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Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 25 March 2021


Asked by

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) why Her Majesty’s Government unilaterally extended the grace period for checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland under the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

My Lords, the temporary operational measures announced by the Government earlier this month were taken to avoid disruption to supermarket supplies and parcel deliveries, in accordance with the protocol’s aim to minimise disruption to everyday lives in Northern Ireland. We continue to discuss the implementation of the protocol with the EU within the joint committee framework.

I thank the Minister and welcome him to his new post. Why did the Government not listen to the 29 trade associations that said in December that there were not enough official vets to cope with the new rules requiring export health certificates for trade in animal products crossing the Irish Sea? He tweeted on 12 March:

“overall freight volumes between the UK and the EU have been back to their normal levels for over a month now”.

Is he saying that for the first quarter of 2021 the volume of trade between the EU and UK will be approximately the same as for the first quarter of 2020? If not, what is he saying exactly?

In answer to the first part of the question, I say that we work very closely with companies wishing to trade into Northern Ireland and have set up a movement assistance scheme specifically designed for companies exporting food and drink. On the second part, I say what I said in my tweet—freight volumes are back to normal and have been since the beginning of February. We must await official figures for trade value, and those are subject to some of the same considerations discussed earlier.

Does my noble friend agree that, under the Belfast agreement, Northern Ireland is not a hybrid state but an integral part of the United Kingdom —ultimate responsibility for which rests with the sovereign United Kingdom Government? Where there is evidence that the protocol is not working as envisaged—as the Prime Minister recently acknowledged —and Northern Ireland is disadvantaged, is it not the duty of Her Majesty’s Government to take whatever action is necessary to remedy that, unilaterally if required?

My noble friend is absolutely right; Northern Ireland is not subject to some sort of co-governance arrangement with the EU. Northern Ireland is fully part of the United Kingdom, its custom arrangements and internal market. The protocol is extremely clear on this point. However the protocol is implemented, it must be done in a way consistent with these fundamental provisions.

One of the effects of the Minister’s decision on the grace period is that nobody now knows when the new treaty will be ratified. I take him back to his answer to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and the Government’s February decision that the entire governance structure under the new treaty—all the myriad committees charged with tackling practical problems, tying up loose ends and rebuilding relations—should stay on ice until after ratification. No one knows when ratification will be. The report by the EU Select Committee chaired by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, saw no justification for allowing matters to drift in this way. The Minister’s answer suggests that he does not agree. If so, what is his justification for this drift and what was the withdrawal agreement legal base for his unilateral decision on the grace periods?

My Lords, our expectation is that the trade and co-operation agreement will be ratified by the end of April. We have agreed to that in the partnership council by written process. We look to the European Union to uphold that obligation. The unilateral measures were lawful as part of a progressive and proportionate implementation of the protocol.

My Lords, the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, said that a road map to the full implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol was needed. Since the noble Lord has taken office, has he had the chance to meet Mr Coveney? If not, does he have plans to do so at an early date? There are many of us who think that, on the basis of the noble Lord’s distinguished diplomatic record, he might do a better job spending more time on diplomacy and less time issuing ideological declarations.

I have of course had a conversation with the Irish Foreign Minister, as I have with many Ministers around Europe. Our intention is to pursue the issues arising from the protocol through dialogue, both with the Commission and with our European friends.

My Lords, further to his earlier replies to the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, can the Minister confirm that concluding a bespoke EU-UK veterinary agreement will be a key priority during the grace period? Does he feel that progress is already being made in that regard?

My Lords, the European Union has a number of SPS and veterinary agreements with third countries based on equivalence, not dynamic alignment. We continue to be open to an arrangement based on equivalence. At the moment, our understanding is that the European Union does not wish to negotiate such an arrangement.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Frost, to his distinguished place on the Front Bench; I have many good memories of working together on European issues in the Blair Government. When it comes to making the Northern Ireland protocol work more flexibly, the key question surely is about trust between the Commission and the British Government. Will he seize this golden opportunity today to affirm publicly that the British Government are not seeking to scrap the Northern Ireland protocol or negotiate any changes to the text that the Prime Minister himself agreed?

I too have happy memories of working with the noble Lord in a rather different context a few years ago. Our clear position is that the protocol depends on the consent of all the people of Northern Ireland. As long as that consent is not maintained, it is difficult to see how the protocol can be genuinely durable. We are working to sustain the protocol, but in a pragmatic and proportionate fashion.

My Lords, I too welcome the Minister. Is he aware that some of us strongly support his unilateral action in extending the grace periods? Without them there would be shortages of food and no medicines in Northern Ireland. Banning British sausages in Belfast hardly strengthens the Good Friday agreement, but a temporary waiver is not a permanent solution to these problems. Is he confident that there is sufficient flexibility and potential easements in the protocol for a permanent solution, or is it going to require action under Article 16?

I thank my noble friend for his words of support for the operational measures that we took earlier this month. These measures are lawful and consistent with the progressive and good-faith implementation of the protocol. They are intended to avoid disruption to everyday life in Northern Ireland, which we would otherwise have seen. We are working with the Commission to see if we can find solutions to those problems and many others on a more permanent basis, and we continue to pursue that actively.

My Lords, I give full support to Her Majesty’s Government in taking the action to extend the grace period for trade checks between GB and NI. In the face of the belligerent attitude of the EU at the joint committee, I believe that there was no alternative. However, does the noble Lord agree that the trade border is now on the island of Ireland, at Belfast, Larne and so on? As such, if it can be there, is there any credible reason why it cannot be moved to inside EU territory—specifically, inside the Irish Republic—making the EU responsible for the protection of its internal market?

I thank the noble Baroness for her words of support and for acknowledging that we had no choice in the operational measures that we took earlier this month. The protocol depends on cross-community support and the consent of the majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly. As a matter of logic, if that consent were not to be renewed in the future, it would have implications that all sides would need to consider at that point.