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Northern Ireland: Jewish Community

Volume 813: debated on Wednesday 14 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to address the concerns expressed by the Jewish community in Northern Ireland about its future as a result of the operation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

My Lords, we recognise the concerns raised on this matter. It is a positive step that it was possible to agree with the EU a sensible extension on chilled meats moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland until 30 September this year. This extension means that Northern Ireland consumers will continue to be able to buy chilled meat products, including kosher products, from Great Britain, and allows for further discussions to continue on a permanent basis.

My Lords, the Jewish community in Belfast and Northern Ireland has made, and continues to make, a very rich and compelling contribution to the life of our country. Indeed, the sixth President of the State of Israel, Chaim Herzog, was born in my former constituency in north Belfast, and his son Isaac is the current President of the State of Israel. Very worryingly, the Chief Rabbi and Jewish leaders in Belfast have expressed great concerns about the operation of the protocol and the continued viability of the Jewish community. The Prime Minister has also expressed concerns. The Minister referred to a grace period, but that runs out in September. Will he give a guarantee that, in all circumstances, he and the Government will take whatever measures are necessary to guarantee the supply of kosher food into Northern Ireland for the Jewish community?

The noble Lord makes some very good points: it is vital that we find a way to ensure that goods flow as freely as possible between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where they are destined for Northern Ireland consumers, while ensuring that goods moving onward into the EU are subject to the appropriate requirements to ensure that EU rules are observed and the single market protected. On the noble Lord’s point about the Jewish community, it is a key focus for government to support that community. I take note of the points he raises and, although I cannot give a guarantee, every effort is being made to move forward and find solutions to these problems.

My Lords, it is vital that Jewish people in Northern Ireland can practise all aspects of their religion, including access to kosher food. It is deeply regrettable that the Government have so far failed to deliver a practical, long-term solution in the form of a veterinary agreement. The Governments of Switzerland and New Zealand have managed to secure such an agreement with the EU. What does the Minister intend to do to ensure that freedom of religion for Jewish communities in Northern Ireland is protected through a veterinary agreement?

The Jewish community has played an integral role in shaping the journey and identity of this nation, particularly in Northern Ireland. Our society is richer for its diversity and the Jewish community is proud and shining testament to that. In answer to the noble Baroness’s question, as I said earlier, every effort is being made. UK and EU officials are engaging multiple times each week to discuss the issues around the implementation of the protocol. We also meet the EU regularly under the formal protocol joint and special committee structure, with the most recent meeting of the joint committee having taken place last month.

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that if the Government had carried out a full impact assessment on the Northern Ireland protocol before agreeing to it, many of these culturally sensitive issues would have been highlighted? To push further on the EU-UK veterinary agreement, does he not agree that this is yet another issue that could be resolved by signing up to such an agreement?

I do not agree with some of the points that the noble Baroness makes, because the protocol was really a compromise. It was always clear that it was a delicate balance designed, crucially, to support the Good Friday agreement and to maintain Northern Ireland’s place in the UK while protecting the EU single market. The question, of course, is how it is applied. I point out to her that under the detail of the protocol, it is not simply about putting a goods and customs border in place between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. For example, Article 6(2) says that the UK and EU

“shall use their best endeavours to facilitate the trade between Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom … with a view to avoiding controls at the ports and airports of Northern Ireland to the extent possible”,

so we need to look at that.

My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Dodds made clear, the Jewish community has made a huge contribution to the city of Belfast, including providing a unionist Lord Mayor as far back as 1899. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that it would be both tragic and outrageous if this latest crazy manifestation of the EU’s implementation of the protocol now forces that community to leave Northern Ireland altogether? How do supplies of kosher food to a small Jewish population in any way threaten the integrity of the EU single market?

I do not disagree with my noble friend’s last point. Again, the Jewish community has made an important contribution to society in Northern Ireland. It is essential that that community receives the kosher products that it requires, for eating and for religious purposes. A key focus is to support the community in this respect. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, it is vital that we find a way forward to ensure that these goods flow smoothly.

My Lords, why was this important issue not addressed by the Government and their supporters before now? Can the Minister tell us what meetings were held with the Jewish community in Northern Ireland when the protocol was being negotiated by this Government, and what did the Government tell that community about how they would avoid the impeded access to kosher food, which has a serious impact on the legally protected human right of religious practice? If the Government will not solve this through a veterinary agreement, as I and many others are calling for, how will they solve it through negotiating a specific exemption? The Government must pursue one route or the other.

I do not have any information to hand as to what meetings took place at the point when the protocol was being negotiated. However, I can tell the noble Baroness that the Secretary of State met the Jewish community last week and impressed upon it that the Government were urgently seeking solutions to the flow of important goods for that group.

Although I welcome the extension for chilled meats between GB and Northern Ireland, we are just kicking the can down the road. Will my noble friend give a commitment that we will negotiate an SPS agreement, such as has been agreed between New Zealand and the EU? Will he further give the House a commitment today that there is no threat to the availability of kosher or other such foods from the protocol or any other legislation currently before the House, such as the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill?

My noble friend’s question takes us slightly beyond the immediate subject. However, on supplies to supermarkets, which I think is the gist of her question, a lot of work has gone on to ensure that supplies continue to fill their shelves in Northern Ireland. We announced in March that arrangements for supermarkets and their suppliers who are trusted traders supplying food will continue until October, meaning that they do not need to complete health certificate paperwork. But as they have made clear to us, notwithstanding the considerable government investment to support these efforts, there are still some real challenges to sort out.

My Lords, the diverse country that Northern Ireland has become over recent decades is a source of great local pride but, as the noble Lords, Lord Dodds and Lord Caine, have said, there is nothing new about the special place that the Jewish community holds in Ulster, which dates back to the mid-18th century. Speaking at a Policy Exchange event last week, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, said:

“None of us can tolerate or be willing to accept”

a threat to the Province’s Jewish community because of the protocol. If that is the case, why did the Prime Minister choose to sign up to it?

As I said earlier, the protocol was a compromise. We agreed something exceptional, it is fair to say, to control goods moving within our own country in the interest of peace—to apply EU law in our own country without any democratic say beyond a vote, as the House will know, in four years’ time. Again, that was in the interest of peace. No other country has agreed to such a thing and if it is to be sustainable, it must operate in a pragmatic and proportionate way—not just like any other external border of the single market.

My Lords, there is a joke that the structure of Jewish holidays can be simply put as: “They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat”, so availability of kosher food is important, especially to a small community as in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right honourable Brandon Lewis, is a true friend of the community, and I am grateful, as has been said, that he found time to meet the Chief Rabbi and the Board of Deputies last week. However, can my noble friend the Minister assure me that the department will do whatever it can to resolve this issue and allow the Jewish community to celebrate, and eat?

Perhaps a discussion on the importance of eating is for a separate debate but I take the first point that my noble friend made with the due seriousness it deserves. We are mindful that many communities in Northern Ireland have specialised foods which are deeply important to their culture and spiritual beliefs, and we will always act to ensure that these are adequately supplied. However, I assure my noble friend that, in the supermarkets we have been in touch with, we are pleased to note that there is no disruption at this time, although there were specific issues during Passover which he will know about, and which DAERA and Defra, working together, helped the sector to navigate.