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Ireland/Northern Ireland: Solid Fuels

Volume 816: debated on Thursday 18 November 2021


Asked by

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what discussions Her Majesty’s Government have had with the government of Ireland about that government’s plans to introduce physical checks on solid fuels entering the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland.

My Lords, we are aware of the Irish Government’s plans to introduce new standards for domestic solid fuels under their forthcoming clean air strategy. Of course, the implementation of this policy is for the Irish Government. Our understanding is that they plan to introduce it in 2022. We hope to have technical discussions with the Irish Government later this week to establish some further detail on how and when they plan to bring these measures into force.

The Minister for the Environment in the Republic of Ireland said that

“inspections of cross-border fuel movements will be required.”

Does the Minister not think that shows huge hypocrisy from the Irish Government? The border sometimes matters—when it affects them—but as far as anything to do with the protocol is concerned, there could not possibly be any kind of border at the frontier. The Minister is being very patient with the European Union. Is he beginning to feel that time is running out and that it is time to simply say, “This is not working; it has to go”?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very good point. The UK and the Republic of Ireland are obviously different countries divided by an international border, and most areas of national life—for example, legal systems, currency, taxation and many others—change when you cross that border. Some of those arrangements relate specifically to the movement of goods—VAT and excise, for example. These differences are nevertheless managed in market, without the need for physical infrastructure at the border, so I wait for the discussions with the Irish Government. I do not want to prejudge them, but obviously I do not see why we would have any difficulties if the Irish Government wished to manage one further regulatory difference between our two countries in a sensible and pragmatic way, as goods go on to the Irish market.

My Lords, both this Question and the Answer are misleading, as 100,000 tonnes of smoky coal goes from north to south on the island each year, and the stricter regulations being applied in Ireland come under EU directives for cleaner air that have been retained and so also apply across the UK today. In Northern Ireland, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs under the DUP’s Edwin Poots said last year that there will soon be no smoky coal in Northern Ireland. Any future inspection on premises in the Republic of Ireland—not on some border that does not exist—to prevent the illegal sale of such dangerous solid fuel, especially from third countries, is nothing to do with Brexit, borders or customs. It is everything to do with the far more urgent and important challenge of tackling climate change and protecting public health.

The noble Lord makes a very fair point about the objectives of this legislation. That is why we need to establish the detail of what the Irish Government intend to do and how they intend to go about it. What he says rather proves the point that we have always made: it is perfectly possible for two separate jurisdictions to pursue complementary policy ends that do not involve accepting exactly the same legislation in exactly the same way. That is the approach we have tried to take.

My Lords, to come back to what the Irish Government actually said about this matter—not the interpretation that has just been put on it—are we not in an ironic situation? The Irish Government and others said that any checks on the island of Ireland equalled a hard border and that a hard border would lead to violence. Now the Irish Government are proposing such a thing—that is the reality of it. People can shake their heads all they like, but the fact of the matter is that the Irish Government, when Varadkar came to power, changed what Enda Kenny was doing and said that no checks—even away from the border or digitally—would be acceptable. Will the Minister go back and indicate to his good friend Simon Coveney, whom he is meeting and talking to later today, that no checks means no checks if what they believe is true?

My Lords, there has indeed always been some complexity in interpretations of this matter. It is certainly true that in areas such as red diesel, for example, where there is a need to avoid fraud due to different excise rates between Northern Ireland and Ireland, there is very good co-operation between HMRC and the Irish Revenue Commissioners. There is lots of multiagency and cross-border co-operation, intelligence and information sharing and so on, and that works perfectly well. I do not necessarily say that is a model you can generalise to absolutely everything, but it certainly shows that this issue is not quite as black and white as it is sometimes painted.

Can the Minister say whether the discussion and fuss over fuel is merely an example of Mr Castex’s call for aggressive action against the United Kingdom?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point. We have been concerned about the threats made against us in the last few weeks, which are not really consistent with a reasonable negotiation. I am glad to see that the French Government have, for the moment anyway, withdrawn those threats. I hope they will do so permanently, because they do not make it any easier to conduct a good process and put relations on to a better footing.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his measured responses to earlier questions on this subject, because it is very sensitive. I have in front of me the answer in the Dáil, and there is no reference to border checks. There is reference to Irish local authorities having increased powers to check on solid fuels imported from Northern Ireland, which they had already. Indeed, the north-south Joint Agency Task Force has been operating since 2015 in this regard. Can the Minister please reassure the House that this will not be used to inflame some of the tensions that already exist and that the north-south Joint Agency Task Force will operate normally on fuels to ensure that there is proper consensus on this?

My Lords, we do not wish to inflame tensions in any way, of course, and I do not think we go about this in a way that would do that. The point that I and other noble Lords have been trying to make is not that this proposal from the Irish Government would require checks at the border—they are not saying that, we are not saying that and nobody wants that—but that it is possible to manage differences without such checks in certain circumstances. This is perhaps a concrete case of that; there are some others.

My Lords, far from adding to tensions, is this not actually a rather hopeful sign? As the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, said, it is envisaged that local authority officers will check for goods coming into the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland that should not be coming in. Is this not a pattern that could be applied, to great benefit and great effect, as a substitute for the ridiculous and unworkable attempts to operate the protocol as it currently works? It might even be called mutual enforcement. It is very hopeful.

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point, as always. It is a concrete case that demonstrates that it is possible to manage these matters in other ways. This is one of the reasons why what we put forward in the Command Paper is a compromise. It is not my noble friend’s proposal. It is that we would for most purposes police goods going into Ireland and the single market in the Irish Sea, but would wish to see goods flowing freely into Northern Ireland. That is a workable and sensible compromise proposal, and in the negotiations we have not yet heard why it could not work.

My Lords, this situation rather highlights the need for a certain amount of bandwidth on behalf of the Government, in that occasionally they need to negotiate simultaneously with the EU and with individual member states. Does the Minister think that the undeniable damage to the Prime Minister’s authority in recent weeks is leading to a bit of a problem with government bandwidth? I ask this because it is really easy to talk tough about Article 16, at least when he is here, but not if the Minister and the Prime Minister do not have the backing of the entire Cabinet to see through the consequences, which would be further damage to international relationships and possibly a trade war. Is he confident that any of his Cabinet colleagues will be with him in the trenches if he leads us into further disputes?

My Lords, the Cabinet and the Government stand fully behind the policy that we set out in the Command Paper in July, which is a very good compromise policy that we still hope to negotiate. We have made it clear that a negotiated outcome is the best one, but that policy paper, which we all stand behind, also makes it clear that Article 16 is a legitimate and useful tool if necessary. That remains the Government’s position.