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Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 24 June 2021


Asked by

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what steps he is taking to promote bilateral negotiations with the European Union to facilitate the implementation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

My Lords, the Government are working hard and in good faith to resolve outstanding issues with the Northern Ireland protocol, including by providing the EU with more than a dozen detailed proposals on the way forward. We continue to look to make progress in these discussions, but the situation is now urgent. If we cannot find solutions, we have to consider all options to meet our obligations to support peace, prosperity and stability in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, in the light of the encouraging report last night that there is a prospect of agreement with the EU on extending the grace period in Northern Ireland in certain areas, can the Minister confirm that the Government have abandoned threats of unilateral action as a fruitless negotiating tactic and intend henceforth to solve problems through the dispute resolution mechanisms agreed within the protocol?

My Lords, we continue to discuss the grace period for chilled meats with the European Commission. It is not yet resolved and there are still a number of issues to sort out. We will continue to consider all our options on this or any other matter if we cannot resolve them by consensus.

The question of trust is important in these negotiations. Trust is required on all sides. The protocol is, in our view, not being operated in the pragmatic and proportionate way we hoped for when we agreed it. If we are to establish trust between us again, we need to operate it in that fashion.

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord understands the fragility of the situation in Northern Ireland due to the protocol. I hope that he also understands the feeling that I saw at the rally in Newtownards last week. People feel not just angry but desperately upset and saddened that they have been neglected by their Government. Can the Minister answer what criteria Her Majesty’s Government will use to judge when the protocol is not realising its objective, in Article 1, to protect the Belfast agreement in all its dimensions, not just north/south—which sticks out strongly for the Irish Government—but east/west too?

My Lords, the question asked by the noble Baroness is obviously a very political one. It is important to bring political judgment to these questions, rather than mechanical criteria. It is clear that we have already seen political turbulence in Northern Ireland and that the delicate balance of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement risks being disrupted. We keep this matter under close review and recognise a clear responsibility to act in support of stability and security in Northern Ireland, if necessary.

My Lords, earlier this week, the Irish Government said that they would “go the extra mile” to find solutions to the problems caused by the protocol. In welcoming that intervention, does my noble friend agree that it would also help if the Irish Government impressed on their EU partners the extent to which implementation of the protocol is now fuelling political instability in Northern Ireland, and that solutions are urgently needed if we are to avoid the situation deteriorating to the extent that it threatens the institutions established under the 1998 agreement?

My Lords, I very much agree with the sentiments expressed by my noble friend. We welcome the intervention and statement referred to by the Irish Government; we should all go the extra mile to find solutions to problems. I urge all EU member states to look carefully at the situation in Northern Ireland and consider whether they can support durable and pragmatic solutions to restore the balance in Northern Ireland and support the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is certainly what we will be doing.

My Lords, the Minister may have seen that his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, told the Irish Times that the UK Government should “tell the truth” and implement the “legally binding” Northern Ireland protocol, adding that

“the problem at heart is not the sausages you get from Sainsbury’s but the porkies that we all get, home and abroad, from Downing Street.”

Is it not the case that honesty from the Government about what they have negotiated, signed and ratified would be a good start in finding that durable and pragmatic solution to which the Minister just referred, with maximum flexibility?

My Lords, I have the highest respect for the expertise of my noble friend Lord Patten on Northern Ireland. I read his speech in full this morning; it is extremely interesting. I note that he urges the European Union to show flexibility in some areas, for example areas where we have pressed for flexibility such as the trusted trader scheme and pharmaceuticals. I do not believe that the conclusions he draws from the Brexit process, as it affects Northern Ireland, are correct. It is important that all those commenting on the situation in Northern Ireland show responsibility in the way they do so. If I may say so, the tone of some of his comments in that speech was not entirely consistent with that.

My Lords, today is the fifth anniversary of when the British people had the temerity to vote to be free of the restrictions of the EU. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to arrive at a mutually beneficial settlement on the Northern Ireland protocol, particularly for the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland but also for those of Great Britain. What concerns me about these negotiations is whether both sides are negotiating in good faith. I hope my noble friend can reassure me that they are and that the EU is not trying to punish the British people for their determination to leave the EU.

I give both sides the courtesy of believing that they are negotiating in good faith. I am sure they are but, as I said frequently in the negotiations last year, the European Union spent a bit too much time speculating on our intentions and not looking at actions and what we said. To turn that principle around, we look at the actions of the European Union on Northern Ireland and the things it does and says about the protocol. Those actions and words, in the way we are operating the protocol, cause the difficulties we are facing, so I urge, as we always do, thought about pragmatic and proportionate solutions as the way forward.

My Lords, on 7 November 2019, the Prime Minister said of the Northern Ireland protocol:

“There will be no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind.”

Can the Minister say how the Prime Minister reached that conclusion?

At the time, we faced the need to find pragmatic and proportionate ways to implement the protocol in a balanced way, respecting all the dimensions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—east-west, as well as north-south. If we are to find a solution, it will be in re-establishing that balance and making sure that east-west trade is subject to as few difficulties as possible, so that the balance in these arrangements can be re-established.

My Lords, in answer to an earlier question, the noble Lord, Lord Frost, said that these were matters of political judgment. Indeed, his political judgment brought us the Northern Ireland protocol which he negotiated in the first place. I want to look forward on the subject of how this will work. Has he yet had the opportunity to read the written evidence to the inquiry that our Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland Sub-Committee is undertaking? If not, I urge him to do so. I particularly refer him to the submissions from the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group and from Queen’s University, Belfast. If he has not read those, he really must do so, because they look at a pragmatic, best-interests way forward. Surely any judgment is best made on the basis of facts, not just of political views.

My Lords, I have indeed looked at that evidence. It is extremely interesting in all kinds of ways. Obviously, we talk directly to many of the groups which have submitted evidence. When I look at the views expressed by the business group, I am struck that it recommends solutions which we ourselves have put forward. We have put forward a proposal for the veterinary agreement based on equivalence, for a trusted trader scheme, for arrangements for pharmaceuticals, and so on. I think we have a good common understanding of the problems. The difficulty is in developing a constructive negotiation that gets us towards solutions.