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Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 29 April 2021


Asked by

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) whether Her Majesty’s Government is aware of any assessment made by the European Commission of the instability and societal problems being created in Northern Ireland by the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I am not aware of any assessment of the kind referred to in the noble Baroness’s Question, but I have no doubt that the Commission is monitoring the situation in Northern Ireland closely. We are in regular contact with the Commission about the issues raised by the operation of the protocol. Those discussions have been serious and constructive; some positive momentum has been established but significant difficult issues remain.

My Lords, there are already serious societal difficulties in Northern Ireland. Every night, across the Province, there are dozens of—mostly peaceful—protests, with people feeling ignored and betrayed. Of course, they are not reported because they are not violent. This direct action will increase over the next few months, with the worry that there is a feeling in many communities that the only way to advance political objectives is with the threat of violence—just as the threat of IRA bombs was unfortunately used by Taoiseach Varadkar as political leverage, which led to the protocol. Can the Minister assure people in Northern Ireland that Her Majesty’s Government recognise that the serious societal difficulties and instability arising from the protocol already exist, and that it is therefore unsustainable for the protocol to last much longer?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important issue. In all my interactions with Vice-President Šefčovič, I drive home the seriousness of the current situation in Northern Ireland and the overriding importance for all parties of supporting the peace process and protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I encourage the vice-president to meet business and civic groups in Northern Ireland to hear their unfiltered views; I know that he intends to do that. The solution to this problem is one in which we can work with the Commission to operate the protocol in a pragmatic and proportionate fashion.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has concluded free trade agreements with 67 states, not counting the TCA belatedly ratified by the European Parliament this week. Can my noble friend assure this House that Northern Ireland will benefit in full from the provisions of those agreements?

My Lords, I am happy to assure my noble friend that this Government’s intention is that Northern Ireland will benefit fully from the great trade deals we have agreed and those coming in future, which we are currently negotiating; that intention is clear in the protocol. Unfortunately, because of legislation passed by the EU, Northern Ireland does not benefit from certain TRQs in the same way as the rest of the UK. This is one of the issues that we are discussing with the Commission at the moment. We are making progress on that and I am hopeful of a satisfactory resolution.

My noble friend will be aware that, this week, considerable political instability was introduced into Stormont, in part because of the introduction of the protocol. Can he assure us that he is encouraging his counterparts in the European Union to engage with those who know something about the Belfast/Good Friday agreement? It is perfectly obvious that they do not really have a grasp on its balance and purpose. Can he also assure us that he is prepared to meet some of us to discuss this subject?

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that we very much encourage the Commission—at all levels, from Vice-President Šefčovič and his team down—to engage with those who have experience of the negotiation of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and everything that followed from it. We do everything we can to drive home the importance of protecting it as central to stability in Northern Ireland. Of course, I will be happy to meet my noble friend and colleagues to discuss this further.

My Lords, when he responded to the question from my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, the Minister repeated his response to my question on this issue last month, which confirmed that bilateral discussions with European member states were the way forward and were continuing. The Culture Secretary in Northern Ireland and Great Britain desperately needs clarity on the short-term visa issue. Can the Minister say which EU states are involved in these discussions and give us a sense of the likely timetable for their resolution?

My Lords, this is indeed an important and urgent matter. Our ambassadors and embassies are talking to member states to establish the facts around what kinds of visas and processes are required and, importantly, to get them to improve their guidance on how to apply. We are also trying to improve our own signposting to that guidance. Our rules for touring professionals are comparatively generous, of course. We hope that, out of these discussions, some member states will signal a wish to change their rules so that they look more like ours and enable this great touring activity to continue.

My Lords, given that the grace period has been extended, will the Government carry out their own full impact assessment on the Northern Ireland protocol? If not, why not?

My Lords, the extension of the grace period is central to managing our practical discussions with the Commission on solving the current protocol arrangements. We have published and discussed a good deal of information about the impact of the protocol. We are leading these discussions in an attempt to mitigate its impact and ensure that it is implemented in a pragmatic and proportionate way.

My Lords, when I listen to the Minister talking about the Northern Ireland protocol, I sometimes think he has forgotten that he was part of the negotiating team that gave us it. A lot of these problems were highlighted before. Is not part of the problem the fact that, when the whole Brexit debate was going on, too little attention was paid to the impact on Northern Ireland? It seems that some progress is being made on the outstanding issues, but I want to know more. It seems that we leap from short-term fix to short-term fix when what is really needed is a commitment to making the protocol, as the Minister negotiated it, work for the long-term benefit of Northern Ireland and for all sides of the community. Otherwise, his negotiations amount to nothing.

I indeed have happy memories of negotiating the current protocol, back in 2019, when our primary task was to deal with the unsatisfactory situation that we had been bequeathed; the original backstop would have kept the whole United Kingdom in the customs union and aligned with EU law in many areas. We dealt with that in the 2019 negotiations. Our expectation then was that the protocol would be implemented in a way that supported the Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions—east-west and north-south. That is not quite borne out in the way that it is being implemented at the moment, but we hope that, in discussions with the Commission, we will be able to improve the situation.

My Lords, if the legal action recently initiated by the European Commission over the United Kingdom’s alleged breach of the Northern Ireland protocol in March proceeds further, do Her Majesty’s Government intend to submit to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice? Will my noble friend say?

We are obviously very much at the preliminary stages of the dispute settlement process to which my noble friend refers. I hope that, on reflection, the EU will agree with us that the unilateral measures that we took in March, which are the subject of this dispute, are legal, proportionate and do not require further action. If it does not, as I recall, the withdrawal agreement offers two routes for dispute settlement—normal international arbitration, or that with a role for the EU institutions—so we wait to see how and on what basis this case is taken forward.

My Lords, Northern Ireland was promised the best of both worlds, but trade with the rest of the United Kingdom has reduced, not increased. Loyalists and unionists sense that they have no effective voice and that Whitehall was not honest about the consequences of Brexit. Government at the highest level must take responsibility; it must allow local politics to regain the initiative, rebuild trust with Dublin and breathe life into the British-Irish intergovernmental process. Experience shows that this requires the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to engage directly with local parties and the broader community, listening as well as being listened to, not intermittently but continuously. Is this part of the plan to deal with this problem?

My Lords, as I have noted, the situation in Northern Ireland has complex roots and it is important that all those engaging and dealing with it do so with the intention of supporting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is of course engaging with all parties in the current situation and will continue to do so.