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Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 15 July 2021


Asked by

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what steps Her Majesty’s Government will take to promote the benefits and opportunities of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I have spoken to many businesses and business organisations in Northern Ireland about this issue. The reality is that Northern Ireland’s economic links are overwhelmingly with the rest of the UK, rather than with Ireland or other EU members. The way that the protocol is currently operating means that any economic benefits it may generate for some are more than counterbalanced in general by the barriers it currently creates between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Has the Minister met the new Minister for the Economy in Northern Ireland, Invest NI and other promotional agencies, including the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce, and, if not, when will he meet them? Is he aware that in its latest quarterly review, the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce said that 67% of its members believed that

“Northern Ireland’s unique status post EU Exit presents opportunities for the region”

and that 47% believe that

“Northern Ireland’s trading status will present benefits for their business”?

That includes Northern Ireland biggest wine wholesaler, which said in today’s newspaper that business has grown exponentially due to the new trading arrangements.

My Lords, I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting the new Economy Minister in Northern Ireland, although I expect to do so soon. To be fair, there is a range of opinion on the benefits of the protocol, even in the business community in Northern Ireland. All I can say is that I do not think I have spoken to a representative of that community who has not expressed some concern about the barriers that are placed on movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The degree of concern may vary, but it is always there, and it is a matter of significant concern to us, too.

My Lords, as one who has consistently pressed for the defects in the Northern Ireland protocol to be remedied, I very much look forward to seeing the Government’s proposals on the way forward next week. Does my noble friend agree that a good start would be to remind the EU of its obligations to ensure that the protocol

“should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland”,

as well as

“the importance of maintaining the integral place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom's internal market.”?

My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend’s comments. It is very clear that the obligations set out in the protocol to which he refers are not being fully met at the moment. There clearly is an impact on the everyday life of communities in Northern Ireland, goods are clearly not circulating as freely as they could or should, and we need to find a new balance in this question. We will be setting out our proposals to that effect next week.

My Lords, will the Minister clarify the highly charged phrase that he and a director in the Cabinet Office used before the Lords protocol sub-committee yesterday—namely, that the European Union “dropped” 800 new measures on Northern Ireland last week without notice? Are those measures technical amendments to the existing legislative instruments that apply mainly through Annexe 2 to the protocol, or are they new legislative instruments that the EU thinks should apply to Northern Ireland? In either case, can he explain how the Northern Ireland Assembly, as the legislature responsible for implementing them, is being kept informed of such developments?

My Lords, I do not think that was highly charged language; I think it was an accurate description of the situation when we received a communication containing 600 to 800 pieces of legislation and pages. That is a significant event. New legislation not within scope of the protocol is obviously covered in a different way; this is obviously legislation that is within scope. Technical amendments can of course be quite significant, and the task of assessing that and ensuring that we understand the statute book in Northern Ireland is significant. That is why we should like more warning, more process and more discussion of this matter.

Can my noble friend confirm that the overall balance of benefits and disadvantages of the protocol is tilted against Northern Ireland at present, given that Northern Ireland trades more with the rest of the United Kingdom than with the Republic of Ireland, the rest of the world and the European Union put together, a phenomenal statistic that should always be borne in mind? Does he agree that firm action needs to be taken to deal not only with that trade imbalance but the societal and political instability which also need to be taken into account when one assesses the benefits and disadvantages of the protocol?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. The balance of advantages and benefits in the protocol is not solely economic, although the economic links are clearly very strong with Great Britain. They are to do with society, politics and the sense of identity, which, it seems, has been undermined in places by the operation of the protocol. It is reasonable to take that into account in our overall assessment. Diversion of trade, societal disturbances and so on are obviously very important factors when we come to consider what action is necessary in this matter.

Yesterday, the Minister told the Northern Ireland Sub-Committee that in his view the protocol was causing societal disruption and weakening of identity, as well as trade friction. If he is right, it is vital that Her Majesty’s Government do nothing to make that precarious situation worse. Does he agree that any trade arrangements involving significant relaxation of import checks could make his problems with the protocol harder to resolve, and will he therefore ensure that the impact on communities in Northern Ireland is properly taken into account by his colleague, the International Trade Secretary?

We agree, of course, that it is very important that the situation in Northern Ireland remains calm, and we are very glad that it has. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is a high level of political concern about the situation that currently subsists. It is very important that all of us—this Government, the European Union and everybody else with an interest—act to respond to that political difficulty and show that we can respond politically and solve problems that have arisen, rather than suggest that they do not exist.

I am puzzled by the Minister’s reply to the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie—it almost sounded as if he is not very proud of his protocol. It seemed to me and to many in Scotland that Mrs Foster had a point when she talked about the best of both worlds. However, looking ahead, there clearly is a problem with the democratic deficit in relation to new EU single-market laws applicable in Northern Ireland thanks to the protocol. How does the Minister propose to mitigate this problem? Does he agree that the Partnership Council and the parliamentary partnership assembly could play some role and will the Government endorse strong Northern Ireland representation in both?

My Lords, I learned a good deal of what I know of negotiation at the feet of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, so wherever we have got to is at least in part thanks to his tutelage over the years. On the issue of the parliamentary partnership assembly and the Partnership Council, the parliamentary assembly is, of course, a matter for Parliament. We are in close touch with those involved as to how it should work but its composition is not a matter for the Government, although we obviously strongly support its work. On the institutions created by the withdrawal agreement and the TCA, we seek to ensure that all the devolved Administrations, including Northern Ireland, can participate in the most appropriate way.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has just said, it is a peculiarity of our times that the Opposition Benches are left to defend the imperfect protocol that the Minister himself negotiated. Does the Minister agree with Julian Smith, who said in May this year that Northern Ireland is in a

“unique position … compared to other parts of the UK to maximise two major markets, Britain and the EU”?

Do the Government have an action plan to promote these opportunities for businesses in Northern Ireland?

My Lords, I obviously have the highest respect for my right honourable friend Mr Smith but the problem with that analysis comes back to the point made earlier that Northern Ireland’s economic links are overwhelmingly with the rest of the UK. A bargain in which there is greater access to a smaller part of the trade in return for difficulties with the larger part is obviously not a bargain that totally stacks up.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the third Question to the Minister of State and I call the noble Lord, Lord Liddle.