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 For the sake of Northern Ireland, the protocol cannot stand and must be superseded or replaced.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.