[Relevant documents: First Report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 2019–21, Unfettered Access: Customs Arrangements in Northern Ireland after Brexit, HC 161; and the Government Response, Session 2019–21, HC 783; Oral evidence taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on 6 January, 10 February, 24 February, 17 March, 28 April, 26 May and 16 June 2021, on Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, HC 767; Oral evidence taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on 23 June 2021, on the Work of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, HC 264; e-petition 573209, Trigger Article 16. We want unfettered GB-NI Trade; Oral evidence taken before the Petitions Committee on 22 February 2021, on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, HC 1232]
Before I call the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), I have to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution, which repeats the position taken on these matters yesterday.
Mr Speaker has been advised that there are active legal proceedings on the legality of the Northern Ireland protocol and active legal proceedings and open inquests in relation to historic troubles-related deaths. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters sub judice to allow full reference to the challenge to the Northern Ireland protocol as it concerns issues of national importance. Further, I am exercising that discretion to allow limited reference to active legal proceedings and open inquests in relation to historic troubles-related deaths. However, references to these cases should be limited to the context and the events which led to the cases but should not include details of the cases themselves nor the names of those involved in them. All hon. Members should, however, be mindful of matters that may be the subject of future legal proceedings and should exercise caution in making reference to individual cases.
I beg to move,
That this House supports the primary aims of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, which are to uphold the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions and to respect the integrity of the EU and UK internal markets; recognises that new infrastructure and controls at the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic must be avoided to maintain the peace in Northern Ireland and to encourage stability and trade; notes that the volume of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland far exceeds the trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; further notes that significant provisions of the Protocol remain subject to grace periods and have not yet been applied to trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and that there is no evidence that this has presented any significant risk to the EU internal market; regards flexibility in the application of the Protocol as being in the mutual interests of the EU and UK, given the unique constitutional and political circumstances of Northern Ireland; regrets EU threats of legal action; notes the EU and UK have made a mutual commitment to adopt measures with a view to avoiding controls at the ports and airports of Northern Ireland to the extent possible; is conscious of the need to avoid separating the Unionist community from the rest of the UK, consistent with the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement; and also recognises that Article 13(8) of the Protocol provides for potentially superior arrangements to those currently in place.
Thank you for that statement, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I would like to record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this debate. I am also very grateful that so many right hon. and hon. Members have put in to take part in it. I believe that this is a debate of significance, and at a time of significance.
The purpose of the debate is for the House to agree on how the Government should approach the issues that have arisen in Northern Ireland since the UK left the European Union. I remind the House that the Northern Ireland protocol was part of the 2019 EU withdrawal agreement, not part of the trade and co-operation agreement, which was ratified only this year. It is the protocol that is creating strains on power sharing under the Good Friday agreement, pressures on political stability and an upsurge in tension between the two communities in Northern Ireland.
Let me just say what this debate is not about. There is absolutely no value in point scoring about past divisions and disputes that we have had in this House. That would just further undermine public confidence. This debate is about looking forward, about what we must now agree to do to set things right. The proposals I will come to are in the interests of the EU as much as they are in the interests of the UK.
The motion sets out
“the primary aims of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, which are to uphold the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions and to respect the integrity of the EU and UK internal markets”
and states that
“new infrastructure and controls at the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic must be avoided to maintain the peace in Northern Ireland and to encourage stability and trade”.
The motion then points out an indisputable fact—that
“the volume of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland far exceeds the trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland”.
Why is this significant? In 2019, the Northern Ireland Executive found that over 90% of medicines, fruit and vegetables, books, clothes, household goods and baby equipment sold in Northern Ireland was arriving from other parts of the United Kingdom. In 2018, Northern Ireland sales to Great Britain were two and a half times greater than those to the Republic.
The protocol is clear: it is not intended to create what it refers to as “diversion of trade”. On the contrary, article 16 states:
“If the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade, the Union or the United Kingdom may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures.”
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Is it not significant that since the protocol came into operation, there has been a dramatic increase in imports from the Irish Republic into Northern Ireland and a fall in trade between GB and Northern Ireland? Indeed, Irish Ministers have boasted that one reason for having a delay in further border checks is to encourage further diversion of trade towards the Irish Republic.
I could not be more grateful for that intervention, and I will amplify the points that the right hon. Gentleman makes, because he is absolutely right. Have no doubt that there has been and continues to be diversion of trade due to the protocol. Article 16 exists in order that either party can take unilateral action to prevent that.
The Central Statistics Office Ireland reports that Republic of Ireland exports to Northern Ireland in the first four months of this year increased by 25% and by 40% relative to the first four months of 2019 and 2020. Northern Ireland exports to the Republic increased by 59% and 61% on the same comparison. Some are heralding that as the birth of an all-Ireland economy, but that is wholly contrary to the letter and spirit of the protocol.
The motion in my name continues by noting that
“significant provisions of the Protocol remain subject to grace periods and have not yet been applied to trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and that there is no evidence that this has presented any significant risk to the EU internal market”.
Those grace periods, applying to chilled meats, medicines and the requirement of export health certificates, are intended to lapse in the coming months. The UK Government may choose to extend them, as we already have, with or without the EU’s permission, and they would be justified in doing so because the grace periods are not doing any harm, but that is not a long-term solution.
The Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Simon Coveney, says that the grace periods exist
“to give supermarkets in particular, the opportunity to readjust their supply chains to adapt to”
what he refers to as “these new realities”. I am afraid that confirms in the minds of many that the protocol is being used to create diversion of trade.
Diversion of trade as a goal can form no basis for the rebuilding of trust and public confidence in both communities in Northern Ireland. Article 6 of the protocol requires the EU and the UK to
“use their best endeavours to facilitate the trade between Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom”.
I regret to say that, thus far, there is little evidence to suggest that the Republic of Ireland or the EU are attaching any importance to that vital commitment, and that is what is destroying trust.
The motion then states that this House
“regards flexibility in the application of the Protocol as being in the mutual interests of the EU and UK, given the unique constitutional and political circumstances of Northern Ireland; regrets EU threats of legal action; notes the EU and UK have made a mutual commitment to adopt measures with a view to avoiding controls at the ports and airports of Northern Ireland to the extent possible; is conscious of the need to avoid separating the Unionist community from the rest of the UK, consistent with the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement; and also recognises that Article 13(8) of the Protocol provides for potentially superior arrangements to those currently in place.”
That is the real point of the motion: that the protocol is only one solution to the challenge of avoiding a hard border in Ireland while also respecting the integrity of the EU and UK internal markets.
There always was more than one way to skin a cat, and the EU agreed to that in article 13(8). Unfortunately, the EU seems implacably opposed to any discussion about how a subsequent agreement under article 13(8) of the protocol could supersede the protocol in whole or in part. Paragraph 25 of the political declaration accompanying the withdrawal agreement also envisaged:
“Such facilitative arrangements and technologies will also be considered in alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland.”
Sadly, the protocol was not superseded by the trade and co-operation agreement, but now is the time for the EU to accept that its application of the protocol is not achieving its legitimate aims. Either the protocol must be changed by agreement or the UK must exercise its sovereign right to jettison the whole thing as a fundamental threat to peace and stability in Northern Ireland and to the integrity of the United Kingdom.
The EU could start by agreeing to an expanded category of goods that are not at risk of onward travel to the Republic of Ireland. We already have an authorised trader scheme for supermarkets; that could also be expanded, creating far less paperwork than there is now and a permanent exemption from unnecessary sanitary and phytosanitary checks. The EU could also agree to allow non-EU-compliant UK products to be imported into Northern Ireland if they are not at risk of moving into the rest of the EU internal market. The question is whether the EU is capable of being flexible and pragmatic, or whether it will continue to insist on imposing its rules, whatever the cost to peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, was one of the two leaders who won the Nobel peace prize for negotiating the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. He has proposed a new solution: replacing the protocol with a system of mutual enforcement. This would mean that the UK and the EU would each ensure and guarantee that goods travelling across the shared border would be compliant with each other’s standards. Light checks would occur, but away from the border, and both sides would share relevant data on exports.
That proposal would remove the need for direct EU jurisdiction over Northern Ireland; Northern Ireland would be under UK law and fully restored as part of the UK internal market. It would ensure the absence of any new infrastructure on the border itself, it would guarantee the integrity of the EU internal market and, most importantly, it would accord equal respect to the concerns of both communities in Northern Ireland in a way that the present protocol utterly fails to do.
The proposal has not yet been tabled by the UK Government, but my understanding is that they broadly support the sentiments of the motion. Ideally, the EU would accept its obligations under paragraph 25 of the 2019 political declaration and agree in principle that the protocol will be superseded by these pragmatic and practical proposals.
We must hope that the EU lives up to its own ideals. Article 8 of the treaty on European Union obliges the EU to
“develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries, aiming to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness…based on cooperation.”
If the EU refuses in principle even to open these discussions, the UK will have no option but to resort to article 16 of the protocol and take unilateral action. The world is watching how the EU is dealing with the United Kingdom.
Sometimes, over the course of this, the view is taken in the EU, or even in Ireland, that somehow the rest of the UK, or Great Britain, has no regard at all for the status of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. May I just read back to my hon. Friend two facts from a recent poll, which shows that to be completely wrong? When asked whether it is unfair to Northern Ireland that it is treated differently from the rest of the UK, over 50% of the residents from the whole of the United Kingdom said, yes, it was unfair. The second question, which is really important, was: how important or unimportant is it that Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom. Again, well over half—53%—said “important”. Interestingly, that is a margin of 41% over those in the United Kingdom who said it was unimportant. We want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom.
My right hon. Friend puts down an important marker. We can dismiss any idea that the United Kingdom as a whole is not interested in the interests of Northern Ireland or in Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom. That is an established fact and he has dealt with that very capably.
In conclusion, the world is watching how the EU is dealing with the United Kingdom. The UK will offer agreement on what the problems are and how they must be resolved. Together, the EU and the UK can look for common ground about how to do so; otherwise the rest of the world will see that the grounds for invoking article 16 have indeed already been met, and action will have to be taken.
I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on securing this debate today and on giving Members the opportunity to express their views.
For people in Northern Ireland, the political and economic stakes could not be higher, as the protocol presents the greatest ever threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom. The rigorous implementation of the protocol that some anti-Brexit parties in Northern Ireland have called for would be bad for consumers and bad for business. It would be socially disruptive, economically ruinous and politically disastrous for Northern Ireland. As Lord Frost has repeatedly pointed out, the Northern Ireland protocol in its present form is unsustainable, and it needs to go.
Over the last 50 years, if we have learned anything in Northern Ireland it is that, if our political arrangements are to last, they will require support from right across the community, and there is not a single elected representative in any Unionist party who supports the Northern Ireland protocol. The Government have promised that they will publish their plans for the future of the protocol before Parliament rises for the summer recess, and that cannot come a moment too soon.
Much has been said about how we got here, but, today, I want to set out where we need to go from here. My party will not prejudge what the Government have to say, but I want to make it clear what any new approach needs to achieve. That is why, today, I am setting out seven tests that I believe are important for any new arrangements. Our tests are grounded not in a Unionist wish list, but in promises that have already been made in one form or another to the people of Northern Ireland. It is not too much to ask that the Government stand by these promises.
First, new arrangements must fulfil the guarantee of the sixth article of the Act of Union 1800. That Act of Union is no ordinary statute; it is the constitutional statute that created the United Kingdom for the people whom I represent. The sixth article essentially requires that everyone in the United Kingdom is entitled to the same privileges and to be on the same footing as to goods in either country and in respect of trade within the United Kingdom. Under the protocol, this is clearly no longer the case. The House will be aware—you made reference to the legal challenge on this point, Madam Deputy Speaker—that the High Court has held that the protocol does not put the people of Northern Ireland on an equal footing with those in the rest of the United Kingdom. In defending their position, the Government lawyers made it clear that the protocol impliedly repeals article 6 of the Act of Union. That is a matter of grave concern to us, and it is a matter that needs to be put right.
Secondly, any new arrangements must avoid any diversion of trade, and I welcome what has been said already. It is simply not acceptable that consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland are told that they must purchase certain goods from the EU and not from Great Britain. In this regard it is notable that article 16 of the protocol already permits the UK to take unilateral safeguarding measures to ensure that there is no diversion of trade, and the Government must do that.
Thirdly, it is essential that any new arrangements that are negotiated do not constitute a border in the Irish sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In line with the Act of Union, there should be no internal trade border in the UK. Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market must be fully restored. Fourthly, new arrangements must give the people of Northern Ireland a say in making the laws that govern them. That guarantee is implicit in article 3 of protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights, which clearly states that where people are subject to laws, they should be able freely to express their opinion on those laws. Northern Ireland does not have that in relation to EU regulations being imposed on it. Fifthly, new arrangements must result in no checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, or from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister gave that commitment on 8 December 2019, and it should be honoured.
On that point about goods moving from Northern Ireland to GB unmolested and unhindered, was my right hon. Friend as shocked as I was when Retail NI, Manufacturing NI, Ulster Farmers Union and haulage representatives confirmed before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee this morning that from January 2022, they will have to put in place documentary evidence of what they are moving from one part of the United Kingdom to the other part of the United Kingdom? Moving those goods does no damage and places no impediment on the European single market. My right hon. Friend must be appalled by that requirement.
My hon. Friend makes the point very powerfully.
Sixthly, new arrangements should ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, unless agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. That commitment was made in paragraph 50 of the joint report by negotiators from the European Union and the United Kingdom Government in December 2017. Our Government sadly failed to honour that paragraph when they concluded the Northern Ireland protocol. We expect that commitment, which was made by the Government, to be honoured.
On those last two points about no new regulatory barriers and the checks on goods going between GB and NI, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm, as it would be helpful for the House, that there were already checks on animal health, given that the island of Ireland was a single animal health zone? Is he saying that the checks that already existed pre-Brexit are not encompassed by his point, and he is talking about new checks that have come along as a result of us leaving the European Union?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Of course we accept that checks that were in place before Brexit should continue, and goods that are proceeding on from Great Britain through Northern Ireland to the EU may of course have different arrangements. We object to goods that are moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland being subject to new checks under the protocol.
Seventhly, new arrangements must preserve the letter and the spirit of Northern Ireland’s constitutional guarantee, set out most recently in the Belfast agreement, which requires in advance the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland for any diminution in its status as part of the United Kingdom. Our consent was not sought for the diminution in our status and the repealing of a key element of the Act of Union that changed our status with the Northern Ireland protocol. To reduce the constitutional status to our having a say in the final step of leaving the United Kingdom would mean that, in effect, it is no meaningful guarantee at all. If the constitutional guarantee for Northern Ireland is to have any meaning, it applies not just to the question of whether we are part of a united Ireland or remain in the United Kingdom. The Belfast agreement is clear that it is about any change to the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, and our consent was not sought and has most certainly not been given.
In conclusion, there is no practical or pragmatic reason why arrangements cannot be put in place that satisfy those tests and prove no meaningful threat to the integrity of the EU single market. We require that Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market is restored and we expect that the Government will take steps to do that in line with the previous commitments that they have given, from the Prime Minister down. My party will assess any new arrangements against these seven tests. I hope that for the sake of the integrity of the United Kingdom and the people of Northern Ireland we will not be disappointed.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) for instigating the debate. It is nice to see a mainstream debate on the affairs of Northern Ireland taking place on the Floor of the House.
Let us remind ourselves of two things at the start. Lord Frost confirmed to our Committee, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, just a few weeks ago that he negotiated the protocol, he understood the protocol and he signed off the protocol. How people have interpreted one or two parts of it may be surprising, but it is not legitimate for the Government effectively to say, “This was new, it was an impost, it crept up on us.” This was a negotiated document between the two parties.
Without the protocol, there would still have to be checks. We are talking about the defence, for want of a better phrase, of an internal market and a single market. Those alternative arrangements, as some called them some little while ago, would, according to HM Revenue and Customs, be likely to be as, if not more, complicated and possibly more costly. For those who may be thinking that, if we get rid of the protocol, everything will go back to being normal, that will not happen. We are all in a new normal now.
This is important because there are a lot of concerns, predominantly among the loyalist community, that this is in some way a stepping stone to a united Ireland or a move to a border poll. Everybody, from the Taoiseach to the Prime Minister—at last week’s Liaison Committee, in response to a question from me—to those in Brussels and anywhere else, has to recognise that the integrity of Northern Ireland as an intrinsic and key part of the United Kingdom remains. The protocol does not change that constitutional balance one way or another.
I take the point just made by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). I have yet to be persuaded that anybody, in their heart of hearts, ever defines their sense of belonging or loyalty by invisible trading arrangements. Citizenship, a sense of belonging and a sense of nationhood are far more powerful and emotive than that.
We should remind ourselves that there are some—there will be none in this House, I know—who refuse to accept the referendum result on the Good Friday agreement itself, and have gone around saying, “Unless we get our way on the protocol and unless it is scrapped”. Let us pause there for a moment to say that there is no majority view in support of the scrapping of the protocol. Nobody by the same token is saying that it is perfect; there is scope for change and improvement. But let us not inadvertently fall into the trap of using this debate on the protocol as a Trojan horse to undermine the Good Friday agreement. Everybody knows that, without that bedrock, there can be no progress in Northern Ireland, and none that we have seen over the past several decades.
Business wants to be engaged. Let me say to the Minister, and I look forward to her summing up: let us have that investment conference. Let us maximise those opportunities. Invest Northern Ireland is dealing with 30 requests at the moment. The business engagement forum needs to be formalised with a set agenda and regular meetings.
Trust is so important here. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex talked about the need for the EU to change. I agree in many respects. We need to see flexibility on goods at risk. We need to see flexibility on the precautionary principle and the differential of how we use laws. It is either illegal unless it is made legal, or legal unless it is made illegal. The benefit of the extensions of the grace periods has illustrated that the single market does not collapse as a result of that. Common sense is required.
I am not here to act as an apologist for the EU, but from all my conversations with them I think the issue is one of trust. They still remain uncertain as to whether Her Majesty’s Government are intent upon implementing a reformed protocol using the offices of the Joint Committee. Without that trust or certainty, there can be no progress. We need to switch our mindset from negotiate or renegotiate, to reform and implement. Let us remind ourselves that the Vice President has no mandate to renegotiate. That would have to be given by the member states and any hope for that would come only if we see that trust rebuilt. I therefore urge the Government to have that joint investment conference, build on the trust and formalise business engagement.
The Select Committee heard today from two witnesses. Let me quote both of them. Aodhán Connolly, from Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said: “The most frustrating thing for business in Northern Ireland is we can see the solutions, we just don’t see the political will to do them.” From the Ulster Farmers’ Union, Victor Chestnutt said: “Solutions are sitting there.” Well, let us not just let them sit there; let us grab them. Let us make them work and let the twin benefits of access to the UK internal market and the European Union’s single market be that blue touch paper that will reignite and light a post-covid Northern Ireland economy where the benefits to business and to citizens can be fully felt.
To confirm the answer to the question which is being silently asked, there is no mechanism whereby Members can intervene on someone who is speaking virtually. I just ask for patience from hon. Members. Hopefully, we will only have three more days of this arrangement—we all hope.
It is a genuine pleasure to follow the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), whose very sensible and pragmatic approach to the issue of the protocol is one I commend to his hon. and right hon. Friends on the Government Benches.
It is remarkable that it is the Prime Minister and Lord Frost who negotiated the protocol. I now read that Lord Frost is saying things like, “I had not really understood the chilling effect of the agreement.” We have to ask whether he did understand, really, what he was signing up to, or whether this is now part of political rhetoric and the unfortunate cycle of distrust and increasing mistrust between not just the United Kingdom and the European Union, but the United Kingdom and the United States and even, alas, the population in Northern Ireland. I understand that only 6% of the population in Northern Ireland have any trust in our United Kingdom Government. That is a staggering statistic. On the answer to this, I share the Select Committee Chair’s view that we have to rebuild trust in our relationships.
One of the bizarre things is that for an awful lot of industry and commerce in Northern Ireland, the reality is that the world is going on very well. If we cast our minds back to 9 January, I think it was, the Belfast News Letter carried an article that quoted the Road Haulage Association saying that we were within five days of our supply chains to Northern Ireland breaking down. We are now in day 208. Those supply chains have not broken down and most businesses are getting on with getting around some of the undoubted issues that arose through the protocol.
Manufacturing Northern Ireland tells me that its members are overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the protocol, not necessarily entirely as is, but as the basis going forward. They do not want to see another big change. The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry recently reported in its quarterly economic survey that two thirds of its members believe that Northern Ireland’s unique status post EU exit presents opportunities for the region. These are not the cries that we have heard today about business and commerce being savaged by the protocol.
I accept that there are specific circumstances that are difficult. These are technical issues and technical issues require technical answers. Some of that can happen by us agreeing to adopt veterinary standards that are compatible with the EU. That would be a very sensible way forward. It would mean that even chilled meats could travel through Great Britain into Northern Ireland. If we make sure that we have that alignment, that is not necessarily against our interests, not simply with regard to Northern Ireland but in allowing GB produce from our farms to be sold into the rest of the European Union. We have to look for a common-sense solution.
These technical issues can be resolved only if we build back the relationship of trust between Brussels and London, and, as the Chair of the Select Committee said, recognise that we need to extend that climate of trust to all 27 capitals of the European Union countries if we are to go forward. The real tragedy is that the erosion of trust has been built on political advantage in terms of domestic politics by our Prime Minister. He has to turn away from that because it is so dangerous. The threat to the Good Friday agreement does not come through the protocol; it comes through the drip-drip erosion of trust in governance in the United Kingdom on the part of the people of Northern Ireland. The 6% who do trust this Government are now a remarkably small minority. We have to rebuild that trust now. Dial down the rhetoric, Prime Minister, and, yes, dial down the rhetoric in Brussels as well. We must recognise that the erosion of trust is damaging for the United Kingdom not simply in terms of UK-EU relations, and not even simply in the context of Northern Ireland—it is also massively damaging in our relationship with, for example, President Biden. We know that he reported that strong words were spoken advising the UK Government to dial down the climate of antagonism and distrust.
Let us get the technical solutions sorted out. Let us get issues around common veterinary standards sorted out. That would be popular in both GB and Northern Ireland. Let us dial down, as I say, this climate of mistrust. Let us begin to rebuild capacity to have these negotiations on the basis of not public rhetoric and public diplomacy, but the hard work that we expect our diplomats to do in quiet rooms. In that way, we can all move forward.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) on landing this debate at a very timely time. It is a really important debate that I hope the Government are listening to carefully. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd). I do not entirely agree with his analysis but I do admire his intentions.
I still go to Northern Ireland on a regular basis having been Secretary of State, and shadow Secretary of State before that. I am detecting real concern and a sense of bewilderment in Northern Ireland. Businesses are having trouble getting materials. Basic products are not available in the shops: not just food but simple gardening equipment and other elements of everyday life. My concern is that that sense of bewilderment is turning to anger. That is justified, because the people of Northern Ireland are in a different constitutional place owing to the protocol.
It is not just a Northern Ireland issue. I am the chairman of the Centre for Brexit Policy, which is an all-party think-tank—I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Between 2 and 4 July, we commissioned Savanta ComRes to do some national polling and the results are very interesting: 53% of UK adults say it is important that Northern Ireland remains part of UK; 50% say that the protocol is unfair to Northern Ireland and that it is treated differently from the rest of the UK; 57% say that the protocol is a threat to peace and stability in Northern Ireland; and 42% agree that by tying Northern Ireland to the EU single market rules, the protocol acts in way not to implement Brexit. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) should listen to that comment carefully.
All of that goes back to the issue of the border, which was always hugely exaggerated by those who wanted the UK to stay in the EU. In the last recorded total of all Northern Ireland’s sales, 68% were local, 17% went to Great Britain and only 6% went to the Republic of Ireland. Going the other way, the Republic of Ireland’s sales to Northern Ireland were only £2.6 billion in 2017—that is 0.16%, or one six-hundred-and-twenty-fifth of total EU exports. It is simply inconceivable that that trade could utterly pollute the single market’s integrity. That trade is being conducted by big international companies such as Diageo and Lactalis—highly competent, professional people who already dealt with the currency border, the excise duty border and the VAT border. The border was always massively exaggerated. There were always other solutions, and certainly better solutions than those we have in the protocol.
Let us look at what is happening. The permanent secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland said to the Stormont Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that Northern Ireland’s population
“is under half a percent of that across the European Union, yet the documentary checks…represent one fifth of the equivalent documentation right across the EU.”
A monster has been created around a very limited problem. Everyone should listen carefully to the noble Lord Trimble, who won a Nobel prize and put his whole career on the line to work through the peace agreement that was signed as the Belfast agreement with John Hume. He has pointed out that Northern Ireland has 2.5 times more customs checks than Rotterdam. When President Biden was here recently, Lord Trimble made it clear in The Times that the Good Friday agreement is threatened by the protocol because the constitution has been changed and the vital principle of consent—the basis on which he got the Belfast agreement through—has been breached. It is quite clear that laws are now being imposed on citizens in Northern Ireland on which they have no say.
A couple of days ago, Lord Frost of Allenton, who has manfully tried to make the protocol work, reported to the House of Lords that 800 new pieces of legislation have been dumped on Northern Ireland from the EU. It did not have to be like this. Back in October 2018, I took Lord Trimble and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) to see Michel Barnier and Sabine Weyand. We explained that we would respect the single market. We said, “If we sell goods to the US market, we respect their regulations. If we are to sell into the EU’s single market as a third country, we would always respect the regulations.” That is the way forward. They listened carefully, but, sadly, that approach was not pursued by the then Government.
Lord Trimble helped to write an important paper on mutual enforcement, published recently by the Centre for Brexit Policy. It says, in simple terms, that under UK law, and justiciable in the UK courts, all exports into the EU will meet EU standards and vice versa. All the fuss about regulation would therefore apply only to the tiny number of exports. We are not going to see some Indonesian tyre manufacturer trying to smuggle containers of tyres through to west German car plants from Larne and out through Dublin—that is simply not going to happen. Many of these problems could be sorted out through the concept of mutual enforcement. I take my hat off to Lord Frost, who has really tried to make the protocol work, but the EU has been obtuse and pig-headed and rebuffed every attempt.
When something clearly does not work, is causing damage in Northern Ireland and, as the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) pointed out, is clearly a breach of the Acts of Union, we should recognise that, not fight it. We should not overrule the result of the EU referendum and adopt a whole lot of EU law just to sort out a tiny problem on the Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland border. Mutual enforcement is the way ahead. Everybody in the debate should respect the views of a Nobel peace prize winner, and that is his solution. I would like to see the Government adopt it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) on getting this matter on to the Floor of the House. I also welcome the comments from the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and the encouragement he has given with the survey results he has put on the record today saying to all the people of the United Kingdom that we are all as one in this. I would say, and I encourage my Conservative colleagues across the House to say, that Brexit cannot be properly done or properly completed until we resolve the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol, because it is an outstanding matter that does need to be resolved.
Daily, I am horrified whenever parcels arrive from GB to my constituents in Northern Ireland with a label on saying “Northern Ireland” and “foreign parcel”. Coming from post offices in GB to my constituents, this is reminding them day and daily that they are receiving foreign goods in their own country, when they are not; this is about ordinary commerce within the single market of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has in effect been partitioned by this protocol, and that is why we welcome this debate and why we welcome the fact that it must be fixed.
I must put on record my declaration—and I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—that I am currently engaged as part of the commercial case in the High Court against the protocol on behalf of commercial entities in Northern Ireland.
For all of the litigation that has been ongoing, it really will not solve this issue. What we actually need is political determination. The courts of the land are not there to drive this matter forward; it is for this House to do so. This House is sovereign for all of the United Kingdom, and the sooner this House and the Government determine that they are going to change the protocol, the better for us all. We are, in effect, at a fork in the road.
The protocol, of course, contains its own recipe to fix this: under article 16, it can be unilaterally removed where there is seismic social, community and commercial activity detrimental to a part of the United Kingdom. Section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 also allows for it to be changed unilaterally by the Government, because this House is sovereign. So let us urge the Government to use their majority and to use the sovereignty of this House to fix this matter and to get Brexit done, as we all want to see it done, and let us use this House to put in place the mutual enforcement agreements that we know will be better for all of Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Minister for the Economy recently wrote to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee saying that he had “significant concern” about the protocol because of the economic divergence that it is clearly creating for British firms in GB trading with British companies in Northern Ireland. He went on to say that this was creating “commercial discrimination”—commercial discrimination because of a protocol that was supposed to help us and that was supposed to give us the best of both worlds. It is not acceptable, and it has got to be changed.
At the heart of this protocol lies confusion. When a President of one of our European neighbours does not even know and acknowledge that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom—Monsieur Macron—how could there not be confusion? The essence of the protocol is not constructive ambiguity. The essence of the protocol has been confusion about Northern Ireland’s place: is it in the EU customs union; is it out of EU territory; is it in UK territory; what is its actual status? That has confused the mix, and we have to make sure we move away from that confusion.
We do not in Northern Ireland have the best of both worlds; we are essentially in a commercial no-man’s land. Let me put some issues to the House on that basis. One of the last-minute revisions made to the protocol on 10 December last year—one that was shoehorned in under the radar—was aspects of the EU’s single-use plastics directive. That means that on top of the already burdensome, costly adaptations that businesses are having to make to continue to sell products in Northern Ireland, regulations will widen even further in January. This will mean that plastics labelling requirements will be imposed on producers for a range of items from wet wipes to drinking cups to tobacco products—a whole host of products that contain plastic—but no transposing regulations have yet been put in place, so we do not know what companies are going to have to do. We now have even more confusion and nonsensical red tape over the trade of wet wipes from GB to Northern Ireland. This will pose incredible problems for Northern Ireland.
Other commercial realities were identified this morning in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, when manufacturing, haulage, retail and farming all came together and gave us the sorry picture that over 77% of their base is still experiencing daily problems with the operation of the protocol. There is an increase in wage inflation and an unacceptable spectre coming down the tracks that will mean Northern Ireland having to put in place even more red tape in January 2022 whenever it comes to putting its goods into GB. The overwhelming consensus is that this is not acceptable. Words have been very good, but we now require action by the Government.
I very much welcome this debate. A lot has been said about the Northern Ireland protocol over recent months. Particular attention has been given to the concerns expressed by Unionists and loyalists, and there has been a focus on street protests and the risk of wider tensions and even violence, but it is worth stressing that this does not reflect Northern Ireland as a whole. Indeed, it does not reflect the majority viewpoint in Northern Ireland politically.
It is fair to say that no one in Northern Ireland particularly likes or wants the protocol, but the majority of people, businesses and elected representatives understand why it is there and why it is necessary to protect the Good Friday agreement. They are not calling for it to be scrapped. Instead, they recognise that there are genuine problems, but they want to make it work through reform and change, and to take advantage of some of the relative opportunities for Northern Ireland from having a footprint in both the UK and EU markets.
The protocol reflects the choices made by the UK Government and Parliament, and also by the DUP, in relation to Brexit. It was not imposed upon the UK; it was a free choice in order to facilitate a choice around Brexit. Those advocating for the protocol to be scrapped need to answer the question as to what their plausible, realistic alternative is. We are seeing a lot of wishful thinking on supposed alternatives, including from a number of speakers today, but alternative arrangements, mutual enforcement and Ireland leaving the single market are nonsensical avenues, all of which have been raised, discussed and dismissed over the past number of years. It is like a trip down memory lane, hearing them all being recycled. We have to get real and focus on the general parameters for getting this sorted.
This is also not a constitutional or identity issue, and those who are framing it as such are making a fundamental error in doing so, as well as backing themselves into corner from which they will have difficulty extracting themselves. Rather, it should be seen as a genuine economic issue and challenge. The nature of the Union has evolved over the past 200 years. It was never a fixed entity. The fact that we have seen the union with Ireland become the union with Northern Ireland and then seen the Good Friday agreement are key testaments to that change. However, Northern Ireland remains as much a part of the United Kingdom as it did on its creation 100 years ago this year.
There has also been a lot of talk about the issue of consent. I have to say that there was very little consideration of the issue of consent when Northern Ireland was dragged out of the European Union against the wishes of majority of the people there, but if we are talking about consent today, we have to recognise that once again the Government and Parliament have consented to the protocol. The issue of dual consent inside Northern Ireland does not apply in this case, because this is an issue that pertains to what is an excepted matter in terms of the devolved settlement, in that it is a matter of international affairs.
All that said, there is much we can do to make what is otherwise a solid line down the Irish sea into a dotted line. That involves finding as many flexibilities and mitigations as possible, consistent with the respective legal requirements of both the UK and the EU. That must be done by agreement; unilateral action leaves us in a very difficult position, particularly our businesses, which have to trade on a firm legal footing.
Fundamentally, it must be understood that there is a trade-off between the degree of alignment between the UK and the EU, and the level of checks and frictions across the Irish sea. The solutions do not lie simply in pushing the boundaries in relation to the protocol. In many respects, the trade and co-operation agreement is a minimal trade deal, especially in relation to non-tariff barriers. The UK has the option of making supplemental agreements with the European Union, including a veterinary agreement.
That is imperative, not just to address the issue across the Irish sea but to help all UK agrifood exporters to the EU, who are currently suffering from major drops in sales. Many independent sovereign states have concluded veterinary agreements with the EU, and so can and should the UK. Every MP who today professes concern for Northern Ireland but at the same time insists on Brexit purity needs to reflect very strongly on this. A Swiss-style deal would be optimal, but there are other options. I call for much responsibility and creativity in this regard from both the UK and the EU.
However, in reaching an outcome, there is one key ingredient: trust. That is a particular challenge for the UK Government, who face a trust paradox. Flexibility and pragmatism requires the EU to trust the UK as and when we seek to bend the rules to accommodate the particular challenges facing Northern Ireland, but so far we have seen the Government fail to honour existing agreements, make unilateral moves, and even have legal action taken against them. Next week, we are expecting another statement from Lord Frost in relation to uni- lateral actions.
Indeed, we have seen Lord Frost and others seek to rewrite history and deny the reality of what they negotiated and signed up to regarding the protocol, and we have seen mixed signals, with acknowledgement on the one hand of the need to fix and work the protocol, and the suggestion on the other hand that article 16 could be invoked and the protocol suspended or even ditched. That is not viable and would bring huge consequences for the UK.
The United Kingdom left the EU lawfully and democratically under our own constitutional arrangements by sovereign Acts of Parliament, including a referendum, all based on our fundamental internal domestic law of sovereignty under our own unwritten constitution. The EU has always known that.
We left the EU and the European Communities Act 1972, in the light of previous centuries of democratic self-government and contribution to European peace, because of long-standing concerns about European integration, undemocratic majority voting for law making behind closed doors without even a transcript, EU regulations incompatible with our desire for competitive global trading, and awareness that there has never been a level playing field.
Our sovereign Acts of Parliament are Acts of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. They cover trading co-operation, withdrawal itself, and the Northern Ireland protocol, which was made during parliamentary paralysis in 2019 before the last general election. There is also, of course, the Good Friday agreement, which is important. It is in the mutual neighbourly interests of the United Kingdom and the EU to recognise that we have left the EU and are no longer in its legislative and judicial sphere.
Crucially, in addition to article 16, section 38(2)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom passed by a large majority—what is known as the “notwithstanding” section—expressly enacted, after the protocol was made, that we are able to pass our own primary legislation to override the withdrawal agreement and the protocol should Parliament so decide, notwithstanding those instruments. That is within our sovereign constitutional framework of national interest and the constitutional and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, and to maintain peace and stability.
Indeed, Mr Lauterpacht and other great authorities have made it abundantly clear that, as far as they are concerned, international law and the Vienna convention include provision for terminating treaties and for recognising fundamental errors in their composition and implementation. Section 38, therefore, is consistent with clear universal recognition of our fundamental internal constitutional domestic law of sovereignty and fully respects international law. It is in our mutual interests, therefore, with mutual enforcement, to protect the constitutional integrity of the UK and to maintain trade stability and order, and to protect the peace process, as is clearly stated in the legal instruments. We also need to do that, as has been stated, given the unique political circumstances of the constitutional and political situation in Northern Ireland.
The Government will be well aware of all this and, I believe, will not be deflected from insisting on our sovereignty when the EU persists in its current attitudes. Therefore, I urge the Government to continue negotiations in the short term, bearing in mind what I and others have said in this debate, and mindful of the necessity in our national interest to take such action as is our right if the EU does not alter its current approach, as Madame von der Leyen has previously indicated repeatedly, along with the leaders of some of the member states, in a way that is consistent with how the protocol should be interpreted.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I am grateful to the Members who tabled the motion.
The rigorous implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol would be economically disastrous for Northern Ireland and an affront to Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. Concerns about the protocol are not limited to Unionists in Northern Ireland, but are shared by businesses and consumers from right across the community. For the sake of Northern Ireland, the protocol cannot stand and must be superseded or replaced. With the Government stating that they will announce their plans for the protocol before the summer recess, I hope this will be the last time that many—indeed, any—of these arguments need to be rehearsed.
Unfortunately, discussions of the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol and Brexit have too often been characterised by fundamental misapprehensions, which have in part led to the present difficulties. It has been said so often that Brexit or any hardening of the border with the Republic of Ireland is a breach of the Belfast agreement that people could be forgiven for believing it. Some have made these claims out of ignorance, but it is hard to believe that others could be given such a fool’s pardon. No matter how many times such sentiments are expressed by those in Ireland, the EU, the United States or even this House, it does not make them true. To those who make such claims, I ask one simple question: what specific provision in the agreement does Brexit or a border hardened in any way offend against?
In the High Court in Belfast in 2019, Lord Justice McCloskey made it clear that Brexit was not contrary to the Belfast agreement, nor did the agreement require a customs union or continued regulatory alignment. It is not Brexit but the protocol that offends against Northern Ireland’s constitutional guarantee in the Belfast agreement. Yet there is barely a mention, by those who were prepared to weaponise the Belfast agreement against an imaginary breach, when a real one is evident. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the prospect of a border on the island of Ireland is being cynically used by the EU.
I have no greater wish to see a hard border in the island of Ireland than anyone else, but the fact is that there is no realistic prospect of such a border. Politically, no one wants it; it would be difficult practically; and even from an EU perspective it is not necessary to protect the integrity of the single market. For three reasons, it is clear that even the EU does not believe that the Irish sea border is not required to protect its single market. First, the grace periods have operated without any obvious damage to the single market. That demonstrates that the application of single market laws for goods is not necessary, and is a political choice, not a law of nature.
Secondly, article 16 of the protocol agreed by the European Commission makes provision for unilateral steps to be taken by the EU where, for example, there has been a diversion of trade. Given the low threshold for such intervention, it must have been within the contemplation of the EU that certain safeguarding steps would be required that presumably would not have resulted in a hardening of the Irish border.
Thirdly, the EU agreed a consent mechanism for the Northern Ireland Assembly—although it was completely unacceptable from a Unionist perspective—that could see articles 5 to 10 cease to have effect. Again, it must have been assumed that a lack of consent for these provisions would not result in the restoration of a border on the island of Ireland.
The reality is that there are solutions that allow the EU to protect its single market in a sensible and pragmatic way that is consistent with the economic integrity of Northern Ireland and does not require a border on the island of Ireland. If the EU is not prepared to take such a course, it is incumbent on our Government to prioritise the interests of this country over the unrealistic demands of the European Union.
Today, this House has had the opportunity to debate the protocol, but the real test for this Government and their commitment to the Union will come in the next week. Only then will we know whether their words are met by their actions.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) on securing it; it is long overdue, but through his persistence we have achieved it.
It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart). Before I get on with my own thoughts, I want to pick up on something she said. She is quite right that if anyone reads the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, they will see, first and foremost, that the border is not specifically mentioned in it. We have had all the wonderful great and good wandering around demanding that the agreement stand, when in fact the border is never once mentioned. Secondly, there has always been a border—my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) has made the point that there is a border for VAT, excise and currency. The whole point that the hon. Member for Upper Bann makes is right, and it stands, but that is the bit that has gone missing.
The more something is said and the bigger the lie, the more people believe it—but it has been a lie from start to finish, which has meant that there has been no rational discussion of exactly what will happen under the protocol and thereafter. The protocol itself has failed to support the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, is creating division and does not really keep an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Lord Trimble has been quoted several times. I have to say that it is only in this country that a Nobel peace prize winner is not really given great distinction. Interestingly, when we took Lord Trimble to Brussels, he was treated with the utmost respect; when he spoke, Mr Barnier and everybody else fell silent and agreed with him. He said that the arrangements that needed to be in place were those that I will come to later—essentially, mutual enforcement. As he says, not only does the protocol
“shatter Northern Ireland’s constitutional relationship with the UK,”
as has been referred to, but it subverts the very agreement that they keep on saying that they want to preserve: the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It is breaking that agreement and directly setting one part of the community against the other because of the way in which it is implemented and because of its very nature.
The protocol simply cannot stand. I disagree with the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare); I do not think that this is just about a group of people picking away at it and trying to object to it on ideological grounds. The reality is that, practically, it does not work—and if it does not work, it has to be radically changed or replaced. I am for replacing it.
The other bit that has come out of this is that the EU has become very partisan. A claim was made that somehow the British Government have to be completely independent of this, but they are the Government of Northern Ireland as well. The reality is that the European Union has become very partial. It has sided with one side of the argument and has driven this as a weapon aimed at the Brexit negotiations from start to finish.
I went with a team of people to see Monsieur Barnier, and, as was said earlier, we presented mutual enforcement to him at the table. That was before the British Government got in a mess over their arrangements in 2018 and came up with that poor resolution. The EU team listened, and we corresponded with them for at least another two to three weeks about where this could go. It was interesting that they were open-minded about it until the UK Government decided that they were going to go for equivalence and all the rest of it, and it did not work. They were very keen on the proposal and knew it would work. This is the point I make: there is another solution that will work.
It is worth reminding those who keep saying, “Well, you all voted for this,” that we voted for it because we knew it was not permanent. That was made clear in every single article: article 184 of the withdrawal agreement, article 13 of the protocol and, importantly, paragraph 35 of the political declaration, which envisages an agreement superseding the protocol with alternative arrangements. The idea that this is somehow set in stone and we only have to work to make it better is an absurdity in itself.
It is something to watch the Irish Foreign Minister almost boasting that diversion of trade is taking place which will only settle the natural order of things through the supply chains—these new realities. This is a breach of article 16, and it is very clear that he has admitted that. That is exactly what is going on, and it should have never been agreed to in the first place.
I want to turn my attention now to what the alternative is. We now have a situation where there are two and a half times more checks at the border in Northern Ireland than there are in Rotterdam. Northern Ireland represents 0.5% of the total population of the EU, but it now has 20% of the EU’s customs checks and more checks than France in total. This is quite ludicrous and an utter disaster. The solution, therefore, is to move to mutual enforcement, where both sides take responsibility for their own requirement to uphold the other side’s regulations. We do not need a border, but if prosecutions need to take place, the UK will prosecute those who transgress, and the EU will do the same.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the most important part of mutual enforcement is that there will no longer be any need for EU law to automatically apply to Northern Ireland, and therefore the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom would not be compromised?
I am going to refer to the right hon. Gentleman as my right hon. Friend for this because he is absolutely right. That is the key point about mutual enforcement. We have been working with a group of the brightest and smartest lawyers—experts in European law, experts in trade law and experts financial regulations—and it is quite fascinating. They believe that if we make it an offence to export items in breach of EU law across the north-south border, that becomes our responsibility and the EU’s responsibility. That is exactly the point that my right hon. Friend makes. The EU does exactly the same for us, and it does not breach our sovereignty since the exporters are opting to comply with the importers’ laws anyway from the moment their goods cross the invisible border.
I simply say in conclusion to my right hon. Friend the Minister that the Government now have to make the point that this is the way forward. They have to present this to the EU, and the EU has to recognise the damage it is doing in Northern Ireland and here in the United Kingdom. I urge her to press forward with these arrangements and agree that this is the solution to an outstanding problem.
I welcome the opening portion of the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), specifically where it states that he
“supports the primary aims of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, which are to uphold the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions and to respect the integrity of the EU and UK internal markets”.
We should all support those aims. In this Parliament, we have a historical and moral responsibility in relation to the whole of Ireland, yet we debate Government policy on this matter too little. It is a reminder that both the Good Friday agreement and the protocol are solemn and binding international treaties. From a moral point of view, this country should uphold the treaties that it signs. Supporting our commercial and other self-interests also dictates that we should follow the spirit and letter of these treaties.
I am afraid to say, however, that the Government have not fully upheld either treaty. Please do not just take my word for it—this is what the EU negotiators and the US Government believe. Why else would they issue this country with a formal diplomatic reprimand or a démarche? Otherwise, most importantly, it is what parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly believe. They think that this Government are trying to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol, which is a part of the Brexit treaty. They believe, too, that the Government are behaving recklessly in terms of the effect of undermining the Good Friday agreement. They also think that if loyalists commit violence on the streets of Belfast and in other areas, they believe that they are encouraged by the British Government in their joint aim of tearing up the protocol. What other inference are they supposed to draw when Ministers go to Belfast, meet members of the Loyalist Communities Council and say afterwards that the protocol they signed is not sustainable in its current form?
The motion also talks of upholding the Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions, with which I wholeheartedly agree, but I think we may mean very different things by that. The Good Friday agreement is 23 years old, but large parts of it remain unimplemented. Where is the Bill of Rights that was promised? Where, too, is the recourse to the European convention on human rights in the courts of Northern Ireland that was also promised, or the convention’s full incorporation in British law, or the language Act? I could go on.
I fear that opponents of the protocol want to rip out one phrase of the Good Friday agreement regarding not changing the constitutional position without consent, but this cuts both ways. It was the determination of Government Members to have a disastrous Brexit that changed the constitutional position, and it was against the will of the people in Ireland who voted clearly to remain in the EU. Consent was not given. It is this Government who have upset the status quo, this Government who signed the treaty and this Government who now want to change elements they do not like. I am afraid that that is not how treaties work. If they continue to try to have their cake and eat it on the protocol, they will come up against opposition from Labour Members, the EU Commission, President Biden and from the people of Ireland.
In conclusion, the Prime Minister personally negotiated this protocol. He has a personal responsibility to make it work for communities, and the peace process must always come first, yet this Government’s actions repeatedly destabilise it. This is a reckless path and they should cease and desist.
If I may, I shall begin by commending my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) for so ably introducing this very important debate and by agreeing with him that we should thank the Backbench Business Committee for finding valuable time for it, especially as our Prime Minister is now due to meet senior members of the Irish Government on these matters only next week.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex has pointed out, the Northern Ireland protocol contains a safeguarding clause in article 16 in the event that the protocol is not working as intended. Either party can activate article 16, in which case they then have to proceed under the provisions of annex 7. It should be remembered that the European Commission, not the UK Government, invoked article 16 on the evening of 29 January 2021. If the rumours were to be believed, Dublin was not even consulted about this action. Dublin found out from London, not from Brussels. The supreme irony is that, in doing so, the European Commission, which took the decision, effectively sought to create a hard border on the island of Ireland for medicines and, crucially, vaccines, despite having sworn blind for three years, during what I describe as the battle for Brexit in this House, that that was absolutely the last thing that they ever wanted to do. I am sure that the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), who has helpfully reassured us this afternoon that he is not an apologist for the European Union, will be the first to acknowledge that.
Invoking article 16 in that way was, I think it is fair to say, widely derided as a mistake, and the European Commission withdrew it by the cold light of morning. The Commission was really doing it for internal reasons, because of, among other things, the slow roll-out of vaccines, unfortunately, on the continent; nevertheless, the fact that it did it, when it clearly should not have done, means that our Prime Minister is absolutely entitled, as he has said many times, to keep article 16 on the table if the European Commission refuses to be reasonable in renegotiating the Northern Ireland protocol, or even replacing it.
One thing, though, that all protagonists in this debate seem to agree about is their willingness and, in fact, strong desire to uphold the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which has indeed been crucial in bringing peace and stability to Northern Ireland for over two decades. It is fundamentally based on the principle of consent, as the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), and his colleagues have reminded us, but it is now as plain as a pikestaff that the Northern Ireland protocol no longer enjoys the consent of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland.
If the House will not take that from me, it could take it from the new leader of the DUP, whom I wish all the best with his onerous responsibilities at this time. If the House will not take it from him, it could take it from the Nobel prize winner Lord Trimble, who has pointed out, importantly in this context also to audiences in the United States, who follow these matters closely, that the Northern Ireland protocol no longer enjoys the consent of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. Very wisely, in my view, he has recommended a system of mutual enforcement as a far better alternative.
Does my right hon. Friend recognise that Lord Trimble is not just a Nobel peace prize winner, but one of the two architects of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, the other of whom is now dead, and therefore the greatest authority on what is going on? I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. Is it not the reality, therefore, that those who had nothing to do with it now say they are experts, when the real expert says that it is exactly what it is—damaging?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Lord Trimble helped to create the Good Friday agreement, at great risk not just to his political career but arguably to his own life, and not least because of that he is respected around the world. If people will not listen to me or even, though I find it difficult to believe, to my right hon. Friend, they should listen to David Trimble.
In February 2021, the European Research Group, which I have the privilege to chair, produced a detailed report on the Northern Ireland protocol, entitled “Re-uniting the Kingdom: How and why to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol”. A copy has been lodged in the Library of the House of Commons. The executive summary of that document says:
“The European Commission’s bungled invocation of Article 16, regarding vaccines, in late January 2021 has, rightfully, been widely criticised. Nevertheless, it has created a unique political opportunity for the United Kingdom Government to seek to negotiate a replacement of the Protocol with alternative arrangements, based on the concept of ‘Mutual Enforcement.’…If the EU remains unwilling to contemplate this, the U.K. Government should retain the option of invoking Article 16 itself and/or consider instigating domestic legislation, to replace the Protocol, via utilising Section 38 (The Sovereignty Clause) of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act, 2020.”
We want to renegotiate this, and we hope that the European Commission and member states will be reasonable. After all, it swore blind that it would never remove the backstop, but after three months of negotiation it did, so there is a clear precedent for it. We would rather do this in a spirit of mutual negotiation, but I am reminded of the words of the late Baroness Thatcher, who famously said: “Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley”. Baroness Thatcher may no longer be with us, but her spirit lives on. We must retain Northern Ireland as a fundamental part of the United Kingdom. If, when push comes to shove, that means that the Northern Ireland protocol has to go, so that the vital principle of consent within the Good Friday agreement can be maintained for the peace and wellbeing of the people of Northern Ireland, then so be it.
After all these months, it is hard to know what is left to say on the protocol. It was nobody’s first choice. It was the last thing left on the table after a series of choices made by the UK Government based on votes made by the Conservative Party and the DUP. Having a very hard Brexit and frictionless trade are regrettably not both possible, and they never have been, and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise. People and businesses in Northern Ireland do not wish to leave the single market, with all that that would entail. It was discussed for years, and the protocol, voluntarily signed by the UK Government, was the outcome. All that remains to do is calmly, as adults, leaders and good neighbours, work through the challenges that Brexit has generated, streamline processes where possible and find workarounds where not.
I am pleased at least to see commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement on the face of this motion, because there are those who never supported it and who are only too keen to try and throw the agreement baby out with the protocol bathwater. Members have referred to the right hon. David Trimble. My party colleague and former leader John Hume also got the Nobel peace prize, as well as the Gandhi peace prize and the Martin Luther King peace award, and he knew a thing or two about interdependent relationships and statecraft. I urge all Members to widen their sources on this issue.
Brexit has, as the Social Democratic and Labour party cautioned for years, sharpened lines around identity, sovereignty and borders that we worked hard to soften. It has created perceived winners and losers in a place that lives or dies on compromise. The SDLP is very alive to the sense of many, particularly Unionists, that this is a parity of esteem issue, but we also see how those fears have been exacerbated and exploited, with the protocol being used as a receptacle for decades of grievance and frustration about everything from power sharing to minority languages.
In all the discussion about consent, it is also important to reiterate that the Brexit that many who have spoken on this motion seek, has never been consented to by people in Northern Ireland. Our constitutional status is a matter for people here, by referendum, and it is a dangerous conspiracy theory to pretend that that is being changed over their heads.
We all have our views on Brexit and its outworkings, and goodness knows we have discussed it plenty, so I want to reflect on the views expressed by some of those for whom this is not just a hobby horse, but who are dealing with the consequences—people in the business community and people working on peacebuilding and picking up the pieces of this fallout.
This morning at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee we heard from representatives of agriculture, logistics, retail and manufacturing. None of them loves the protocol either, but they all want it to work because they know that there are no alternatives. All spoke about changes that the UK Government and the EU could make to their own choices and behaviour to ease the burden. Crucially, they all made clear that the best solution available was an EU-UK veterinary and sanitary and phytosanitary agreement. If the aim of those who brought this motion really is to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and to protect the UK internal market and to protect against a hard border, that is the only and obvious solution. Business representatives could not have been clearer about that, and no Northern Ireland Executive party opposes it. It would be a rational choice for a sovereign UK to make for itself in its own political and economic interests.
Last week, our Committee heard from women working in peacebuilding and community work in rural and urban communities—from people of all political outlooks and none. Their words were a rebuke to all of us in politics. Elaine Crory of the Women’s Resource and Development Agency spoke of a perception among the women that she works with that these issues are not in the hands of people
“that are thinking primarily of the effects…on me, my community and my family. It is in the hands of people driven by a particular perspective that…does not care about the effects it might have on me”.
Eileen Weir of the Shankhill Women’s Centre spoke openly about the challenges that Brexit and the protocol are bringing to identity, to community relations and to domestic budgets, but she wanted to hear more about the positives, too. She spoke about the need to
“encourage industry to come into Northern Ireland, to give our young people a future. We need hope within these communities…If we are able to attract industry…and fix the outstanding issues with the single market trade. There are ways of fixing it.”
However, we are only hearing the negatives, because many, including the UK Government and the DUP, are only looking for the negatives and doing nothing to harness the first economic unique selling point we have had in the history of Northern Ireland by being at the crossroads of the EU and UK single markets.
Elaine also said:
“When you hold a microphone out and point it directly at the people who oppose it…but you hold it only in that direction, you get the impression that everyone opposes it, when…they do not.”
Rachel Powell warned of
“outright manipulation of working-class communities across Northern Ireland.”
and said that the unrest we saw in April was not organic. She spoke further about the attacks and risks for those who tried to counteract those narratives. Kate Clifford of the Rural Community Network spoke about the challenge of upholding a culture of lawfulness when senior politicians such as the Secretary of State stand up and say that they are willing to break international law. She said:
“The difficulty for us is when the language of Parliament and the language of Governments is one of brinkmanship and posturing, and that is almost testosterone-driven. That then plays out in our communities… My plea to…all who are doing the negotiation is that, although it makes great headlines to talk about the ‘great British banger’ and all of that, the reality is that there are lives at stake on the ground…and it is not fun.”
It is not fun at all. It is deeply worrying to all of us in Northern Ireland who value cohesion and economic and political stability. The best way to address that is an SPS arrangement, and the second best way is not to manufacture a crisis, but to accept responsibility and the choices, be honest with people, engage with businesses and the EU, and make the situation work.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) on securing this important debate, which highlights the problems sadly afflicting the people of Northern Ireland as a consequence of the protocol. As he pointed out, the purposes of the protocol ostensibly are benign. The problem is the effect that the application of the protocol is having on the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, and the day-to-day lives of the people of Northern Ireland.
It should not be necessary to state this, but it is fundamental to remember that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom. It became so as a consequence of the Act of Union 1800, article 6 of which effectively provides that citizens of Great Britain and Northern Ireland shall be entitled to the same privileges in respect of trade. I am conscious of the proceedings currently going on in Belfast, but it is fair to say that equal treatment and trade with the rest of the UK, as a consequence of the 1800 Act, became a constitutional right of Northern Ireland citizens, and so it should be.
There is little doubt that the European Union is insisting on an over-assiduous interpretation of the protocol, which is resulting in disruption to trade and everyday life in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, and arguably even more worryingly, the protocol is imperilling the Belfast agreement, which for more than 20 years has been the guarantee of peace in Northern Ireland. It must be perfectly apparent to the European Union that the officious, over-punctilious application of the protocol is having those effects.
We are not talking about major movements of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland; by and large we are talking about small movements of goods, frequently for personal consumption, which are necessary for the continuation of life in Northern Ireland. This is already having a profound and adverse effect on the stability of civil society in Northern Ireland, which must be a matter of huge concern.
As the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) pointed out, the Belfast agreement is being threatened by the EU’s purist approach to the protocol. Even more ironic is the fact that the EU justifies that approach by saying that it does so in order to defend the Belfast agreement. There have, of course, been some extensions to the grace periods provided for in the withdrawal agreement, but in reality those will be of no long-term benefit, and may result in a permanent diversion of established trade between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.
It is fortunate that the protocol itself foresees that such problems may arise and therefore makes provision for addressing them. Article 16 sets up a safeguards procedure, which may be invoked unilaterally by either side in the event that the application of the protocol is leading to
“serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”.
It is clear that those conditions currently prevail in Northern Ireland. I therefore also urge the Government to consider very carefully invoking article 16 in order to address and, it is to be hoped, to cure the problem, but this could be avoided if the EU were to adopt a more proportionate approach to the protocol’s implementation. The EU might also wish to consider the sensible proposals that are outlined in the excellent document to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) has just referred.
What is absolutely certain is that we simply cannot continue like this. For the good of Northern Ireland, for the maintenance of the Belfast agreement and for the integrity of the Union, this issue must be resolved, and if the EU continues to refuse to co-operate then the only course remaining to the Government is to invoke article 16, and that is what I strongly urge them to do.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) on securing this debate, and thank him for the continued support that he has given to us in our opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol and the effects that it has had on Northern Ireland.
The protocol, if it continues to exist, is a threat to Brexit. Indeed, that was borne out by the survey carried out last weekend by Savanta, in which 57% of those who were surveyed indicated that they believed that the Northern Ireland protocol was designed to frustrate Brexit. Indeed, 40% of remainers made the same point. It represents a bridgehead that the EU still has on the United Kingdom, a salient from which it will continue to attack our sovereignty and try to claw back the influence that it lost when this country decided to leave the EU.
There are three reasons why the protocol must go. The first is that it will be an ongoing means by which Brexit will be frustrated. We have already seen how the EU has used the protocol. In fact, it is taking the UK Government to court because the UK Government will not accept the EU’s interpretation of the protocol and how it should be implemented to impose the kind of restrictions that the EU demands. The British Government argue that the protocol was meant to deal with only those goods that could be at risk of going into the EU through the Irish Republic; any other goods were not at risk. The EU takes the view that we must prove that goods are not at risk before we can avoid the checks. In other words, 97% of goods that are currently being checked do not need to be checked. They do not go any further than Northern Ireland. Yet the EU is insisting that there is a risk that they might go into the Irish Republic. That is why we have such a high level of checks. There will be future laws that will create more need for restrictions. For example, the EU is bringing in changes to the law regarding the testing of lawnmowers. Lawnmowers could be the next goods that are refused entry into Northern Ireland because they do not comply with EU law, which now applies to Northern Ireland. That is the first reason. If we do not get rid of the protocol, there is always that opportunity for friction in relations between the UK and the EU.
Secondly, I do not care what people have said about there being no constitutional impact. Of course, there is a constitutional impact. The Act of Union has been changed. The Government’s own lawyers argued in the courts that the Act of Union was changed—that when this House voted for the protocol it voted impliedly to change one of the fundamental pillars of the Act of Union, which is that there should be unimpeded and equal trade between the different countries of this nation.
The protocol’s other constitutional impact has been to take powers from the Northern Ireland Assembly. I find it amazing that those who have representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly, such as the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), can argue that there is nothing to worry about. His party has a Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly and his party has Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, yet 60% of the laws that will govern manufacturing in Northern Ireland will never be discussed, cannot be discussed, and, indeed, have to be implemented by the Northern Ireland Assembly without its having any say. The democratic responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Assembly have been undermined, and, of course, there has been a change in the Act of Union and in the constitutional position, and that contravenes the Good Friday agreement, which says that any change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland has to have the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.
The last reason, which people have outlined very well, is the economic impact that all this is having on Northern Ireland. We already see the disruption to trade. Indeed, just this month the Ulster Bank purchasing managers index survey indicated that inflation in Northern Ireland is significantly higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom and about 50% more than the lowest region in the rest of the United Kingdom. Although that does not lie completely at the door of the protocol, it indicates that costs are rising higher in Northern Ireland because of the costs of the protocol—the delay in supply chains, the additional costs in administration and so on.
The protocol has a real impact on the future ability of Northern Ireland to compete. Of course, as laws in Northern Ireland change because EU laws are imposed, that will make it much more difficult for us to compete in our biggest market in GB. There will be those who say that we will get the best of both worlds, with a foot in the EU camp and a foot in the GB camp. That is not true, of course.
On the issue of having a foot in both camps, at today’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee the Ulster Farmers’ Union made the point that Northern Ireland agriculture is now in a no man’s land and does not have the best of both worlds. How does my hon. Friend respond to the fact that that multimillion pound industry, our most successful, is now placed in that terrible situation?
I have heard time and again the argument that we have the best of both worlds, but I have not heard any examples of where being in the EU single market and being cut off from the GB market has had any beneficial effect. Indeed, any examples I have heard of improved trade have been a result of the trade agreement that the whole of the United Kingdom has with the EU. That is all that has ensured that those markets are open to companies in Northern Ireland.
There are alternatives. We have heard them mentioned today, including the mutual enforcement of each other’s rules. It is not that it is technically impossible—it is technically possible. It is not that it is economically impossible—it is possible. It is not that it is constitutionally impossible—it is simply a question of whether there is political will. Lord Frost must push this with the EU. There are alternatives that can satisfy both sides and ensure that the single market of the UK is maintained while the single market of the EU is protected.
As long ago as 2016, the British people voted to take back control. We voted to re-establish our sovereignty. The last Parliament sought to subvert and undermine that view, so in 2019, given the opportunity, the British public voted again, by a substantial margin, to take back control. They elected, with a decent majority, a Government of a party pledged to do just that, and this Government moved with speed and purpose to take back control. Unfortunately we still need to debate this matter today because of the conduct of the European Union. There is outstanding business. We still have not taken back proper control in Northern Ireland or over our fishing grounds. I am glad to take the opportunity provided by this Back-Bench debate to urge the Government to fully implement the mandate of the British people given to them both in the referendum and in the general election to take back that control.
I have been angered, but not surprised, by the conduct of the European Union. There is a long history of the European Union antagonising neighbours and potentially friendly states and attempting to use distorted, twisted or simply wrong legal arguments to force things in its own direction against the interests of its neighbours. The EU, in the long negotiations with the UK, always said that it respected the UK’s wish to restore its sovereignty and did not wish to deny it, and yet here we have a case where the EU is trying to wrestle our sovereignty away from us in an important part of our country. The EU always promised to respect our internal market, as is reflected in the agreements that we are currently discussing, yet now it wishes to hijack it. It wishes to divert a substantial proportion of GB-to-Northern Ireland trade to the EU for its purposes against the spirit and the letter of the agreement.
Above all, the EU promised to respect the peace agreement. It went on and on about an imaginary border that the UK had no intention of making more complicated or more difficult, and denying the actual border that was already there that was necessary for its purposes and the UK’s purposes for taxation, currency and regulatory matters. It has gone out of its way to antagonise the loyalist majority community in Northern Ireland. That is the very opposite of working with us to promote the peace and to reduce the tensions within those important communities.
So what should we do now? Our Government have shown enormous tolerance, restraint and flexibility. I make no secret of the fact that I would not have shown as much flexibility or restraint as they have done, because I am already very angry about the EU’s conduct. But they are right that we need to show that we have tried to negotiate a settlement, and I hope they will have one more go at trying to get the EU to agree to a common-sense approach to these border issues whereby proper trade can be sustained and promoted so that GB-NI trade is also restored and not interfered with by the EU, because that was never part of the idea behind the original agreement.
I hope the Government will have success in these matters, but we do need to be ready now, as soon as possible, to make our own decisions and to make our own moves if the EU is not yet ready to negotiate a sensible solution, of which there are several on offer in this debate and in the discussions that have been held over the years. The agreement makes it clear that we can indeed move unilaterally and assert our sovereignty where our internal market is being violated and trade is being diverted, and where there are other failures by the EU to comply with the agreement, which are now several and manifest.
I say to the Government: do not delay over the whole of this summer. Take action now. The trade is being diverted now. The community sentiments are being disrupted now. The peace agreement is being wobbled now. The sovereignty of the United Kingdom is being deeply infringed now. There is plenty of evidence for that, and a good case can be made in the court of world opinion for those who are interested. But this is, above all, a matter between the Government and the British people—the people of the United Kingdom as a whole. We, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, owe it to the people of Northern Ireland to ensure that they are fully part of our single market and country, just as we wish them, with us, to have friendly and good trading relations with the EU.
But if there has to be a choice between peace and our internal matters on the one hand, and our trade with the EU on the other, of course we must put Northern Ireland, peace and the integrity of our country first, whatever threats the EU may make. The EU is the disrupter of trade; the UK is the promoter of free trade worldwide. The EU is the one that is doing harm to the constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland. We must be rock-fast in our support for the people of Northern Ireland, for the constitution of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, and for a good solution that allows the restoration of our internal market.
It is a privilege to take part in today’s debate on an issue of profound importance to the future not just of Northern Ireland but the rest of the United Kingdom. I appeal to Members to—to paraphrase the President of the United States—dial down the rhetoric a little and listen to the many contributions that we have heard from hon. Members from Northern Ireland about the importance of making the protocol work for the people of Northern Ireland. Listening to them, I am reminded of how much the people of Northern Ireland have endured and I feel perhaps more strongly than ever that it is our responsibility, on this issue but also every issue, to do whatever we can to support them in avoiding any further suffering of any kind. That is why, as I will explain, the Liberal Democrats believe that, despite its faults, we have to defend and make the protocol work.
The unique circumstances in Northern Ireland and the absolute necessity of protecting the Good Friday agreement demanded something special and deserved special attention on our withdrawal from the European Union. The reality of Brexit is that it was always going to mean changes—a border somewhere, new arrangements to deal with. What we have in the Northern Ireland protocol is an agreement that, as many Members have pointed out, is deeply flawed. Those on both sides involved in creating it must not only recognise their responsibility for it, but do what they can to mitigate and alleviate the issues that have been raised by hon. Members from Northern Ireland today.
While the Government might wish to, they cannot deny that having to deal with this is the inevitable outcome of the decision to leave the customs union. However, focusing now on blame and recriminations will help nobody. While we might all have doubts and complaints about the protocol, we have to recognise that it was, as other Members have said, the least worst option left on the table. Most significantly, the protocol protects the Good Friday agreement, which is paramount.
Within the protocol is a commitment that it should have as little impact as possible on the everyday lives of communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. We have already seen clearly demonstrated how difficult that is in the unique circumstances that I have spoken about for businesses and consumers. We have heard the frustration of farmers and food producers, but hon. Members have also mentioned that Ulster farmers say that there is a solution there and they want it to work. I believe it is up to us to support them in that and ensure that they get that solution, not just for the farmers but for all businesses and all the people of Northern Ireland.
It is also undeniable that there are issues for businesses in the rest of the UK in trading with Northern Ireland, and we have figures showing that trade has fallen. Some blame that on the resultant problems with the protocol. There is also the thorny issue of the veterinary agreement, which is one not just for the protocol or people in Northern Ireland, but one that must be addressed for the good of all UK agrifood producers.
We must do this in a positive way. We must do it in a way that supports the people of Northern Ireland and ensures that we move forward. We should focus on nothing else but finding workable, pragmatic solutions, not just for the sake of the people of Northern Ireland, but for the future of the United Kingdom. We as the Liberal Democrats hope that the UK Government will do everything they can to pragmatically reflect what we have heard today and the unique circumstances. Let us be clear: we do not believe that we should seek to renegotiate, but the UK Government and the European Union should be working to implement in good faith. We know that the EU needs to protect the integrity of its internal market and customs union, and Northern Ireland and its businesses too need clarity and, as I have said, pragmatic solutions, but most of all we need trust. We need everyone to agree as many flexibilities and mitigations as possible.
Northern Ireland and its people have faced and overcome many challenges in past decades. We must ensure that on this one we give them the utmost support and find the pragmatic way forward that addresses the issues in the way they wish to see them addressed.
This debate is about the future and we should focus on that, not the past. Article 6 of the Northern Ireland protocol states that the Joint Committee of the EU and the UK shall adopt appropriate facilitations that will aid the functioning of the UK’s internal market. The EU could agree to expand the trusted trader scheme. It could agree to use the simplifications that are available under its union customs code. It could agree that the performance of SPS checks and controls should in the main take place within firms’ facilities. It could agree product-by-product agreements that could streamline the need for checks based on mutual recognition, such as the EU has with nations such as New Zealand. That is possible and can be made even more secure, as we have heard, by concepts such as mutual enforcement. There is no need for regulatory alignment by the UK and that will not be accepted in either the short or the long term.
Insisting on alignment unreasonably stops the reaching of agreement on facilitation, which is the EU’s legal obligation. Diversion of trade, as we have heard, is contrary both to the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol and to the spirit of the Good Friday agreement. So is the now explicitly stated aim of the previous Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland to use the EU’s diversion of trade in Northern Ireland as a means to achieve a united Ireland. Many in the world are aware of the EU’s regular attempts at regulatory imperialism and do not find it reasonable. I ask: is this reasonable in the context of Northern Ireland and the sensitivity there of needing to respect all communities’ desires?
Would it be reasonable for Canada to insist that the US aligned to Canada’s regulations in order to enable Alaskan goods to move into the Yukon or British Columbia? Would it be reasonable to hope that such a policy would lead to Alaska being united with Canada? I would say no, as I hope most reasonable people in the world would.
I hope the EU will change its stance, be reasonable and make the Northern Ireland protocol work, while respecting the fact that the UK will, as a sovereign nation, not take its regulation from the EU. If it will not do so, the UK would be within its rights and have no real world option other than, in good faith, to take realistic and reasonable unilateral action to implement facilitations, in the interests of all in the island of Ireland, which help the EU and the UK to preserve their internal markets.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) on setting the scene and on all right hon. and hon. Members on their incredibly important, vital and very detailed contributions.
Where do I start? How do I condense my thoughts into the short time that has been allotted to me? What fresh words do I use to elaborate on the terrible deal that has been made for Northern Ireland that I have not used on the 21 other times I have raised this issue in the House in the last number of months? What can I say to ensure that the intelligent and respected Members grasp what we as a party have warned about and argued against since the inception of the Northern Ireland protocol?
Because the title of the debate is “Northern Ireland Protocol”, I will give some examples of the issues that have affected my businesses. Small businesses have been unable to order stock from the mainland and unable to source pet supplies, and they are paying additional fees to the companies that will send the goods to Northern Ireland. A local discount shop owner told me that every order has an additional £30 administration cost. That does not sound like much, but, as his profit margin on a £1 good is 15p, he must sell an additional £200 of goods to pay for the Northern Ireland protocol fee.
Ask any importer and they will say that the increase in container costs from China, which range from $2,800 to $14,700, has seen prices increase to cover the difference to ship goods from 55p to 75p. That is difficult for businesses as it is. They try to absorb costs if possible, but Northern Ireland businesses are under additional pressure due to the insidious protocol. While big stores such as Tesco and Asda have used their exemption to continue to supply pet food and treats, smaller high street businesses have lost another income stream.
Does that feel like the best of both worlds? It does not to Cotters in Newtownards and so many other decent businessmen that have survived covid, only to fall victim possibly to the outworkings of what was proposed to be a paper exercise only. That is what we were told. Seven months in, businesses are in a worse position, not a better one. So, too, is the constituent who went to order a knee support on Amazon Prime day, only to be told that, as they live outside the recognised zone, the supplier would not send it to them. My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) gave an example of that earlier. My constituent must therefore purchase knee supports that cost an extra £9 due to their postcode. It does not feel like a better position for them, does it?
We think next of those who want to enjoy a staycation on the beautiful shores of Strangford, or of course anywhere in Northern Ireland. This guy is from across the water. He would come to my constituency regularly with his dog. His words sum up perfectly what the Northern Ireland protocol has done. He says:
“I write to you as a UK citizen who enjoys holidaying in Northern Ireland with my pet dog. This year, despite moves by the Northern Ireland Minister Edwin Poots to withhold checks at ferry ports until October, it would seem that I still must be in possession of certificates for rabies and tapeworm, which haven’t been recorded in the United Kingdom since 1922 at a total cost in excess of £200. Therefore I am not prepared to obtain these and I am unable to get a definitive answer to my question, namely, ‘Can I travel with my dog without the said certificates?’…This really will do much harm to Northern Ireland tourism.”
It does not feel better to him. Nor, indeed, does it feel better to my local economy, where he would have come on holiday. It would have benefited from his bed nights and spend in local shops and restaurants.
It does not feel better to the Unionist who has felt the abandonment—I say that respectfully—of the Government like at no other time in living memory. It is a harder pill to swallow when we have a Government who proudly state their belief in this United Kingdom. That is not a reflection on those who have spoken, because they are committed to the Union. Unfortunately, it has to start at a higher level.
I have not got time to give all the examples, but there are many others from businesses in clothes, food, farm machinery, cars, steel and engineering as well as nurseries and farmers. There are even individuals who used to order products but now cannot, or find the cost to be prohibitive. It is a difficult position for people when their own Government are a party to severing ties that affect not simply their business and income but their constitutional position. That causes those loyal to the Queen and Crown to ask why they cling to that when their loyalty is not reciprocated. The sacrifice of Ulster to the slavish demands of Europe engaged in petty warfare is clearly an acceptable sacrifice to make.
This is absolutely not the best of both worlds—unless that world is the eradication of the Union. For those who cherish the Union and honour the blood shed to stand against terrorism, and for the democratic right of the people of Ulster to determine their nationality, this is not the best of any world whatsoever. I have deliberately not referenced bangers from Bangor, although I could, because people in my constituency work for the company in Bangor that produces sausages. They are also on the frontline. I stand by the phrase “we are better off out”, but the preface of this is that we are better out together, and that is what I want to see—we are a package deal.
I am asking Government once more to put into action their phrase, “stronger together” and, for that to happen, to trigger article 16. Save the day in this Chamber and they will have the support of the Unionist community. Stop the European nonsense, allow Northern Ireland her rightful standing as an integral part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland once more, and give us the same rights in Northern Ireland as the rest of the United Kingdom—parity and equal rights for all.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for choosing this debate. Something I have learned in my time in this House is that the importance of the Back Benches—and the voices on them—is not as well appreciated outside the House as it is within. Of course, I pay my compliments to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) for securing this debate, which is of great importance. Of course it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
For hon. and right hon. Members’ interest, I am the chairman of the Conservative Union Research Unit. We are a Back-Bench group and we were formed for one simple purpose: to strengthen the Union. I speak here in my capacity as the Member for Aberconwy, but I think that is an important interest to declare. We are of course delighted that the Government share our interest in strengthening the Union.
Our interest then, to be clear, is in the Union. I differentiate that from the protocol, important though that is—and, indeed, it brings us here today—and from the Belfast agreement, again, important though that is. My comments, therefore, will focus on the Union and the impact of the protocol on the Union. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) referred earlier to the Good Friday agreement as the bedrock. I suggest that the bedrock is the Act of Union of 1800, which has been an enduring cornerstone of this United Kingdom. Indeed, we stand here in this Parliament—the Parliament of this United Kingdom—today.
Interest in the Union of course extends beyond any party; it is not the possession of any one party. I note the contributions from many different parts of the House to the debate today and I am encouraged by that. But on this side of the House we are of course the Conservative and Unionist party. If we are not concerned with the Union, then what are we?
The group I chair has over 80 Back-Bench Members, each of us active on account of the Union to promote it in this House and among our constituents. So when we heard Mr Justice Colton agree with Government counsel that article VI of the Act of Union had been impliedly repealed by the protocol, Members can imagine our concern. It is, as Madam Deputy Speaker said earlier, a matter of national concern and a matter for the whole of the UK to take note of.
I acknowledge the complexity of this situation and these circumstances. I also acknowledge the mechanisms wisely placed within the protocol for remedying its shortcomings and the considerable efforts of Lord Frost and others in Government to do so. But in the light of Mr Justice Colton’s remarks, I am bound by duty and urged by many to ask: what is the Government’s plan for remedying that change to our Union? If not in this House, where are we to consider this, and if not at this time, in the light of his remarks, then when? I would be grateful if the Minister could give us some direction in her response to this.
Can I add my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) for securing this debate, otherwise we would not be here, and to the Backbench Business Committee for finding the time for us to have this debate on the Floor of the House, so that we can debate these important issues and of course listen to the Minister’s response on behalf of the Government?
Having listened to the debate, I think the points I would want to make are these. The first point, which has been made by others, but I think was not really debated in an even way during the Brexit debate, is that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement has to be supported by both communities in Northern Ireland. I had a sense during the debate that, certainly from the EU’s perspective, an enormous amount of weight was perfectly understandably put on the border, or rather the lack of a physical border, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and on the views of the nationalist community, but there was not an enormous amount of focus from the EU on the views of the Unionist community and the border, or the lack of one, between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In this debate, we are trying to redress that balance and reinforce the fact that for the Belfast/Good Friday agreement to be maintained—it is my strong view that it should be, and I know that is the Government’s view—it has to command the support of both communities in Northern Ireland.
The danger with the Northern Ireland protocol is that it potentially puts at risk the support of one community, which could fatally undermine the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and that is in the interests of nobody except the men of violence. That is why it is really important that we address this issue. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) said, the warnings that Lord Trimble set out should be taken very seriously. He is a man who put not just his reputation but his life at risk to deliver that agreement, so we should listen to his words. He knows the power of words and will have chosen them with care. That is the importance of that.
I do take seriously the EU’s concerns about its single market, but we need to focus on what is the actual risk to the single market, not the theoretical risk. It seems to me that the EU is concerned largely about a theoretical risk that does not actually exist, partly because of the geography. It is not reasonable to assume that physical products would move from Great Britain or Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland and then be re-exported from the Republic of Ireland into the rest of the European Union in volumes that would significantly damage the single market. The key word here is “proportionate”. It is about ensuring that any measures that the EU wants in place to protect its single market are proportionate not to the theoretical risk to the single market but to the actual risk. Several of my hon. Friends, on both sides of the House, have set out clearly that the checks and controls in place between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are simply not proportionate to the actual risk involved. That is something that the Government need to address with the European Union.
I note that in the justifications for using article 16 that, although serious economic, societal and environmental difficulties have to be liable to persist to allow the Government to use that article, diversion of trade simply has to exist at any point. I certainly think the Government should not take that option off the table in order to secure agreement from the European Union. I would prefer us to reach agreement. It is much better if we can reach agreement and have something that both sides wish to enforce, but in order to get a better outcome we must not take the unilateral option off the table.
My right hon. Friend kindly referred to me earlier and, far more importantly, to Lord Trimble. Does he agree that, although there are often risks in doing something, in this situation there are also risks in not doing something? If we do not address the serious discontent in one community in Northern Ireland, there is a real risk, as he hinted, that people with a dark past will seek to exploit this for their own ends and use violence rather than democratic debate to advance their objectives, which are not in the interests of the Good Friday agreement.
My right hon. Friend puts it very well. There are serious risks here, which is why we need to address the perfectly reasonable concerns that many people have in Northern Ireland.
It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate when the Government will set out their thinking—obviously, there is not long to go before the recess—and whether that will be announced in such a way as to give us the chance to question Ministers. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), who leads the Democratic Unionist party, set out its checklist for how it is going to test any proposals that the Governments bring forward. It would be helpful to know—I do not expect the Minister and the United Kingdom Government to completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman—
Well, they may. My request was going to be for the Minister to set out which of the tests that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley set out the Government agree with and which they perhaps do not. Listening to his objectives, I do not think that that list can have come as an enormous surprise, so it would be helpful to get a bit of a steer about the extent to which there is some commonality.
My final point is that, very clearly, as several of my hon. and right hon. Friends have said, there was envisaged in the protocol and the political declaration the idea that the protocol was not a permanent solution but a temporary solution. Certainly, both sides—the British Government and the EU—said that they would take seriously alternative arrangements that could be put in place to enable businesses in Northern Ireland to have unfettered access to the Great Britain market, but just as importantly, to enable businesses in Great Britain to trade freely with Northern Ireland, for the benefit of both Northern Ireland businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland.
Even if one accepts—and I am not sure that I do—that those arrangements could not have been put in place several years ago when we left the European Union, saying that they can never be put in place and that, as technology and business procedures develop, we cannot develop our arrangements, seems unreasonable. Both the EU and the British Government should, working together, be able to take those forward. I look forward very much to listening, in the not-too-distant future, to the Minister’s response to what has been an excellent debate on both sides of the House.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) for this timely debate.
It is probably fair to say that we urgently need a fresh protocol that meets the needs of all the parties in a sensible and practical fashion. Tinkering with the text or seeking to apply it pragmatically will not do the trick. Shakespeare staged the scenario 416 years ago. From Shylock’s—sorry, the EU’s—point of view, a contract is a contract and must be implemented to the letter. Alternatives were of no interest. It may be possible legally to avoid the protocol, just as Portia avoided Shylock’s contract as it did not allow a drop of blood to be lost, but that is not the issue. If we do not want this protocol, then we need a sensible and practical replacement that delivers what all the parties require. The question now is: how can we bring that about?
The Irish protocol was devised to avoid customs posts on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It may be a small island, but the border is longer than that between France and Germany and more difficult to police. Although customs border posts worked perfectly well for 70 years from 1923, the idea that reinstating them would infringe the Belfast agreement is worthy of debate in itself, but that will have to wait for another day.
A protocol that would allow free trade between the north and the south of the island makes sense, especially as the master trade agreement stipulates tariff-free trade between the EU and the UK. Unfortunately, tariffs are not the issue; non-tariff barriers are. I will come to that at the end.
The EU refused to understand how Northern Ireland could simultaneously be part of the EU and UK regulatory regimes, especially as the UK was promoting divergence. Note that no Northern Ireland politicians were involved in the original protocol negotiations, nor the renegotiations since. The UK Government think that it is purely a matter for London and Brussels, but excluding Ulster politicians, sensible as it seems from the London side, almost ensures that any protocol will receive a negative response in Belfast. It is a bit like going to the pub on a Sunday to find that the menu has been devised by the landlord and the owner, but no one has involved the chef. The relationship these days between Dublin and Belfast is good, and it is far more likely that they could find a solution, or at least a proposal that could be put to London and Brussels, and believe that they own it. At present, the DUP is focusing on the removal of the protocol, but I think it should be thinking about a replacement. If Dublin is going to buy it, the DUP needs to work it up with Dublin and possibly with other Ulster politicians, too.
For Northern Ireland to be in two competing regulatory regimes at the same time would be feasible if UK regulations applied to goods supplied from Britain for consumption only in Northern Ireland, whereas EU regulations applied to goods created in Northern Ireland for consumption in Northern Ireland or the EU. The contentious issue has been goods supplied from Britain to Northern Ireland that are intended for the Republic or are at risk of being consumed there.
The problem could be largely solved by shipping goods intended for the Republic directly to the Republic and labelling goods intended for Northern Ireland in ways that would make them unsaleable in the Republic, such as pricing in sterling, not euros, or marking as for sale in Northern Ireland only. Pricing is a factor: it is only when goods imported from Britain are much cheaper in Ulster than the equivalent goods in the Republic that any incentive to smuggle them south across the border exists.
EU trading officials, not UK officials, should deal with offenders within the EU—that is key. Each country should only police its own laws in its own country. If French brandy were illegal in the UK, the importer, not the French exporter, would be the lawbreaker. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs insists on the ludicrous VI-1 forms—I should know, because I used to fill them in—to prevent perfectly good EU wine from entering Britain, penalising British wine merchants, not the EU. The existing protocol, however, seeks to make British officials enforce EU law within British territory. We left the EU to escape that.
No doubt Portia could make a better job of unravelling the matter than I have, but what should be obvious to negotiators, but seems not to be, is that the protocol is fundamentally unfair. It will cause serious troubles until negotiators stop tinkering with it and replace it with something more sensible and practical.
It is a pleasure indeed to speak in this debate. I begin, as other speakers have done, by congratulating the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) on securing it, although I am bound to point out that it is no surprise that we are here debating the subject—in many ways it was an inevitability. The hon. Member said that he wants us to look forward rather than back; I can certainly understand that sentiment, but I hope he will forgive me if I take an inevitable look backwards as well, to get the waypoints and to get some bearing on how we go forward.
We are here because of the way Brexit was won in the referendum and then negotiated—if that is the word—in the years that followed. Perhaps through necessity, it had to be all things to all people; that was the only way that it could secure the narrow margin it secured. Since then, whether they are in favour or, like myself, very strongly against it, people have had to watch as one by one the promises made to secure it turned to dust—promises to the fishing industry, promises to the farming sector, promises to maintain freedom of movement and even a promise that we would maintain our membership of the single market once we were out of the European Union, as I believe the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster once claimed.
We are here today to discuss the impact of Brexit in Northern Ireland. All of it was predicted and predictable, foreseen and foreseeable. What makes it so disappointing that we have reached this juncture is that those in the UK Government who have taken us to this point have twisted, obfuscated and misrepresented at every stage to persuade the population to believe that the consequences that we now face would simply not arise.
Throughout that period a profound British exceptionalism has been on display, with the UK Government and their supporters noisily asserting their own sovereignty and expressing a wounded surprise that any other EU state that also still had sovereignty should not only have that sovereignty but have a willingness to use it to defend their own interests, including the integrity of the single market. Part of the problem was that the UK Government spent considerably more time negotiating among themselves than they did with European partners, and that allowed a fundamental set of questions to go unanswered for political convenience for too long. Those questions were: what kind of Brexit exactly, specifically, is it that we want? How are we going to get it? What implications will arise from that once we get it?
It was quite possible to leave the European Union and remain in the single market and the customs union. We would have become a coastal state with control over our fisheries, and we could have withdrawn from the political project of ever closer union that seems to cause such existential angst on the Conservative Benches. We could have left in a way that would have not created the present issues in Northern Ireland. Any form of Brexit that went beyond that made the risk of creating trade and regulatory borders a very live one indeed, with any such border having to fall either in the Irish sea or across the island of Ireland itself. After the unceremonious defenestration of the backstop and its political architect, the cry of the current Prime Minister to “get Brexit done” and the ensuing undignified stagger towards an agreement have left us with the protocol in its current form.
Part of the problem we have with that results from the philosophy that the Prime Minister and his advisers at the time had, which was to move fast and break things. There can be no doubt that the protocol was agreed simply to get the Government out of a big political hole at the time, and to allow them to say in Great Britain that they had got Brexit done and worry about the consequences for Northern Ireland after the event. This demonstrated cynicism and short-sightedness in equal measure. Nevertheless, it is an agreement that resulted from the negotiating objectives that Her Majesty’s Government held at the time. It was entered into freely, and if it is not to be implemented fully in its current form, it has to be renegotiated in good faith and in the proper way. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex observed in his contribution that the world was watching. I agree: the world was watching during the G7 conference and the world will still be watching to see how the protocol is implemented, whether in its present form or in an amended and agreed form.
The hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) pointed out that Northern Ireland did not vote for Brexit, and it would be remiss of me not to point out that Scotland also did not vote for Brexit. Allow me to be the one to point out—I hope other Members will appreciate this—the great irony in the fact that if Scotland were to become independent and join the European Union, it would once again enjoy free unfettered trade with Northern Ireland. Our businesses would enjoy that in a way that they simply no longer have under the terms of the protocol.
I think there is a shared interest in making sure that there is as close to seamless trade as can possibly exist across these islands, within these islands and with the European Union. In that sense, the right hon. Gentleman and I are on the same page.
An agreement on animal welfare, sanitary and phytosanitary standards would eliminate the need for very many of the checks and reopen that trade. It is that sort of pragmatic renegotiation of the protocol, in the light of experience and of everything that has come from the nature of Brexit, that would be desirable in order to remove not just the barriers but the symbolism that the frictions that are being felt so keenly in Northern Ireland represent.
May I just point out that if there was an independent Scotland inside the European Union, it would not be that independent, because it would be bound by all the rules of the European Union and the European Union customs code? Scotland would be obliged to have a hard border with the rest of England—not being independent from the European Union, it would have no choice in that matter whatsoever. It was a spokesman for the Scottish nationalist party who said that that would be good for Scotland because a border would create jobs. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that that was actually said?
I knew that mentioning Scottish independence in this context would wake up hon. Members on the Government Benches. Nobody in the Scottish National party wants to set up hard borders with anywhere. It is simply because we are having to live with the consequences of this English nationalist dream and misguided venture that the question arises.
While it is fine and necessary to set an objective of restoring that frictionless trade, it must be done in the correct way. [Interruption.] Being mindful of your strictures, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will draw my remarks to a close. We need to identify practical ways in which that can happen. Above all, the UK Government must stop the empty sabre-rattling. They must stop blaming their predecessors for the misfortunes that they have created for themselves. They must stop blaming everybody else for the misfortunes that they have landed themselves in and for the outcomes of their own choices—[Interruption.] A little bit of self-reflection and self-awareness on the Government Benches would not go amiss at this juncture.
More to the point, the Government need to work to rebuild trust and to secure a durable solution that works in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland and across these islands.
It is pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson). I add my thanks to the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) and the Backbench Business Committee for securing this debate. It has been an important debate to air the issues with the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal and the subsequent Northern Ireland protocol. It is clear that there is agreement across this House on the text of the motion in front of us today and the need for flexibility, for the checks to be proportionate, and for solutions to be found through agreement and compromise with the European Union. It has been helpful for that to be made clear today.
The issues are clear. As the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex laid out very clearly in his opening speech, there has been a strain on power sharing and increasing tensions. Brexit has always had the potential to unsettle the delicate balance of identities across these islands. It was helpful for the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) to put on record her acknowledgement that there are parity of esteem issues at play here. It has been important for us all to acknowledge the real hurt and pain that was expressed by our DUP colleagues on behalf of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. This has caused real pain and hurt in Northern Ireland, and it is important that we all acknowledge that.
The Prime Minister made promises to the people of Northern Ireland that there would be no border with Great Britain, knowing full well that his Brexit deal would introduce barriers across the Irish sea. He made promises to the Unionist community, because he knew that economic separation would be unacceptable, and the political instability that we have seen over recent months has its roots in the profound loss of trust that that has caused.
As the leader of the Labour party and I heard loud and clear in Northern Ireland last week from Unionist leaders, trust is at rock bottom. The language that has been repeatedly used is one of betrayal that they and the economic integrity of the United Kingdom have been sacrificed to narrow party interests.
Trust is absolutely essential in Northern Ireland; it is what has secured and has always sustained the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. In moments of instability, what Sir John Major, Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam and the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith)—Labour and Conservative—all understood was that trust, leadership and partnership are paramount to finding a way forward in Northern Ireland.
As a co-guarantor of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, the Prime Minister owes it to the people of Northern Ireland to restore the trust that he has squandered, but his custody of that precious agreement has been designed to shore up his own party advantage, and nowhere can we see that more clearly than on the Northern Ireland protocol. It is reckless and foolish that, after insisting that he would never place barriers down the Irish sea, he negotiated just that, and after denying that he had done it for an entire year has now started to renege on his own deal.
The strategy of brinkmanship and picking fights using Northern Ireland as a political football is not the work of a serious politician, and led to diplomatic rebuke from one of our closest allies, the United States. Communities are sick and tired of this in Northern Ireland. They just want to see serious solutions, and as we have heard today, solutions are available. We have heard plenty of suggestions, and I would welcome the Minister’s response and her assessment of how feasible many of those suggestions are.
Several political parties in Northern Ireland, the CBI, farmers and businesses right across the UK have all advocated for the Government to negotiate a veterinary agreement with the EU. Just this morning, Aodhán Connolly told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the solution is a veterinary agreement with a guillotine clause. That would bring assurance to Northern Ireland and benefit food exporters right across the UK. The Prime Minister promised an agreement of this kind, drawing up trade negotiations with the EU, but has failed to deliver, when countries such as New Zealand and Switzerland have succeeded. More than a quarter of all trade to Northern Ireland is subject to onerous SPS checks, largely on food and agricultural products. Such an agreement would lower the overwhelming number of checks across the Irish sea.
The hon. Lady has, interestingly, reopened the issue of mutual enforcement and recognition. She referred to the New Zealand agreement on SPS foods and so on. That agreement is clear: it recognises the authority of New Zealand veterinary organisations to approve their products with the regulations in force in the European Union and the single market. That is exactly what we have been proposing today with mutual enforcement, and I am glad the hon. Lady is on side with that.
Of course we have studied the suggestions made by Lord Trimble, who we all thoroughly respect as a co-author of the Good Friday agreement. I would welcome the Minister’s comments and remarks on the Government’s strategy to propose and negotiate such an agreement with the European Union. Mutual enforcement relies on trust, and we need a veterinary agreement that respects the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. Although we can look to New Zealand and Switzerland as potential models, we need a new model that recognises this unique circumstance, with its own regulatory mechanism to enforce it.
I thought the hon. Lady started her speech extremely well. We have had a few party political points, but I understand what it is to be in Opposition. She is making an interesting contribution about a proposal for a veterinary agreement. Of course, the EU is demanding not a veterinary agreement based on mutual enforcement; it wants a veterinary agreement based on alignment, which is just taking back control. That would prevent us from making any free trade agreements with other countries on any of those matters. Is it now Labour party policy to support a veterinary agreement based on mutual enforcement? That would be a very positive step.
We are very happy to see such proposals negotiated. I suggest that the EU is highly unlikely to accept such an agreement, given the profound loss of trust that has resulted from the way this Government, Lord Frost and the Prime Minister have approached negotiations. We want to commit to good food standards—indeed, world-leading food standards, as we were promised in the Conservative party manifesto in 2019. In objecting to alignment, which food or animal welfare standards does the hon. Gentleman wish to lower? What food standards is he prioritising over the protection of the economic integrity of the Union?
The agreement must be based on a commitment to high standards. As I said, the Government made that commitment in their manifesto, and it remains hugely popular in the United Kingdom. No one wants our food or animal welfare standards to be undermined. As the CBI has said,
“a dramatic increase in paperwork, compliance costs and delays for firms”
is coming, even while we maintain the same animal welfare standards as the EU.
When she talks about food standards, does the hon. Lady find it odd that the EU is now proposing to reintroduce the offal that gave us mad cow disease for feed for animals in the EU, and for export to this country? The EU is reducing food standards while the UK Government have animal welfare proposals such as banning the export of live animals. We are the ones upholding food and animal welfare standards, not the EU.
For us to have higher food and animal welfare standards than the European Union would not be a barrier to a veterinary agreement. The EU has a long precedent for making such arrangements with other countries. Under the New Zealand veterinary agreement, just 1% to 2% of its goods are subject to physical checks on arrival, as opposed to the current rate of around 30% for UK agrifood products entering the EU. The United States has made clear that such issues are not a fundamental barrier to a free trade agreement.
I know that the governance of such an agreement is contentious, but it would not be necessary for the European Court of Justice to get involved. A regulatory mechanism could be agreed that would not limit the UK’s ability to make future free trade agreements. A modern mechanism, designed for GB-EU and NI-GB agrifood trade flows, could be designed to meet the circumstances of Northern Ireland. Such an agreement would also unlock a permanent trusted trader scheme, which would resolve the significant issue of export health certificate requirements, which will come into full force in October when the grace periods expire. I urge the Minister to set out exactly the strategy to find such solutions in the long term. Inflammatory op-eds and contradictory remarks from Lord Frost are not getting us any closer to agreement with the EU, and it is imperative that the mechanisms of the protocol are used to find such an agreement. We cannot keep kicking the can down the road by extending grace periods. This needs to be future-proofed, and Northern Ireland needs to be reassured that as we negotiate more free trade agreements we will not diverge still further.
I also press the Minister again on how the Government are intending to bring Northern Ireland’s political representatives into the discussions and negotiations with the EU. A huge part of the problem is that people feel that this has been imposed on them without proper engagement or consent. That is totally unsustainable. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) made suggestions around the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and those should be considered carefully.
Fundamentally, peace in Northern Ireland is still fragile. These issues require careful, responsible leadership and for the Government to be honest with the people of Northern Ireland about the choices they are making and what they are prioritising. We can protect Northern Ireland, but it requires a drastic change in strategy from this Government.
I thank all Members who have spoken in this debate from all parts of the UK, from Essex to Edinburgh, from Lagan Valley to Clwyd West, and from Sheffield to Stone.
As Members of this House, we represent more than a geography; we represent the ambitions of our constituents—ambitions for themselves and their families and businesses, and their ambitions for our country. All of us in this place are ambitious on behalf of those who placed us here. It is those ambitions that the past few years have been about. Echoing what my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) said when he opened this debate, there are some who still have not come to terms with the fact that we have left the EU and wish to relive the past. They did not understand those ambitions of the British people and it baffles them still. The decision our country took showed faith in democracy and a trust in all of us here to deliver. When people trust us in this way, we cannot let them down.
That is why many Members have been right to focus on the future. That is why we have stayed the course as a country and why we will continue to do so. It took principle, courage and determination, and it took us making an exceptional compromise. We agreed to apply EU law and to control the movement of goods within our own country without any democratic say beyond a vote in four years’ time—all in the interests of peace. No other country has agreed to such a thing. It was a hard thing to do. Brexit was an ambitious decision by an ambitious country. We believe, however, that we share many ambitions with our EU friends. My hon. Friend pointed out why that ought to be the case. We have ambitions to maximise peace, prosperity and security for us all as we emerge from a turbulent few years and from this terrible pandemic.
The protocol specifically states that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement should be
“protected in all its parts”
“the application of this Protocol should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland”.If the situation in Northern Ireland is to be sustainable, it must be compatible with those principles, and in theory there is no good reason why that should not be the case. Look at how other trade boundaries operate. Look at how trade can be facilitated through a risk-based approach and through the use of technology. Look at the exceptional case that the UK is, having traded as part of the EU bloc for decades. Look at the obligations and commitments from all parties concerned—the commitments they made to protect
“the essential State functions and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom”,
as stated in article 1 and repeated in article 6, which underlined
“the importance of maintaining the integral place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom’s internal market”,
and said that the UK and the EU
“shall use their best endeavours to facilitate the trade between Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom…with a view to avoiding controls at the ports and airports of Northern Ireland to the extent possible.”
The trade and co-operation agreement said that any measures to protect the integrity of the EU’s single market should be pragmatic and risk-based.
Those principles and provisions are not being reflected in practice. Members have raised the issues this afternoon: Northern Ireland officials processing 20% of the EU’s total checks and controls on consignments from third countries of products of animal origin for a population of 0.5% of the EU’s; critical medicines at risk of being discontinued; companies who have given up delivering; unique disadvantages for Northern Ireland in facing little access to UK or EU tariff rate quotas for certain important products; long-standing trade flows being disrupted and firms struggling to cope with increased bureaucracy and costs, despite facilitations and grace periods; and the absurd prospect of a ban on chilled meats moving within the UK.
How is that situation compatible with those shared principles of ambition and pragmatism to promote prosperity and peace? How were the commitments that the EU made in 2017 and 2019 to specific solutions and alternative arrangements, and that the protocol could be superseded, compatible with the refusal to replace the Northern Ireland protocol or engage on alternative arrangements? How is this compatible with those principles in granting extension periods only the day before, or not extending the trusted trader scheme, or not focusing on goods at risk, or insisting that the only way to reduce burdens on the movement of food products is for us to accept EU law outright on SPS despite, as my hon. Friend has said, our putting an ambitious veterinary agreement on the table based on our respective high standards? I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) for her support for the Government’s proposals on that measure.
How is it compatible with, perhaps worst of all, triggering article 16 with no notice to create a hard border on the island of Ireland for the most sensitive of products—vaccines—feeding the perception that the EU’s years of claims to be prioritising the delicate balance in Northern Ireland were little more than lip service, and fundamentally undermining the confidence of many in Northern Ireland that the protocol could be made to work, or threatening legal action at the first sign of any disagreement instead of seeking to resolve problems consensually, or saying that Northern Ireland must be the price of Brexit? Never, Madam Deputy Speaker.
In contrast, we have worked hard to support those ambitions on prosperity and peace. For our part, we have honoured our commitments, with new IT systems as part of a world-leading customs system; £500 million for a range of support schemes—the trader support service, the movement assistance scheme, the digital assistance scheme—new facilitations by 1 January, such as the UK trader scheme, even though they were only agreed in December last year; temporary facilities for agrifood goods entering Northern Ireland and £60 million for the Northern Ireland Executive to administer them; and access to several UK customs databases, despite the technical challenges associated with data protection. The UK Government are working hard and in good faith to find solutions to the problems that many have mentioned. Those problems, as the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) said, cannot stand.
We have provided over a dozen papers with detailed proposals on how these problems can be addressed. In addition to that, we have made numerous proposals in other areas, including on tariff rate quotas and customs, and we have had a very limited reaction from the EU to these proposals. We have done all this because we know that we need to show that politics works. We must respond to people’s concerns and that means the EU working with us to ease the burdens on Northern Ireland, not prioritising the single market.
On the point about prioritising the single market, it is less about that and more about the proportionality point that I mentioned. Is there either any agreement between the British Government and the EU or at least some move to some shared understanding of what the actual risks are to the single market, as opposed to the theoretical ones, so that we can move to a much more proportionate balance of checks and controls on both sides?
My right hon. Friend is right that a seriously unbalanced situation is developing in the way that the protocol is operating. The protocol can be sustained only as long as it retains support in Northern Ireland; therefore, making it work is, you would think, in everyone’s interest. We need to focus on those shared and stated principles and common ambitions for prosperity and peace. It was ambition for our country that brought us to this point, and ambition is the parent of courage and determination. As we now need to think creatively, we have to find a new balance.
We need an approach to implementation that respects the delicate balance between the interests of all communities in Northern Ireland, and the economic and cultural links, east and west, as well as north and south. That is the thrust of the motion that we have been debating. The Government are ready to do that, and colleagues will not have long to wait. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex, who opened the debate, and all Members who have spoken, have done a service by demonstrating that support for such an ambition is the overwhelming mood of this House.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her strong speech. This has been a thoughtful and meaningful debate. I am particularly pleased that the Opposition Front Bench has given its support to the motion that has been tabled. That will strengthen the Government’s negotiating position considerably.
I will pick up one or two points. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) talked about the need for flexibility, but then seemed to say that that could be achieved without any change to the protocol. That is just not realistic. The idea that the President of the Commission cannot change his mind because member states would have to agree may be a problem for the European Union, but it cannot be a problem for the paralysis of the British Government—the British Government will have to take action.
I invite all those who have almost signed up to what I call the Macron doctrine, after he said at the G7 summit that nothing was negotiable and everything was applicable—this attitude of “You’ve signed it, so you’re stuck with it,” whether or not that is good for the British people or the Northern Ireland peace process—to consider that that is a kind of blindness that we really have to drop. What we are looking for is flexibility, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, asked for—real flexibility. The EU will not win respect around the world for adopting a head in the sand approach to this, and we will not shoehorn the whole of the United Kingdom back into the single market to resolve these problems, because that is not what the British people voted for.
I leave my right hon. Friend the Minister with this fundamental thought. She talked about working hard and in good faith, and courage and determination, but I am afraid that we are reaching the point very quickly where the Government will have to take action, and it will be a question of letting the European Union know that its failure to respond in reasonable good faith to the entreaties with which the Government have been presenting it will lead to consequences. That needs to happen soon, because the longer this situation persists, the more economic disruption is caused in Northern Ireland and the more the faith and trust in the Good Friday agreement are ebbing away. Everyone has to accept that the protocol is bad for the peace process in Northern Ireland, and it must change or be changed.
Question put and agreed to.
This House supports the primary aims of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, which are to uphold the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions and to respect the integrity of the EU and UK internal markets; recognises that new infrastructure and controls at the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic must be avoided to maintain the peace in Northern Ireland and to encourage stability and trade; notes that the volume of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland far exceeds the trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; further notes that significant provisions of the Protocol remain subject to grace periods and have not yet been applied to trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and that there is no evidence that this has presented any significant risk to the EU internal market; regards flexibility in the application of the Protocol as being in the mutual interests of the EU and UK, given the unique constitutional and political circumstances of Northern Ireland; regrets EU threats of legal action; notes the EU and UK have made a mutual commitment to adopt measures with a view to avoiding controls at the ports and airports of Northern Ireland to the extent possible; is conscious of the need to avoid separating the Unionist community from the rest of the UK, consistent with the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement; and also recognises that Article 13(8) of the Protocol provides for potentially superior arrangements to those currently in place.