparties in the European Union will address the same agenda.