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Northern Ireland Protocol

Volume 814: debated on Wednesday 13 October 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the speech made by Lord Frost on 12 October 2021, what plans they have to change the Northern Ireland Protocol.

My Lords, the objective of the Northern Ireland protocol was to support the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It is now undermining it. I set out our proposals to change these arrangements to this House and in a Command Paper on 21 July. We expect written proposals from the Commission today in response to the current difficulties. I hope that we can resolve this situation by agreement but, if we are to do so, we will need to see significant change to the current arrangements.

My Lords, I want to ask the Minister two questions. First, apart from with the DUP, what consultation have the Government undertaken in Northern Ireland to lead the Minister to threaten to breach the protocol? The chief executive of Manufacturing NI says that

“no one in business has raised the issue of the ECJ oversight as a problem … It is purely a political and sovereignty issue, and not a practical or business issue.”

Does ideology trump pragmatism and business in Northern Ireland?

Secondly, the Minister has trashed the political credibility of the Government and, indeed, its electoral legitimacy, given that the 2019 election was won on the basis of “Get Brexit done” triumphalism about the withdrawal agreement and the protocol. However, he is also trashing the UK’s international reputation. In the words of legal expert Professor Mark Elliott,

“the UK, if it wishes to be part of the rules-based international order, cannot pick and choose the international legal obligations that it honours”,

and to believe otherwise is “legally illiterate”. Does that bother the Minister?

My Lords, there is quite a lot in that question but I will try to deal with the two points. We talk to people of all opinions across the spectrum of political opinion in Northern Ireland. In doing so, I personally have heard quite a lot of concern about the imposition of European Union law in Northern Ireland without democratic consent; of course, the Court of Justice stands at the apex of that system.

On the second question, we set out our approach in the Command Paper. I do not think that there is much more to say. We have been clear that the threshold for using Article 16 has passed; Article 16 is a mechanism in the protocol whose use is legitimate if the circumstances require it. We would prefer to find a solution by consensus but Article 16 is there.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister back from his brief stop in Portugal yesterday. I note that your Lordships’ House was sitting then; we too would have appreciated hearing from him as he announced his new text.

Although we welcome the opportunity to hear from the Minister this afternoon, it is a shame that this Question is taking place at 3.45 pm, given that the EU’s proposals for amending the protocol are due to be published in just two hours’ time. Can the Minister confirm that he will consider the EU’s proposals in good faith, and that the Government will engage constructively in finding solutions to protect livelihoods and communities in Northern Ireland? In his speech yesterday, the Minister said that he has drafted a new protocol. When will we see the legal text? Given the direct importance of this process for the people of Northern Ireland, has he consulted Northern Ireland Ministers on his text?

My Lords, my speech in Lisbon yesterday covered much more than the Northern Ireland protocol. I am sure that the noble Lords who have read it have seen that it was an attempt to set out our wider relationship with the European Union; the protocol policy was as set out in the Command Paper. I agree that we are looking forward to getting the proposals from the Commission later today. Obviously we will look at them positively and constructively; I am sure that we will want to discuss elements of them in more detail. We very much want to get into an intensive talks process on those proposals, as well as on the proposals we sent. As the noble Baroness points out, we have sent a draft of the legal text to the Commission. It is a negotiating document at the moment but, of course, I expect that we will make it public if that seems to be useful to the process in future.

My Lords, would the noble Lord confirm that more than 200 GB firms have stopped supplying goods to Northern Ireland and that the Northern Ireland protocol is just not working satisfactorily? Secondly, as regards accusations that we are going against the rules-based international order and the rule of law, is it not a fact that Article 13(8) of the protocol itself envisages that it could be succeeded by other agreements?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely correct that 200 firms have ceased trading with Northern Ireland this year, including some quite significant ones. The existence of this customs process between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is at the heart of some of the problems we are experiencing with the protocol. My noble friend is also right that Article 13(8) of the protocol provides for successor arrangements. This was envisaged and explicitly written into the protocol when we negotiated it. It reflects the fact that it is not unusual in any way to renegotiate or supersede international agreements, which is what we hope to do in this process.

My Lords, the Minister said in Lisbon that we are being asked to apply EU law in part of our territory without our consent. Article 5 of the protocol provides that significant parts of EU law,

“shall apply to and in the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland”.

Having agreed that protocol, how can the Minister say that this law applies without our consent?

My Lords, there is, of course, a difference between what is in an international legal instrument and what happens day to day, as I am sure is well understood. The political difficulty being created in Northern Ireland is because individual legal instruments, which come out in profusion from the European Union day to day, are applied automatically in Northern Ireland without any sort of process. That system is not sustainable, which is why these governance arrangements need to change to bring them more in line with democratic norms elsewhere. We need to find a solution that everybody in Northern Ireland can get behind and which they think represents their interests.

My Lords, this Question is about trust and reputation. The admission by the Northern Ireland Secretary last September in another place that his Brexit Bill broke international law in a very specific and limited way was denounced by Members of this House from all parties, including the noble Lord, Lord Howard, and others. It led to a tit-for-tat reaction from the EU that it would unilaterally reject the protocol and, later, that it might not ratify the withdrawal agreement. Can the Minister tell your Lordships from where this reputation-destroying tactic by the UK Government of abandoning the rule of law emanated?

My Lords, these matters were well debated at the time. The then UK Internal Market Bill is now a very good Act to protect the integrity of the single market of the UK. It does that very well. I am now looking forward. We are trying to find solutions to a problem that we hoped would not arise but which has now arisen because of the relatively insensitive way in which we have been forced to implement this protocol. We need to find a solution that everybody in Northern Ireland can get behind, which provides a better balance and which fully supports the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

My Lords, in his speech yesterday, the noble Lord said that

“we are constantly faced with generalised accusations that we can’t be trusted and are not a reasonable international actor.”

Why does the noble Lords think that this is now the case?

My Lords, I asked myself that question implicitly in the speech and I still do not really know the answer. I think our behaviour since the start of the year as a fully independent country has been extremely constructive internationally. For example, we have established our own sanctions regime; we have been very proactive in it; we have welcomed citizens of Hong Kong to this country; we have been among the first to raise questions about the treatment of the Uighurs; and we have been the first to bring in sanctions against Belarus. I think we have been extremely constructive in this process over the years. I am sorry that from time to time we have faced accusations that we do not behave accordingly, but I do not think they are justified by the facts.

My Lords, issues of sovereignty and democracy lie at the heart of the problems with the Northern Ireland protocol. Does the Minister agree that we may solve some practical issues, and the EU will produce proposals on that later, but unless we do away with the issue of laws being made for part of the United Kingdom in the 21st century without any say—yea or nay—of elected representatives of Northern Ireland, it will store up future problems of divergence and diversion of trade? Therefore, issues such as the ECJ and the democratic deficit need to be addressed if there is to be a permanent solution to the problems of the protocol.

I very much agree with the thrust of the noble Lord’s question. We would like to find a permanent solution to this problem, a solution that everybody can get behind in Northern Ireland and beyond and that represents everybody’s interests. That is why partial solutions that tinker around the edges of the existing arrangement will not do the job. The question of sovereignty is fundamental. We have to find solutions that are consistent with UK sovereignty in Northern Ireland and, to come back to it, that support the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which is fundamental to politics in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, reports about the EU’s proposals, which are to be announced later this afternoon, suggest that they contain a lot of opportunities and solutions. Does the Minister agree that moving goalposts from positions which the British Government agreed with the EU and setting new red lines around the removal of the European Court of Justice, which is not a problem for Manufacturing NI, the leading law firms of Belfast and academics, keeps people divided and undermines businesses in Northern Ireland? Will the Minister ensure that this stops now?

My Lords, we wait to see what the EU proposes to us later this afternoon. We will look at those proposals very positively and, I hope, constructively. If there are elements in them with which we can work, we will seek to do so. I do not agree that we have been moving the goalposts. We have been clear on our position since we put forward the Command Paper in July. Although other people may use the words “red lines”, I never do. We are beginning a negotiation. We have a track record of reaching successful outcomes in negotiations, despite the predictions that we would not. I hope that we will do so again this time.

My Lords, as my noble friend bears some responsibility for this protocol, will he use all his diplomatic gifts, acquired during his years in the Foreign Office, to ensure that we emerge from this difficulty with friends in Europe—those who used to be our partners—and that European friendships at this time of world instability are strengthened, not weakened? Will he be the diplomat?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an extremely good, apposite point. I am sure he has read my speech made in Lisbon yesterday because I put great emphasis on the need to resolve the current problems, move forward and build friendships in Europe. We have too much in common to have unnecessary division over such questions. We need to resolve them. The western alliance has major interests and major problems to face around the world. We need to stick together and do that. That is why we want to resolve this question, so that we do not have to come back to it and can move on.