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Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland: Power-sharing

Volume 814: debated on Thursday 16 September 2021


Asked by

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what assessment Her Majesty’s Government have made of the operation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland on power sharing in Northern Ireland and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

My Lords, the Government’s position on this matter is set out in the Command Paper we published on 21 July. In brief, the Government are indeed concerned that the operation of the protocol is causing political instability in Northern Ireland and risks undermining the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is why we wish to negotiate significant changes to its operation on the basis of the proposals in our Command Paper. We are, of course, discussing these issues with the EU.

I welcome Her Majesty’s Government recognising that the east-west dimension of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement has been broken by the protocol, which has led to destabilisation of all the institutions in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister understand that many people in Northern Ireland are saying that Her Majesty’s Government must actually choose, very soon, between the protocol and making the devolved institutions carry on successfully?

My Lords, the institutions in Northern Ireland are, of course, extremely important, including for delivery in a range of domestic policy areas—health, transport and so on—and it is important they are robust and continue. We absolutely recognise the frustration with the current situation, which is leading to the build-up of tensions and pressures on the institutions that we are seeing. That is why we need to find durable solutions to the protocol and the trading situation in Northern Ireland that will be a reasonable settlement consistent with the integrity of the UK and the UK’s internal market.

My Lords, given the rising political temperature in Belfast, does my noble friend agree that it would be a supreme and tragic irony if the EU’s implementation of a protocol that it insists is necessary to preserve the Belfast agreement actually became an instrument for the destruction of that agreement, which I would deeply deplore? Does he share my concern that if the institutions were to fall again at Stormont, it could take very many years for them to be restored, if at all?

My Lords, I very much agree with the thrust of my noble friend’s question. Protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is our top priority; it was the overriding purpose of the protocol and it is why we are so concerned about the destabilising character of the way it is being implemented. Actually, I recognise and welcome the signals that the EU is beginning to understand this and reflect on it, but we still need solutions based on the ideas for significant change that were in our Command Paper.

There clearly is a general and continuing sense in Northern Ireland that its fate is still being decided over its head—that it is not being fully involved or consulted. That was presumably why Commission Vice-President Šefčovič said in Belfast last week,

“let’s see how to involve the people of Northern Ireland in our discussions on the implementation of the protocol.”

The noble Lord’s White Paper talks about the need to give Northern Ireland a greater role in discussions under the protocol, but we do not actually need to change the protocol to do that. Does he agree that when the joint committee considers future single-market laws on devolved subjects, members of the Northern Ireland Executive should play the leading role in the UK delegation?

The noble Lord is correct, of course, that the issue of involving political opinion and institutions in Northern Ireland is for the UK Government. We do that, and the Northern Ireland Executive attend the joint committee when the Irish Government attend on the EU side, which is always the case. I think the EU should exercise caution in suggesting that Northern Ireland parties or political opinion should take part in the EU’s own institutions and decision-making procedures in this area: I do not think that would be consistent with the sort of arrangement we want in the future. The protocol is a treaty between two parties, the UK and the EU, and supporting arrangements need to be consistent with that.

My Lords, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, does the Minister now regret signing up to the Northern Ireland protocol without prior consultation of the political parties in Northern Ireland?

My Lords, as I think is well known, there was at the time in 2019 quite a degree of consultation as we developed our negotiating position but, unfortunately, the outcome of that process and the positions taken by different parties are well known. We did the right thing for the country in putting in place an agreement that delivered a full and fair Brexit but, unfortunately, that agreement has not been implemented in the way we hoped it would, and that is why it needs to change.

My Lords, the Minister was extremely frank in the debate on Monday afternoon about the origins of the Northern Ireland protocol. I for one was grateful for that and, dare I say, for his slight change of tone. In a previous life as chair of ACAS, I would advise the parties to say as little as possible, to maximise the possibility of agreement, so I am aware of the irony of asking him a question, and I will make it a full toss if that helps. Does he agree that the top priorities are peace in Northern Ireland, good relations with the Irish Republic, and assisting those very impressive businesspeople in Northern Ireland that the EU Select Committee and its successor have spent the last two years getting to know?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is obviously correct that it can be helpful to say as little as possible when you are trying to find solutions. This is obviously a matter of considerable political interest on all sides and what we say has to reflect that. I very much agree that the top priority is peace—protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—but the other aims she mentions are extremely important. It is our job as a Government to promote peace and prosperity for everybody in Northern Ireland.

If our friends, neighbours and allies across the channel, or indeed on the island of Ireland, are not willing to compromise and make changes to this agreement, is it not time to withdraw unilaterally from the protocol, before the political and trading chaos in that part of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland—gets worse or, as we have heard, before the entire Belfast agreement collapses?

My Lords, we have set out our position in the Command Paper. We are very clear that the conditions for Article 16 safeguards are met, but we think the right way forward is to see whether we can find a consensual solution with the EU. That is what we are trying very hard to do and will continue to do. Consensual solutions are likely to be the solutions that stick—but, if we cannot find a consensual solution, we will have to go down other routes, as my noble friend notes.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the protocol is a breach of the Belfast agreement, that it may undermine that agreement and bring about the closure of devolved government within weeks, and that it may even, worse still, lead to violence on the streets? Does the Minister recall that the Belfast agreement, signed by both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, stated that it would be wrong to make any change to the status of Northern Ireland, save with the consent of the majority of its people? Were the people of Northern Ireland consulted about this protocol? If not, was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland advised in advance of its contents before Her Majesty’s Government agreed it with the European Union?

My Lords, the question involves a lot of rather complex issues and I feel I cannot really do justice to it in the time available. The overriding purpose of the protocol is to support the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and it is a matter of great regret to us that it is being implemented in a way that is undermining that agreement and causing many of the problems that the noble Lord mentions. The protocol is clear that nothing in it infringes the territorial integrity of the UK or its internal market, or our customs territory; the problem is that, in practice, those requirements are not necessarily being put in place as fully as we would wish. That is why we need to find solutions that deal with these problems definitively and consensually, if we can, so that we can move on.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed, with apologies to those noble Lords still waiting to put their questions.