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Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland

Volume 822: debated on Monday 16 May 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the result of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections on 5 May, when they will resume negotiations with the European Commission on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

My Lords, the Government have been engaged in negotiations with the European Union in good faith since last summer. We are asking the Commission to go back to member states for a new mandate, but we cannot wait to fix the problems facing people in Northern Ireland resulting from the protocol. We hope that the EU’s position changes. If it does not, then it will be necessary to act.

My Lords, political stability and peace can only be protected through partnership and pragmatism in Northern Ireland. There has been mounting speculation about the Government’s proposed intentions to override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol against the express wishes of the majority of MLAs who were recently elected to the Assembly. Therefore, in this regard, can the Minister indicate whether this is correct and, if so, what format that will take? Also, will the Foreign Secretary and her team continue with negotiations with the EU on the outstanding technical issues on SPS and the customs code, to which there are solutions? I believe that is what is required to underpin political stability in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, who asked me quite a number of questions there. She will know that, like her, I was a very strong supporter of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, as are the Government. The problem that we face today is that, ironically, the protocol, an instrument that was designed to uphold the agreement, is undermining the agreement and threatening political stability in Northern Ireland: witness that we have had no First or Deputy First Minister since February and no immediate prospect of having them unless something changes. It is therefore the Government’s position that we will at some point have to make a realistic assessment of what intervention is necessary as to the precise nature of that intervention. The noble Baroness will be aware that I cannot go into any more detail today, but I do not think that she will have to wait very long.

My Lords, is it not the Government’s overriding duty to protect and safeguard the union? At a time when Sinn Féin may be the largest party in the Assembly but has absolutely no mandate for constitutional change, will my noble friend ensure that the Government continue to stand four-square for our union?

I am very grateful to my noble friend, with whom I go back many years, including to my first job interview; I believe we discussed these matters even then. He makes a very important point about the result of the elections, which have also shown what the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, said, that while Sinn Féin is the largest single party in the Assembly, we should all remember that the largest designation in the Assembly remains unionist, followed by nationalist. Therefore, as my noble friend makes clear, there is no mandate for constitutional change as a result of the elections that took place on 5 May. Regarding the point about standing rock firm for the union, in a phrase associated with the later Sir John Biggs-Davison many years ago, he has my absolute guarantee that this Government remain committed to the union—something which the Prime Minister made very clear in his article in the Belfast Telegraph this morning.

My Lords, of course it is right that the Prime Minister is in Belfast today, but the Minister, who has enormous experience of Northern Ireland politics, knows that one-off meetings will not solve the problem; it requires proper, intense, round-table negotiations with the European Union, with the Irish Government and, above all, with all the political parties in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that the issue will not be solved by grandstanding, newspaper articles and megaphone diplomacy?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who was a very distinguished Northern Ireland Secretary and has great experience of these matters. He will be aware that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been in fairly constant dialogue with the representatives of the five main Northern Ireland parties in recent days, which is in addition to the Prime Minister’s welcome visit today. The objective is to clear some of the hurdles that are preventing the formation of an Executive. He is right that we will maintain that dialogue and keep talking to try to achieve that objective, but we also need to be realistic: the key impediment to the immediate restoration of the institutions is the problems that have been created by the protocol, and they need fixing.

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that unilateral action would not carry the support of the majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, has said, and could potentially do huge economic and diplomatic damage at this time?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. In recent days, I have reflected on the number of people who, for decades, told us that we could never proceed in Northern Ireland on the basis of majority rule and majoritarianism, who are now the greatest champions of proceeding on that basis. It is clearly unsustainable to have a protocol in operation in Northern Ireland in its current form, which does not command the support of the largest designation of the Northern Ireland Assembly. That position is unsustainable and is what we are trying to fix.

Would my noble friend the Minister confirm that the Assembly operates entirely with the consent of the majority of unionists, which is still the biggest designation, and the majority of nationalists? Any changes to the institutional framework of the 1998 agreement, as amended, and the St Andrews agreement require the consent of the majority of unionism and the majority of nationalism. That has been the consistent approach since the 1990s.

As my noble friend rightly points out, the sufficient consensus rule has guided most political negotiations since the publication of the ground rules for political talks, published by the British and Irish Governments in June 1996. Clearly, the protocol in its current form does not command sufficient consensus. That is why the Government will be working extremely hard to build widespread community consensus that includes both unionists and nationalists, as we take things forward.

My Lords, our friends in Europe—if we have any left—are puzzled as to why an agreement that the Prime Minister lauded to the heavens is now not acceptable. Surely we cannot proceed by threats; we have to proceed by talking, talking and talking to make some modifications, if necessary.

I am focused not on the past, but on the present and the future—not on how we got here, but on how we get out of here. I agree that there is clearly space for negotiations. We want to keep talking to the European Union, but we have been discussing these matters with it for some time, since last summer. At the moment, the clear and present threat to the Belfast agreement and to political stability in Northern Ireland—an agreement that the noble Lord and I support, have supported since 10 April 1998 and continue to support—is the continuing operation of the protocol in its current form. Therefore, as I have said and the Prime Minister made clear in Belfast today, the Government will do everything necessary to try to fix those problems for the good of Northern Ireland.

My Lords, should we not remember very carefully that there has never been a time since the war when it was more important to try to march in step with our friends and allies in the European Union? Will the Minister reflect on the fact that the late, great Harold Macmillan had a wonderful quote on his desk from WS Gilbert:

“Quiet, calm deliberation disentangles every knot”?

In which spirit I am sure my noble friend will welcome the tone and content of the Prime Minister’s article in the Belfast Telegraph this morning. As I have said, we are of course continuing to talk to and work with the EU, but, whatever else is going on, we cannot allow the problems in Northern Ireland to continue to fester and the institutions continue to be in abeyance. He and I both support the Belfast agreement. Without the institutions or the Assembly, strand 2 does not work; without the Assembly, strand 3 does not work; and without the institutions, the Belfast agreement looks pretty thin. We need to quickly get into a situation whereby the institutions can be restored, and that requires dealing with the protocol.

My Lords, the Minister says that he is not keen to discuss how we got where we are, but I believe a number of people in this House are very keen to understand how we got into this predicament. The noble Lord, Lord Frost, who negotiated the protocol, has made it clear that it was an imperfect protocol, and it was agreed because it was the only way to get Brexit done. It was always clear that there had to be a border between the UK and Northern Ireland if the protocol went ahead. Does the Minister agree that Parliament—this House—and the people were misled, and that is why we are in the mess we are in now?

I do not share the characterisation of the noble Baroness. Regarding a border, we have made it very clear in our discussions with the EU that we will carry out the necessary checks required for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland whose onward destination is the EU single market. Our issue is and always has been with goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that will never leave the United Kingdom, which are currently subject to the same checks. We need to achieve a situation in which both the EU single market and the UK internal market are fully respected.