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Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland: Impact on UK Internal Market

Volume 816: debated on Thursday 18 November 2021


Asked by

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what assessment Her Majesty’s Government have made of the impact of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland on (1) Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom internal market, and (2) the flow of trade.

My Lords, the protocol recalls the importance of maintaining the integral place of Northern Ireland in the UK’s internal market and is clear that Northern Ireland is part of the UK’s customs territory. We are concerned that these provisions are not reflected in the way in which the protocol is being implemented. As a result, there is clear evidence of trade diversion. Trade data shows that trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland has increased significantly in both directions this year.

My Lords, the Minister knows that the protocol is having a major adverse impact on trade flows between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, never mind the massive destabilising effect on the political institutions and the political process in the Northern Ireland. The chairman of Marks & Spencer says the EU proposals threaten to increase the administrative burden on imports to Northern Ireland. They could result in “worsening friction”, he says and, as a result, his firm and others might have to stop sending goods to Northern Ireland.

The head of the Road Haulage Association in Northern Ireland referred to the EU proposals as “window-dressing”. He knows, as we all know, that the EU proposals do not address the fundamental issues of the protocol. Will he now tell the House and tell the people of Northern Ireland when he is going to implement the proposals set out in the Command Paper of July this year to finally restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market fully, to fully restore Northern Ireland’s place inside the UK customs union, not on paper but in reality, and finally restore full democratic accountability to Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom in the 21st century?

My Lords, the noble Lord sets out serious concerns, which we share. I should like to make our position on these negotiations and Article 16 100% clear, as he asks. Whatever the messages to the contrary that the EU may think it has heard or read, our position has not changed from the one I set out on 10 November or, indeed, in July at the time of the Command Paper. We would prefer to reach a negotiated agreement if we can. That is the best way forward for the stability and prosperity of Northern Ireland but I want to be clear that, as the responsible Minister, I would not recommend any outcome from the negotiations that I did not believe safeguarded political, economic or social stability in Northern Ireland. In such circumstances, we obviously would need to provide the necessary safeguards using Article 16. Those safeguards remain very much on the table and they are a legitimate provision in the protocol. No decision has been taken to exclude a priori any specific timing for Article 16. That will be shaped by whether and how quickly negotiations make progress.

My Lords, the Minister is once again equivocating on a very important issue, just as he did when he praised the treaty he had negotiated and then rubbished it. When he threatens to trigger Article 16, he then says, “Oh no. There’s no way I am going to do that”. Would he be surprised if increasingly, he is known here and in Northern Ireland as the “Grand Old Duke of York”?

My Lords, to be honest, what I have just said cannot be described as equivocating. I have tried to make my position 100% clear on these negotiations and on Article 16, and it has not changed. It is that if we can find a negotiated solution, that is better. If we cannot find one, then the safeguards are legitimate.

My Lords, Belfast Queen’s University’s most recent survey found that 52% of those who responded think that on balance, the Northern Ireland protocol is a good thing. Does the Minister agree that, rather than threatening to invoke Article 16, 52% is a sufficient mandate to get these practical changes done and to make the protocol work for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland?

My Lords, I have indeed looked at the polling conducted by Queen’s University, where I had a good meeting yesterday, by the way. There is a lot of other polling around on this subject, and the conclusion I draw from it is that there is significant and stark division of opinion in Northern Ireland. Different polls have slightly different numbers but there is a clear division about the benefits of the protocol or its difficulties. In those circumstances, it is difficult to implement and that is why we are in the situation in which we find ourselves.

My Lords, some overstated language has been employed regarding the potential implications of Article 16, such as its detonation being a nuclear response. Would my noble friend care to say a little more about what the normal procedures would be, were the article to be invoked, for ensuring that the UK’s rights under Article 16 and national rights are properly safeguarded and protected?

I thank my noble friend for his question, which is a good one. The safeguards in Article 16 are what they say they are: safeguards. They are not an on/off switch but are significant and potentially capable of being used in a significant way. We as a Government will always proceed on the basis of predictability, certainty and clarity. There is a one-month process of consultation for the use of Article 16 between notification and activation, and we would expect to follow all the necessary procedures to provide the maximum possible legal certainty—if we reach that point.

My Lords, can the Minister say to what extent the protocol situation has affected the operation of the trade and co-operation agreement and the other EU-UK workstreams?

My Lords, the trade and co-operation agreement and the withdrawal agreement are obviously separate. I have said that the difficulties we are having on the protocol are at the heart of some of the broader mistrusts that exist in the process at the moment. That said, the implementation of the TCA is going well. The specialised committees have largely met. The trade committee met earlier this week and, despite difficulties on issues such as fisheries, we are nevertheless implementing the TCA well and effectively, and the processes are working well.

My Lords, there is a problem here, because the response the Minister gave to the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, seems to contradict the impression given to the UK and European media—and Simon Coveney, who said that he welcomed the change of tone from the Minister and anticipated that with political will, this issue could be resolved by Christmas. Earlier, I implied that the Minister was not in the mood for answering questions today. Can he prove me wrong by giving us his percentage assessment of the chances of success by Christmas?

My Lords, it is somewhere between 0% and 100%, to be honest. It does not help to put specific numbers on these sorts of things. The noble Baroness makes a good point, though, about the comments of the Foreign Minister of Ireland and many others about what they perceive to be going on in the negotiations. Actually, I will talk to Simon Coveney later today. When I do so—and as I do in all those contacts—I will make our position abundantly clear, as I have set it out to this House. That remains our position, whatever else may be read in the media or by figures in the EU who are interpreting it.

My Lords, it is the Government’s policy, not the EU’s, to enforce the system whereby any goods entering Northern Ireland will have to be marked as conformity assessed, separate from those sold within Great Britain. That was referred to by the chair of Marks & Spencer, who the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, quoted. It is nothing to do with the European Union; it is British government policy. The British Government have not asked in the negotiations on the protocol for that to be changed. So when will it change? Or is it the Government’s policy that it is permanent?

My Lords, the processes that goods undergo when they enter Northern Ireland are those that, in our view, are required by the protocol, which, of course, has direct effect in UK law in many respects through the withdrawal Act. People would not want us to proceed in any way other than is consistent with those legal obligations. That is what we are required to do; the difficulty is that it is not consistent with social and economic stability in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, as we have failed to reach the end of the list on the previous two Questions, I implore noble Lords to keep their questions to half a minute, as recommended by the Procedure Committee. That will allow my noble friend to answer even more questions than he is already doing.