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Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland

Volume 811: debated on Monday 15 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland on businesses in Northern Ireland; and what progress they have made with the European Union in resolving any issues with that Protocol.

My Lords, while the UK Government have focused on pragmatic and proportionate implementation of the protocol, with extensive support for businesses, we are clear that further action is needed to address concerns about its operation. We continue to want to work with the EU to this end, focused at all times on restoring confidence across the communities of Northern Ireland.

My Lords, Northern Ireland is suffering real economic and social difficulties as a consequence of the Northern Ireland protocol creating new barriers to unfettered trade within the United Kingdom and disrupting supply lines for goods to Northern Ireland. While I welcome recent action taken by the Government to address some of these issues for the immediate future, such action will not address the long-term fundamental problems facing many businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland with this unworkable protocol. The Prime Minister needs to deliver on his promises to protect Northern Ireland’s position within the UK internal market and ensure unfettered access to goods from Great Britain. He needs to stand up for Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that the longer-term solution will eventually be to use the sovereignty of Parliament to replace the protocol altogether?

No, my Lords, I do not agree. The protocol is an important part of what we are working towards with Northern Ireland and the whole of the island. Therefore, we need to make sure the protocol will work and that all the communities of Ireland are in support of it.

Can the Minister explain why the EU could possibly think it reasonable to ban from Northern Ireland food that is legal in the UK and was legal both in the UK and in the EU when we were members of the EU? If it is because we now have a democratic right to diverge in standards, would it not be more reasonable for the EU just to wait and see if any divergence actually happens?

My Lords, as we have set out, we want to work with the EU on pragmatic, long-term arrangements for the east-west trade, and that includes ensuring a permanent solution for those things that are moving—chilled meats in particular—from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

My Lords, at the time of Brexit, the Government announced that there would be 10 free ports in the United Kingdom. Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer named eight of these free ports but not one was in Northern Ireland. We had expected Larne, Belfast or Warrenpoint to be selected. Is the Northern Ireland protocol imposed upon us by the European Union now a barrier to a free port being selected for Northern Ireland?

My Lords, I do not believe it is, but there are other parts of the United Kingdom also asking why they do not have a free port. I will take the noble Lord’s question back and give him a fuller answer on the reasons this has happened.

My Lords, rather than the EU imposing the protocol upon us, the Prime Minister claimed ownership of it. For that reason, presumably he should try, in the short term, to make it work much better than it does at the moment. Rather than sniping at each other unilaterally, can the UK and the EU, together with the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive, through the Joint Committee and in other ways, find a consensual and practical way forward?

My Lords, that is exactly what we are doing. We remain committed to our obligations under the protocol, but with a pragmatic and proportionate way intended. That is why we have made the changes we have made, and that is why we will continue to talk not only with Europe and the European Union but all the communities of Northern Ireland.

My Lords, because of the Government’s unilateral actions regarding the protocol, the European Commission is set to launch legal proceedings for infringement. The European Parliament has postponed its ratification of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and decisions on data adequacy and financial services arrangements are put in jeopardy. Is it the Government’s strategy to wreck the Northern Ireland protocol and end up with no Trade and Cooperation Agreement, hence securing the no-deal they actually wanted but will try to blame on the EU?

No, my Lords, it is not. We understand the commission will write letters of legal action, which we are considering, but we will defend our position vigorously. Our measures are all lawful.

My Lords, legal action for megaphone diplomacy will solve absolutely nothing. What is needed is proper dialogue, proper discussion and proper negotiation. There is not a scrap of evidence that any of those things is happening. Will the Minister agree to liaise with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and convene meetings with all the Northern Ireland political parties and their leaders as soon as possible? The only way through this is with the consent of all the communities and parties in Northern Ireland.

I agree with the noble Lord that that is the way forward, and that is exactly what the Government are doing.

My Lords, on Saturday, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told the Belfast News Letter that people in Northern Ireland are part of the United Kingdom and should enjoy the same products as people in the rest of the United Kingdom. I wholeheartedly support that position. Does my noble friend therefore agree that if the operation of the protocol is preventing that from happening, urgent change is required? Does she further agree that it is now EU intransigence on this subject that is destabilising the position in Northern Ireland and undermining unionist confidence in the Belfast agreement?

My noble friend is absolutely right. We need to respond to the outstanding concerns of the protocol, but we must be able to command confidence across the whole community, and that is why we have set out the need to take forward work here in the Joint Committee. All sides must take account of the political sensitivities and the realities on the ground.

My Lords, the Prime Minister made a welcome visit to Northern Ireland a few days ago, when he made it very clear that the protocol had to be supported by both communities. Does the Minister understand that the pro-union community and all three unionist parties in Northern Ireland totally oppose the protocol? Will she accept that tinkering will not change that view and that, ultimately, the protocol is not sustainable and will have to go?

No, the Government do not agree with the noble Baroness. We are not tinkering; we are listening to businesses and putting in place obligations and changes so that businesses can survive and the communities of Northern Ireland have the exact same services as the rest of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the priority is, beyond doubt, the preservation of the peace process and the Good Friday agreement. It follows that there must be no hard border across the island of Ireland. Is a sea border between the EU and Great Britain possible? As we have Brexit, there will have to be a Northern Ireland protocol. That is why the protocol must be maintained, and we must ensure that it works by having continual meetings.

The noble Baroness is right; we must continue with meetings because the protocol is pragmatic and proportionate, and it takes account of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions—north, south, east and west.

Does the Minister accept that the Prime Minister knew, when he promised unfettered access during the election campaign, that that was untrue, which was even confirmed by the Government’s website at the time? Is not the reality, as other noble Lords have said, that the protocol can be maintained only by abandoning hostile diplomacy and unilateral sustained breaches of signed agreements and engaging in a constructive, long-term relationship to reduce friction that cannot simply be eliminated by Northern Ireland’s dual status?

My Lords, I am going to repeat myself again: the important thing with Northern Ireland is that we keep talking, both with the communities of the island and with the European Union, to make sure that this protocol works.