I beg to move,
That this House has considered implications of the UK leaving the EU for the UK-Ireland border.
It is a privilege to be able to move the motion for debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. The debate covers one of the many acute aspects of the decision by Britain to leave the European Union. It is one of the most acute for me.
The recent referendum result to leave the EU sent shockwaves right across the world, economically and politically. In my opinion, and in that of so many people, it was a bad decision taken for all the wrong reasons. In Ireland, we define a referendum as a process that gets the wrong answer to a question that was not asked in the first place. That seems to be a very appropriate definition of what has happened here.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and thank him for his generosity to me on many occasions in the past. I thank him for being here today and welcome him to his new post. I and others in my party will be seeking a meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to discuss all the issues involved in the aftermath of the referendum, but the future of the Irish border is a specific issue for which the Home Office has a particular responsibility. It is critical that the Home Office is fully engaged with the Northern Ireland Office, the parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government, on all the questions around the future status of the border.
The political, legal and economic complexities of a British exit from Europe are sobering, to say the least. The challenges that lie ahead will not be easy to surmount for Britain or Ireland, but they are particularly difficult for Northern Ireland. The effects of the vote for Britain to leave the EU are already being felt, with markets suffering and the sense of uncertainty turning off would-be foreign direct investors. The pound has lost almost a sixth of its value against the dollar. I have no intention of perpetuating “Project Fear”. Instead, I am asking myself how the delusions of “project fantasy” managed to persuade so many voters that leaving the EU would be truly in their best interests.
It is unfortunate that many of the key protagonists in the leave campaign have now jumped ship and absolved themselves from taking any responsibility whatever for the damage that I believe they have caused—but I am not surprised. When the size of the task at hand dawned on them and the result became clear, they seemed totally overwhelmed. They had no plan A, let alone a plan B. What has become patently clear is that the leave side did not believe for one moment that they would succeed. Secondly, they did not have any coherent plan for steering us through the very choppy seas of the UK in post-leave mode.
I do not claim to have all the answers to the uncertainty—I am struggling to find some as I go—but the uncertainty that we now face is worrying. I am determined to do all that I can to ensure that the economic and social damage to Northern Ireland, as a result of the intended withdrawal from the EU, is minimised. After all, the majority of people living in Northern Ireland believe that the UK is better off in the EU—56% of them voted to remain.
During the EU referendum campaign, my colleagues and I in the Social Democratic and Labour party worked tirelessly to ensure that we had a high remain vote right across Northern Ireland. I have a particular sense of pride that my constituency had an excellent turnout, with more than 70% of those people voting to remain.
Personally, I have always thought that the EU is not perfect and requires much reform, but the reality is that if we were to dismantle the EU in the morning, we would have to find a new way of reinventing it the next day. People take all the benefits of the EU for granted and will only become fully aware of them when we have left. I urge our new Secretary of State to be cognisant of that fact, and fight, and fight again for the interests of people in Northern Ireland, to ensure that our unique circumstances are considered throughout the forthcoming negotiations. I believe that Northern Ireland’s interests cannot receive the full protection they deserve unless Northern Ireland has at least one, and preferably two, seats at the negotiating table as we go forward.
Prior to the referendum, at Prime Minister’s questions, I asked the former Prime Minister what assurances he could give us about the Irish border. I asked because many of my constituents were writing to me. They and I were deeply worried that there could be a return to a hard border and passport checks between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which would be damaging to both parts of Ireland, economically and socially. In his response, the right hon. Gentleman warned of the checks along the Northern Ireland border with the Republic and of the possibility of people travelling from Belfast to other parts of the UK having to provide documentation in the event of an exit. The referendum result has created a major uncertainty about border controls and what they might look like. I welcome recent remarks by our new Secretary of State, who has said that there should be no border controls between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. On immigration and customs controls, there will be some changes.
If we were not depressed before we came into this debate, we certainly will be now, listening to the hon. Gentleman. I congratulate him on obtaining the debate. Does he not accept that we are now not going to have the tanks and the guns and the barbed wire at the border? There is a new opportunity now for the United Kingdom as a whole to move forward and create a better country for the future of our young people, and to control our own destiny.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving us an example of “project fantasy” and the delusions associated with it. Those are the very delusions that we have put up with for a number of months, on the fairyland that was going to be created post-exit. The only thing he missed out on was telling us the tooth fairy is going to come round, and that Santa Claus is going to come round next week and give us all a bag of money.
I am not depressed or being depressed—I am looking quite simply at the facts. It may be a giggle for the Democratic Unionist party, but it is not a giggle for a lot of people. On the Sunday two days after the result became obvious, I got 200 emails screaming at me— 200 emails on a Sunday. I might normally get one email on a Sunday, if I am lucky, but I got 200, which were screaming at me and demanding to know what I was going to do about the mess that had been created. That is coming from the people I am elected to represent. Perhaps they have got it wrong—but I see no evidence of that. I see an awful lot of make-believe.
We have two or three simple options. If we do not have a hard border in customs and immigration terms, we have to have checks and controls at Larne, at the airports, and possibly even at Dublin, Dún Laoghaire and other places. An alternative option might be that the barriers are created somewhere about Dover and similar points of entry.
The issues, however, are serious, and make-believe and delusions will not help solve them. We will require a serious discussion with countries that remain in the European Union to ensure that we go forward with a positive agenda. That agenda will not be helped by delusions or aggression; it will require honest engagement and honest dealing with the facts.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate, because it is an interesting one, especially for those of us who live in Northern Ireland, as well as in the Republic of Ireland. I understand some of the concerns, but will he also acknowledge that since the exit referendum some people living in the Republic of Ireland have said that because “Things have settled down quite well and quickly in the United Kingdom,” perhaps it is time for those in the Republic of Ireland to reassess their position in the European Union? Some are saying, “Maybe we should have a referendum on our membership of the European Union as well.”
I remind the hon. Gentleman that 56% of the people in Northern Ireland want to remain in the EU, and I guess that a significant number of those in southern Ireland would also want to remain. The referendum, frankly, was a mistake; it has opened a can of worms, which it will be difficult to sort out, and Britain will be much worse off at least economically, if not socially as well.
Remarks about what might, could or should happen are not a clear, definitive statement on, or a commitment to, what will happen. That clarity and assurance is why I asked for the debate today—we need clarity and the public want clarity. People are still in a degree of confusion. The vote has happened and stands, but an awful lot of the detail is missing.
Never before have Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland had a situation in which one is in the EU and the other outside it. Also, references to the common travel area simply do not cut any ice with me. We are in uncharted seas—circumstances we have never been in before—and the prospect of people undergoing passport checks as they move between the north and the south, or between Northern Ireland and Britain, is extremely concerning. It would be unwise to create obstacles to the free and seamless travel that now exists between north and south, and between Ireland and Britain, and which is critical for cross-border workers, students, traders and all the social networks that exist at all levels between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Queen’s University Belfast is in my constituency, and students from Northern Ireland move to the south, to Dublin and other places, such as Galway and Cork, for university education—vice versa, students from the south travel to Belfast, Coleraine and Derry. The practicalities of how changes to the border will impact on them as individuals, and more widely on our economy, have not been fully assessed, and they need to be assessed and fully considered.
The EU referendum result cannot be allowed to erode the massive progress in benefits over the past 20 years, especially the good work of the peace process and the benefits that have flowed from the Good Friday agreement—or the Belfast agreement, as some might wish to call it—including the political process that has evolved; and that still has some way to go. Many of my colleagues have a living memory of a hard border across Ireland. It is not a good memory by any means. On the crucial issue of the border, however, I stress to the Minister that we need a post-Brexit situation for Britain and Europe to resemble the pre-Brexit situation as closely as possible. We want to minimise the damage and disadvantages that can arise.
Free movement of people has transformed the island of Ireland, and it is a central tenet of the Good Friday agreement. That agreement is rooted in European legislation and set in a broad European framework. A UK exit from the EU risks severely compromising the 1998 settlement. There is potential for erosion of its terms and benefits for all if and when Britain leaves the EU. The prospect of an exit has also brought us huge legal and financial uncertainty. Further uncertainty around what the border will look like in 10 years’ time leaves us vulnerable to those who would seek to take advantage of that uncertainty and our weakened state, including dissidents and other paramilitaries—that is not a threat, but an observation.
No one present wants to see a return to the darker days that we came through, but we must be aware of the delicate balance in Northern Ireland, the unique political settlement we have there and how it became destabilised after the referendum. Dragging a region that voted solidly to remain in the EU out of the EU—against its wishes—flies in the face of the principle of consent, which is at the very heart of the 1998 settlement. The new Home Secretary, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Irish Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, must work closely on the issue to ensure that all concerns to do with the border are resolved in a functional and effective way that secures safety, and with it the freedom of all our citizens, north and south, in Ireland.
On customs and the border, leaving the customs union would necessitate customs checks on the border and, therefore, significant restrictions on, barriers to or limitations on travel at the border. We need to look seriously at an option for Northern Ireland to have a special customs status, whereby it is treated as being in the customs union for goods and services travelling solely within the island of Ireland. There are many precedents, but the one that comes to mind is Büsingen, a small German town on the Swiss border, which is treated as part of Switzerland for customs purposes. All sorts of options are available, with other places having various arrangements, but that is one example. It is essential, for our small businesses trading across the Irish border, that we remain within the customs union, and for our exporters, that we remain in the single market.
Throughout Northern Ireland, 56% of our electorate voted to remain. The democratic will of the people in Northern Ireland cannot and should not be airbrushed out of the debate. Northern Ireland can, and might well have to, make common cause with Scotland and Gibraltar. I am looking carefully, along with others in Northern Ireland, at establishing an effort to discuss how we steer our way through the problems that exist already and that will present themselves—for Northern Ireland especially—in the future.
I sincerely hope that the EU will look at some kind of special access arrangement for Northern Ireland, given its unique constitutional status and its geographical location. All sorts of special EU arrangements are in place for the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and a series of French dependencies throughout the world. The needs of our people and the future of our children depend on our getting the post-Brexit situation right, and doing everything we can to reduce the adverse consequences of Britain leaving the European Union. Our peace, security and economic prospects are in the balance. My plea to those present in Westminster Hall is to get this right—let us do everything necessary to ensure that the post-Brexit situation is minimally removed from the pre-Brexit situation.
Order. The debate is due to finish at 5.30 pm. I shall call the first of the Front Benchers to speak at 5.7 pm. The Scottish National party has five minutes, Her Majesty’s Opposition five minutes and the Minister 10 minutes, and then Dr Alasdair McDonnell has three minutes at the end to sum up the debate. Five people are standing, so I am afraid it will be a time limit of three minutes each, if we are all to get in—
You have probably chosen the wrong person to do that, Mr Hollobone, but thank you for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
Despite the fact that we have blue skies outside and are probably experiencing a heatwave, the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) has brought clouds of doom and downpours of gloom to this room today. May I say just three things? First, he has made a big play of the fact that the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, but the important thing is that the majority of people in the United Kingdom, in a United Kingdom referendum, voted to leave the EU.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman said that we are already experiencing the shockwaves from that vote. Given that since the day the referendum result was announced, we have had an outpouring of efforts to talk the economy down by the bad losers in this debate, it is surprising that the economy and other things have not been far worse. Let us look at some of the rays of sunlight that are already coming through the gloom that he has brought in today. The biggest investment in financial services by a far eastern company—£24 billion—has been announced this week. Already, Australia, America, New Zealand and other countries are talking about new trade agreements. And rather than jumping ship as he said they were, some of the people who were at the forefront of the referendum debate are now in the lead. They are at the helm of the ship, and I have no doubt that it will be steered to a safe haven.
Thirdly, let me deal with the border, which was one of the scare stories used by those who tried to persuade people in Northern Ireland that leaving the EU was not in their interests. We have heard the same rhetoric today, but there is no substance to it. Here are the facts. The Irish Government have said they do not wish to have border controls. The British Government have said they do not wish to have border controls. The Northern Ireland Assembly has said it does not wish to have border controls. Historically, the common travel area has worked effectively and ensures that there is no need for border controls. The Irish Government chose not to be part of the Schengen arrangements. Why? Because they value the free movement of people between Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and the Irish Republic.
Why would the Irish Government wish to open their doors and allow people freely to move into the Irish Republic, hoping that if they were economic immigrants, they might move on to the United Kingdom, or if they were coming in to do terrorist deeds, they would not do those deeds in the Irish Republic? It is in the interests of the Irish Government to do checks at ports of entry. Indeed, they already do them, and I believe that that is possible. When the previous Government—the spokesman for the Labour party, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), may accept this—talked about e-borders, the first thing they did was to negotiate with the Irish Republic about how the e-borders arrangements for the United Kingdom could effectively be policed at points of entry into the Irish Republic, and the Irish Republic Government showed a willingness to do that and to work with those arrangements. We have had such checks historically, and I believe that we can negotiate to ensure that those stay in place.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) on securing the debate and his leadership on this important issue more widely.
Contrary to what we have just heard from the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), several serious concerns and questions have arisen since the Brexit outcome, and those have been addressed by people looking at these issues. He seems to blur and conflate the questions of a customs border, a migration border, the common travel area and the free movement of goods. Those things are distinct and should not be conflated. We had the common travel area in circumstances in which we still had customs borders and controls, and various exchange controls.
Committee B—the European affairs committee—of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which met in Malahide in the aftermath of the referendum, commissioned a report on visa systems. It is a very good report, and I commend it to the Minister, who has just taken up his post. If he wants a good understanding of the true history of the common travel area—without the false assumptions and impressions that are given, as though the area has had a singular, linear and even history, which it has not—he would do well to read that report. I pay tribute to that committee’s two current rapporteurs, Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD, who represents Sinn Féin in the Dáil, and Baroness Harris from the other House. Her predecessor as rapporteur was Lord German. The report is a very thorough investigation of the issues.
In case other hon. Members care to know this, the committee is chaired by the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who was not in the alarmist camp in relation to the leave prospectus. The report states that
“as already noted, the Committee is not currently in a position to draw clear conclusions or make recommendation on the implications for the CTA of the UK leaving the EU. The Committee therefore hopes to explore this issue in more detail as part of any future inquiries it holds on the wider implications for British-Irish relations of the UK’s vote to leave the EU.”
Committee B will not be the only committee of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly to look at those issues, but it would be wrong of anybody to pretend that there are not issues or that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South is trying to conjure up or exaggerate some of these problems.
I hear an acceptance, at least, from both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) that the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union will be implemented. We are now talking about how that will be done and the mechanisms for doing that.
We are talking about the implications of the referendum result—a referendum, remember, that we were told at the time was constitutionally advisory. Let us be very clear that the people of Northern Ireland voted clearly to remain in the EU. They did so when they voted in the referendum, and they did so previously when they voted for the Good Friday agreement, which took the UK and Ireland’s common membership of the EU as a given. That is written into the fabric of the agreement between the two Governments; it is there in the preamble and it is there in strand 1, strand 2 and strand 3. That agreement itself depended on the principle of consent—the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, as well as the consent of the people of the south—and that consent was binding. It is a bit much for people to say that the rest of us should take it as a matter of passing lightness that Northern Ireland could be taken out of the EU against the clear wishes of its people and with potential damage to the Good Friday agreement.
Remember that, as well as the European Union being written into the Good Friday agreement, so too was the European convention on human rights, and we know that there are people in Government who want to dispose of that as well. Those are not mere stud walls to be knocked through but supporting walls of the institutions that we have and the Good Friday agreement, which was given democratic legitimacy—it is a democratic high-water mark—by the unique and overwhelming endorsement that it received from the people of Ireland, north and south, in 1998. No one has dared to contest that since. Those are not matters that we should in any way take as given.
Those who are now grinning like horses chewing thistles because they have got the leave result that they wanted cannot pretend that there are not issues and complications. The rest of us want to minimise and mitigate those, and ensure that people in Northern Ireland are in the best position. It is clear from what my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South said that that is what we are doing. We are looking for flexibility and a space that allows us to maintain access to the EU and its benefits, which a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to retain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) on making the debate possible as this issue has been debated across these islands. I welcome the Minister to his new position. For the record, I declare an interest, in that I am an officer of the all-party group on the Irish in Britain. I speak in the debate not only as an MP representing a Scottish constituency with a large Irish diaspora but as someone with Irish grandparents—a common occurrence for those of us in the west of Scotland.
From a Scottish perspective, during the European Union referendum campaign, the messages those of us on the remain side from across the usual party political divide conveyed were of the many economic and social benefits of being a member of the European Union and how best our country and our people can interact with our neighbours across that Union. Critically, free moment of people and goods are, and continue to be, important benefits, and ones that affect many of my constituents. I have no doubt that that was one of the contributing factors that led to such a large vote to remain, not only in my constituency but across the nation of Scotland.
The status of EU nationals living in this country must be urgently addressed to reassure those living, working and paying their taxes that their future is secure. While the issues facing Scotland and the status of EU nationals can be appreciated in Northern Ireland, the fact that the Province shares a border with a European Union country opens up a new layer of complex issues.
I could not agree more with the hon. Lady, as access to a stable economy creates stable communities. As I said, while the EU nationals issue can be appreciated in Northern Ireland, the fact that the Province shares a border with a European country opens up a new layer of complex issues, involving local businesses, communities and the people themselves that needs to be addressed. The situation brings challenges for both the Irish and United Kingdom Governments as well as for the Northern Ireland Executive. A coherent strategy across all three must be in place to meet the issues that arise from the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union. The impact of Brexit on the Good Friday agreement is still unclear. The United Kingdom Government must address the concerns that any possible hardening of the border will have a detrimental impact on the protections contained in the Good Friday agreement.
The second piece of legislation I will touch on is the common travel area. There are provisions outlined in that long-standing agreement that Irish citizens have a special place and status in UK law which is separate to and predates the rights they have as European Union citizens. I believe, as I hope the Minister does, that the common travel area is of the utmost importance in the positive working relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Will the Minister reaffirm what the UK Government’s view is on the CTA and whether they intend to seek legal advice on how Brexit will impact on the legislation? In addition, will he advise whether the previous review of citizenship legislation in 2008 that called into question Irish citizen rights in the United Kingdom will re-emerge? Has consideration been given to amending or repealing the Ireland Act 1949?
It must be acknowledged that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, like the sovereign nation of Scotland, voted to remain in the European Union, and that the United Kingdom Government must listen to those voices and take them seriously. Therefore, I would ask that the Government include the Scottish Government and Northern Ireland Executive every step of the way in this process, critically in relation to the border arrangements with the Irish Republic.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) South for bringing this important issue for debate. Despite the somewhat negative view, we must look at Northern Ireland and where we are. There are two sides to this very honest debate between those who feel that Brexit will create problems and those who feel that it will create opportunities. I am one of those guys who thinks that we can get lots of opportunities out of this. That is the point of view from which I see it, and that is where I will come from.
As an example, tourism is one of Northern Ireland’s great success stories over the last period of time. The economy has grown on the back of tourism as well as many other things, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said. Tourism revenue rose to £325 million, with some 2.1 million visitors in a year. Many of those visitors come from the Republic of Ireland up, and they come through customs in the Republic of Ireland. Whatever the system of agreed custom controls may be between Northern Ireland and the Republic, is there anything to say that they will not come through that? There is nothing whatsoever. If they have made the effort to come to Ireland and to come north, they will do the same again. I do not see any reasons why that should not continue.
We have had some high-profile events, including the £77 million Titanic Belfast and the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre, and the Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia took place in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). There are cruise liners to Ulster shores that come regularly down to Strangford—to Mount Stewart, to Greyabbey and down the Ards peninsula—to explore. Lots of people come to take advantage of that and I cannot see that changing; why would that change?
Another area of cross-border connectivity is Northern Ireland’s electrical grid. Let us look at some of the connections we already have. There are three cross-border interconnectors with the Republic of Ireland. The main one, between Tandragee and Louth, has a capacity of 1,200 MW. We are also connected to the national grid of the island of Great Britain by the Moyle interconnector. Those are just two examples of connections between the two nations. We also have interconnector gas pipelines with the Republic’s gas supplier, Bord Gáis, which provides gas directly.
Those are things that are working and I do not see any reason why they would not happen, because all of those involved have good economic relations. That connection has been in place since 2005 when the gas company from down south made its first connection, with others in 2006 and 2007.
There are people who use the route across to access the Republic of Ireland for jobs and those who come shopping. Is there anything to indicate that those things will not continue? People will still come across the border to work and they will still come across to shop regularly.
Sometimes we need to look at some of the things that have happened. One of my constituents witnessed a people-smuggling operation coming back from Dublin to Belfast. He contacted the Garda Síochána and the guards arrested 50 people, who were taken away in Transit vans. There is an example of what can work because two countries want to see the system working. Criminal gangs and illegal migrants may attempt to use Northern Ireland as a route into the rest of the United Kingdom, but that is an issue that can and will be addressed.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim mentioned customs. Vehicle recognition makes it easier to travel between Belfast and Dublin and it is very possible that that can continue. The Secretary of State will try to get the best possible deal for Northern Ireland and I believe that we can have that.
No. I welcome the fact that the devolved regions are to be given a voice in that process and I am confident that the Northern Ireland Executive will stand up for Northern Ireland in that to ensure that Northern Ireland outside of the EU will be an outstanding success.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I welcome the Minister to his new portfolio—I am sure it will not be a boring time for him. I thank the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) for bringing this very important debate to the House, because it is our friends and neighbours in Northern Ireland who may be facing the greatest uncertainty from the vote to leave the EU. The 56% vote across Northern Ireland to remain has been mentioned and, with the prospect of a hardening border with Ireland, there will be many disappointed souls across the Irish sea. As the hon. Gentleman said, the referendum has certainly provided the wrong answer to a question that was not wanted in the first place.
I appreciate that some steps have already been taken to address issues around the common travel area.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) on securing the debate. Does she agree that there is an urgent need on the part of the Government to provide guarantees about the common travel area and the free movement of goods, services and people on the island of Ireland, which is central to our economy and pivotal to it?
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing up those points, which I will certainly address in my speech.
I appreciate that some steps have been taken to address those issues. The new Secretary of State, in a written answer last week, told me that senior civil servants from the UK and Ireland have already met to discuss it and to plan a way ahead. That is heartening news that is much to be welcomed, because, as I think everyone recognises, the damaging effects of a hard border on the economy of Northern Ireland would be substantial. However, as the hon. Lady, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) highlighted in their excellent speeches, even if the CTA is protected, the free movement of goods around the island and across the border will remain an issue of contention and of extreme importance to the economies either side of that border.
I applaud the Irish Government’s moves to try to get some answers on the issue ahead of the Brexit negotiations—particularly the Taoiseach’s attempts to persuade the German Chancellor of the importance of the issue. I also appreciate that the Chancellor was not in a position to give any assurances and that she will hold her counsel until we are deep into negotiations. Will the Minister give us any indication that the Government are taking the issue seriously, and perhaps give some indication on whether there is likely to be any discussion with the Stormont Executive and with the Irish Government about the free movement of goods as well as the free movement of people? Has the Minister discussed with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union the special circumstances in Northern Ireland? Have the legacy issues been raised with the Brexit ministerial team, so that the issues are clear in their mind when they go into negotiations with the EU?
On the comments by Enda Kenny at the MacGill Summer School in Donegal about a possible border poll, is the Secretary of State talking to the Irish Government about that possibility? I understand he is opposed to such a poll and has been clear that he will not call it, but there are circumstances, delineated in the Good Friday agreement, that would force him to. Will the Minister tell us whether contingency planning is taking place for all of the possible outcomes of that nudge towards a poll? For example, does he support the convening of a council of all concerned, so that it can be discussed around a table rather than in newspaper headlines?
The Secretary of State is only a few days into the job and it will not be an easy place to occupy for the foreseeable future—I almost feel sorry for him—but we need to get running. The important consideration in all of this will be the people. How does this affect the people of Northern Ireland and how does it affect their ability to make an income? The people and the economy will have to be front and centre all the way through this and we need to hear clear and definite responses from the ministerial team on how they intend to take this forward, what immediate plans they have and where they think the arrows are pointing. As the hon. Member for Belfast South said, “the detail is missing”. As I said earlier, I welcome the Minister to the job and look forward to hearing his answers.
I knew I would achieve something of note one day, Mr Hollobone; I had rather hoped for something of a little more significance, but I will take what I can get. Despite that, it is an absolute delight and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I join the general chorus of approbation in congratulating the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) on bringing this crucial matter before the House.
This will not be the last such discussion we have. I see many years ahead of this sort of detailed discussion. There is absolutely no doubt whatever that we will be discussing this, probably to the exclusion of almost all other business in the House, certainly over the next two years. Equally, if anyone thinks for a moment that the history of Ireland somehow means that there will not be a border—be that a hard border, a soft border, a customs border, a tariff border, or the possibility of a physical border from Derry to Dundalk, as per Enda Kenny’s comments—that does not matter; there will be a border. This will be a division between two separate countries. There will be a border, and whether it can be defined in the boreens or whether there will be border posts or customs posts does not matter; it will be a border.
There is an idea that this country can go to Brussels or Strasbourg and negotiate, when in fact all we can do is to seek clarification. There cannot be a negotiation when one party has decided to leave a relationship. We will not negotiate or sit and divide up the CDs. It is not like a marriage breaking up, it is one country that has made the decision to leave a group of 28. That is the reality. The hon. Member for Belfast South rightly raised the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. I think the Minister—I have confidence in him—is going to have to accept that there is a unique circumstance here, and it is not just about the common travel area. I pressed the then Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister, on this subject two or three weeks ago and she was reassuring on the continuation of the CTA. It certainly requires major legislation for it to be amended, and I am hopeful about that.
When the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) gets to his feet, a smile normally breaks across my face because I know that something good is going to emerge. As someone who enjoyed his hospitality, his good fellowship and his generosity of spirit in Maguiresbridge for the Twelfth celebrations, it is always a pleasure to see him, but today he set running another hare I had never heard of before. He is encouraging the Republic of Ireland to have its own referendum on moving away and to completely destroy this marvellous creation, this European Union, this great pride of civilisation that we have. He is encouraging our brothers, our sisters, our cousins, our neighbours, and in many cases our family members in the Republic of Ireland, to do what we have so foolishly done in this country—to turn our back on the security and safety of Europe. I rather hope that, when the word reaches Dublin that the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone has spoken, they will respectfully pay attention but decide not to go along with his advice on this occasion.
What can one say of the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson)? A meteorological overview of this whole matter, seen through the weather forecast in Larne, is always something to be treasured, but in his search for sunlight in this particular case he was avoiding the reality. There are dark clouds over Northern Ireland relating to this matter; the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) raised the north-south aspect of that. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the interconnector. That is yet another issue; there are so many that we need to discuss. I particularly look to the Minister for assurance on things like the European arrest warrant. Of the 50 EAW applications made between 2004 and 2012, 30 were made from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland. We need to know what the protocols for the European arrest warrant are.
I mentioned the joy of meeting the farming community in Maguiresbridge the other day. Do not forget that £1.2 billion of EU funding was to go to farming and agriculture in Northern Ireland between 2014 and 2020. I admire any group of people who care so much for the sanctity of their nation and for the proud privilege of wishing to stand on their own they would say no to £1.2 billion. My constituents would take a somewhat sanguine view of that, but I am encouraged by the self-sacrifice of the Fermanagh farmers.
There are many other issues that we need to discuss. Above all, we are faced with the reality that there will be some sort of border. We need to discuss that and go through it in detail, and we have started that process today. It will not finish for a long time, even after article 50 has been triggered. I am not saying I am looking forward to spending many hours in the company of the people in this Chamber, but I know I will and I know that it has to be done.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am not sure if you spent the weekend waiting for the phone to ring from No. 10, but the Government’s loss is this Chamber’s gain.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) on securing a debate on this important matter and I thank him for his kind words. Like him, I was on the remain side, but as the Prime Minister said, “Brexit means Brexit”. I spoke with the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland only this week. As my predecessor in this job, he offered me a few words of advice—I offered him a few words of advice about the delights of the Ulster fry—and he made it absolutely clear to me that he is 100% committed to serving the people of Ulster.
The border is not just about the movement of people, it is also about the flow of goods, services and trade. It is about allowing the people of the United Kingdom and Ireland to live and work closely together. The arrangements with Ireland have their roots in the political, cultural, social and economic ties between the UK and Ireland, and the EU referendum result does not and should not change that. The UK has always been an open and outward-looking country and a great global trading nation, and that is what we intend to continue to be. It is important to understand that we are still members of the EU, and nothing has changed in the way our people can travel, in the way our goods can move or in the way our services can be sold, including across the border with Ireland and to the common travel area. I welcome trucks from the Republic of Ireland travelling on the roads of Northern Ireland, not least because they are paying the HGV levy, which helps to defray the cost of maintaining and modernising those particular roads. That was actually one of my ideas when I worked in the Department for Transport.
The common travel area arrangement predates the EU, and we remain committed to it. The Prime Minister spoke with the Taoiseach last Wednesday underlining that commitment. We have the full support of the Irish Government in working with us to preserve that arrangement during the negotiation of the UK’s exit from the EU, and work is already under way.
Since 1922, the position of Irish citizens in the UK and the citizens of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in Ireland has been unique. Nationals of each country are treated virtually identically to citizens, with an openness of travel between the two states. The absence of immigration controls has been commonplace since that date. We want to protect the principle of free, unhindered travel between Ireland and the United Kingdom—both north-south and east-west. Our relationship with Ireland is special and it should remain so. Air passenger numbers between Ireland and the UK are 10 million to 12 million a year, and passenger ferries between Ireland and Great Britain carry around 2.8 million passengers per year. However, the border is not just about the movement of people; it is also about the flow of goods, services and trade. We want to protect and enhance those benefits. Bilateral trade in both directions between Ireland and the UK is worth more than €60 billion a year. The UK is Ireland’s biggest trading partner.
The significance of the common travel area arrangement is perhaps felt most keenly at the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland—a border more than 270 miles long that meanders across the island of Ireland, cutting across some 180 roads and covering all types of terrain. On a relatively short journey, the border can be crossed several times. A considerable number of border crossings each day are undertaken by British and Irish citizens going about their daily lives. On average, there are nearly 17,000 daily vehicle crossings across the land border. In 2014, it is estimated that 13,200 long-term migrants arrived in Northern Ireland from Ireland and 10,500 moved in the opposite direction. The border today is invisible, with substantial cross-border movement and increasing business, cultural and economic links—all of which is good. A return to customs points, passport checks and a hard border would be a critical economic issue for Northern Ireland and is not wanted by any. All political parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government share a vision of peace and prosperity.
The common travel area arrangement was preserved when the UK and Ireland joined the European Union, and we will look to preserve it again, now that the UK is negotiating to leave. We will be looking to preserve the position recognised by the protocols to the European Union treaties—namely, that the UK and Ireland
“may continue to make arrangements between themselves relating to the movement of persons between their territories”.
We share with Ireland an objective of preserving the common travel area and an open border on the island of Ireland, working together to avoid the imposition of hard border controls. For his part, the Taoiseach has been very clear that he wants to minimise any possible disruption to the flow of people, goods and services across the border. Indeed, I hope to have an early meeting with the Tánaiste to underline the importance of continued co-operation.
At a senior officials meeting in Dublin the week after the referendum, it was agreed that the UK and Ireland would work together on priority areas within the British-Irish relationship in the forthcoming negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. Three priority areas identified were: the common travel area and borders and customs issues; Northern Ireland and north-south issues; and bilateral security co-operation. The Government will ensure that the interests of all parts of the UK are protected and advanced as preparations are made for a new negotiation with the EU, protecting what the Prime Minister has called the “precious bond” between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and between “every one of us”. Maintaining the long tradition of operational co-operation will be an important element of ongoing UK-Ireland collaboration to secure and strengthen the common travel area and to prevent the imposition of UK border controls.
I note what the Minister has said about developing and strengthening the common travel area. Of course, the common travel area does not apply in terms of visas for visitors coming in from outside Britain and Ireland, except for Chinese and Indian visitors. Will he, in his new role, look at ensuring that similar flexibility can be available to people such as the Chernobyl children who visit on a charity basis? They are not allowed to come in from Donegal to avail themselves of offers of swimming or bowling in a place like Derry because they need a separate UK visa. Similarly, visa systems mean that refugees from Syria who are on either side of the border, with some in Letterkenny and some in Derry, are not allowed to cross the border to meet one another.
Those are all areas we can review. Indeed, they may well be a central part of the negotiations. The UK now has to raise its horizons to a global level. Travel and trade between the big trading blocs in the world are opportunities we must take. I commend the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) for the passion with which he spoke about the opportunities of Brexit and not just the Private Frazer doom and gloom we have heard from some others in the debate.
We must continue to protect our borders and the public from the threat posed to both the UK and Ireland from criminals and terrorists who may seek to enter the common travel area and do harm. There is a considerable amount of joint working and shared policy between common travel area members to secure the CTA external border—for example, investment in border processes; increased data sharing to inform immigration and border security decisions; interoperable passenger data systems; and harmonised visa policy and processes.
At the end of March, Ireland passed legislation that allows the UK to require carriers to provide advance passenger information on UK-Ireland journeys where collected by the carrier. A joint British-Irish visa scheme is an innovative scheme that shows just what can be achieved when the UK and Ireland work together in our shared interest. The scheme currently allows Indian and Chinese nationals who are issued visit visas for one country to also visit the other. That promotes tourism in both countries and is an important and expanding part of the Northern Ireland economy, which we are keen to see grow further.
Preparations for the negotiations to leave the EU must involve all the devolved Administrations, to ensure that the interests of all parts of the United Kingdom are properly taken into account. The UK Government are committed to working with the devolved Administrations as we prepare for a new negotiation with the EU.
Given the commitment to work with the devolved Administrations, will the British Government commit to support Irish citizens who have more or less equal rights to be in the United Kingdom? Will those rights remain? The Minister has skipped over that dramatically.
There are a number of rights that existed before we joined the European Union. Those treaties are still in place, and there is no reason to suspect that there will be any threat to that particular situation.
The common travel area is a product of its unique historical, geographical and political context, evolving over time in a pragmatic way to meet the changing needs of society. That tradition of co-operation and the regard shown for the interests of all parts of the common travel area and the UK should continue now. Our objective for the common travel area as we enter negotiations with the EU on the UK’s departure is clear: to protect the arrangement for future generations of British and Irish citizens, cognisant of our shared identity and history. The Government will continue to work with Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive in particular to see how best, collectively, we can work not only to maintain the common travel area but to enhance further the opportunities and strengthen our collective capability to protect our borders and the public from harm.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we are now in a unique situation in that Northern Ireland is being taken against our will out of the European Union while the other part of the island—Ireland—will remain part of it? That is the issue that presents difficulty for us.
I agree with my colleague that there is potentially a pulling apart and a disconnect here; I certainly share that anxiety. We should all work and do all we can to ensure that this does not do too much damage.
My point is that if we fail to plan, we plan to fail. This situation has to be managed meticulously, in the finer detail. My sense over the last week was that in the light of the referendum, there were little or no plans in Whitehall. I mean no disrespect to anybody, because the vote to leave was not the expected result, but there was no negotiation strategy. There was not even a negotiating team.
Sorry, I only have 30 seconds. There was no negotiating team and very few with the experience required. The same situation applied in Brussels, where there was no plan A, never mind a plan B. There are various attitudes among the 27 member states left towards Britain and the divorce. Negotiations can work if they are approached constructively and positively, but aggression and insults can be counterproductive. I thank my colleagues the hon. Members for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan)—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).