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Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland: EU Negotiations

Volume 816: debated on Thursday 18 November 2021

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, it is a pleasure now to repeat an Answer as delivered to an Urgent Question made in the House of Commons by the Paymaster-General earlier today. The Answer is as follows:

“Let me begin by reaffirming the Government’s commitment to keeping both Houses of Parliament updated on the UK-EU relationship. We remain committed to doing just that. My right honourable friend Lord Frost provided an update to the House of Lords on EU relations just last Wednesday, 10 November, in the form of an Oral Statement. Unfortunately, as this honourable House was in recess at the time, that could not immediately be repeated on the same day. The timing of that update was unavoidable, led by external international business. However, I recognise the importance of keeping both Houses duly informed.”

My Lords, it is shameful that we have come to this today. Last week, the Minister came to this House and committed to ensuring that an equivalent Oral Statement would be made in the other place to reflect his remarks here last Wednesday. That did not take place; instead, the Government attempted to get by with a Written Statement issued on Tuesday, and the words that we have heard today in the other place were only as a consequence of the Minister there being dragged there in response to an Urgent Question. That is not good enough. These issues are of intense interest to Members on all sides of this House and the elected House. It is essential that we do not have this situation again. If the Minister wants to come here and make a Statement then he must ensure, as he promised, that a Statement is made in the equivalent way in the other House at the earliest opportunity.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is of course correct that I said on Wednesday that a Statement would be made in the other place in due course and that it was made in the way that she describes. How the other place runs its business and chooses its Statements is obviously not a matter for this House. Obviously, I respect the right and responsibility of the Opposition to hold the Government to account, which is why I am here today answering five Questions on very similar subjects, and will continue to do so as long as it is necessary.

My Lords, the Good Friday agreement requires that there is political balance and respect for both traditions in Northern Ireland. I therefore ask the Minister: in his negotiations with the EU, who is he negotiating for—unionists, nationalists or other? To me, representing the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, it looks very much as if the Minister is negotiating only for unionists.

My Lords, our interest, and the way that I am pursuing these negotiations, is the interest of everyone in Northern Ireland, and of the prosperity and stability of everyone in Northern Ireland and of Northern Ireland. That is how we seek to pursue this. I believe that is a common aim between us and the European Union, but it seems we interpret that in rather different ways. Nevertheless, I hope we can move forward and get to a position that provides a better outcome for everyone in Northern Ireland than the one that we have now.

But does my noble friend accept that the noble Baroness opposite had a point? I wish my noble friend absolute good fortune in what he is seeking to do, and he knows that. But, particularly when we have the good fortune to have the Cabinet Minister in this House, it is particularly important that the other House is informed, if not simultaneously then at the earliest possible moment. I urge him to tell his Cabinet colleagues that there should have been a Statement on Monday in the other place. We really must keep in step on these things. Again, I wish him success. Delicacy is important, but so is parliamentary protocol.

My Lords, I have said what I have said. I must say that I have a degree of sympathy with the point that my noble friend makes. It is obviously extremely important that both Houses are kept up to date in the most timely and appropriate fashion possible —certainly, I try to achieve that.

What exactly would be the consequences should Article 16 be triggered? How much weight does the Minister give in his negotiating strategy with the EU to the fact that an overwhelming majority of 55.8% voted to remain and 44.2% voted to leave? What were the reasons for that?

My Lords, we have always said that there will need to be a treaty arrangement between this country and the European Union to deal with the special features of Northern Ireland and to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I think it is common ground that there will need to be some such special arrangements. That is not the same as saying that Northern Ireland should remain some sort of shadow member of the European Union for certain purposes. In some ways, that is the situation that we have in certain aspects of policy, and that is what we need to change. But it is of course important to respect the balance, and that is why we talk about trying to find a new balance—the right balance—between all the different interests in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether a possible decision to invoke Article 16 is more likely to be influenced by an analysis of changes to trade flows resulting from the Northern Ireland protocol or by political factors? Will he undertake to inform this House of the criteria used to take any such decision?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that there are a number of conditions referred to in Article 16 for its use—economic and social disruption, trade diversion and so on—and, although they are conceptually separate, they all sort of feed into each other and create the conditions that might require the use of safeguards. I repeat what I said earlier: obviously we will be transparent and clear and set out our approach to Article 16 and the justification, if and when it comes to that point.

My Lords, I very much welcome my noble friend the Minister’s original Statement, and his repetition today that we are prepared to say that the threshold for triggering has been met. It is indisputable that there has been trade diversion and that there is a political crisis if half the population and every unionist party is against the protocol. Will my noble friend the Minister take this opportunity to confirm that, if we go down the route of Article 16, it will not be simply for the purpose of extending waivers, derogations or exemptions but to take the opportunity to tackle the jurisdictional problem that part of our country is governed from abroad? We exported to the world the sublime idea that laws should not be passed nor taxes raised except by accountable representatives. We should extend that principle to our fellow countrymen in Northern Ireland.

My noble friend is right that the current situation in Northern Ireland, with various grace periods and other easements in the implementation of the protocol, is nevertheless generating tensions and difficulties, and that the full implementation of the protocol, were that ever to be required, would generate even more difficulties. I think it is correct to think that, if we use Article 16 and safeguards, it will be to improve the situation over the one that we have now.

My Lords, the Belfast agreement has been mentioned, and I was very much involved in its negotiations. Can the Minister confirm that, in the agreement, all communities were involved and both the Irish Government and our Government were involved? Can he confirm, as Article 1 states, that they unanimously agreed that there could be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland? Can he confirm that the protocol was imposed on Northern Ireland without any consent?

My Lords, the noble Lord is obviously much more deeply expert in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement than I am, given his background. He is, of course, absolutely right in what he says about the article to which he referred. As regards the protocol, I point out that it was approved by this Parliament, but nevertheless it has created significant difficulties in its implementation. We seek to find a way forward from that and come to a better balance.

Is George Peretz QC’s opinion correct when he says that,

“it is not at all clear that the government has a solid legal basis for invoking Article 16, at least in relation to the large majority of concerns set out in the July Command Paper. Therefore, if the UK government chooses to implement measures that are otherwise in breach of the Protocol but which are justified solely on the basis of Article 16, it is at real risk of having those measures struck down in the domestic courts, especially if the measures exceed a limited duration or scope.”?

My Lords, we will, of course, set out our justification for using Article 16 and the legal basis and so on, if we get to that point. As regards to the legal opinion quoted by the noble Lord, to be fair, there is quite a lot of debate among learned lawyers on this subject. I imagine that, if we were to use Article 16, that would be subject to a degree of legal testing. We will see where that gets to, if and when Article 16 is used.