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European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:10 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Eames Lord Eames Crossbench 6:10 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, once Article 50 is invoked, the negotiations will be complex and profound. Already in this debate we have been reminded of that complexity. No one doubts the severity of the pressures which will be exerted on all sides to make sure that particular local interests are safeguarded.

Any negotiation involves compromise, yet it is in the careful use of language, not least today in this Chamber, that so much of the atmosphere in which those negotiations will take place will be dictated. So it is that we want to be careful in the use of our language and the way in which we express deeply held views on Brexit. However, given that background, I wish to make a strong plea at this stage of our debate that the particular concerns of a part of the United Kingdom which by a small majority voted to remain in the European Union should not be overlooked and forgotten.

There have been verbal assurances that those concerns will be watched and safeguarded. Those assurances have been given at different levels: they have been given in the other place and in this Chamber, and they have been welcomed. But inevitably, at this stage they are purely verbal. If I may presume at this stage of the Bill to emphasise the needs that that part of the United Kingdom, which voted to remain, genuinely feels lie within the roots of its future, it is the old theory of the slowest ship dictating the quality of the convoy—and, in this instance, a small part of the United Kingdom being recognised because of its concerns—which contributes to the quality of the democratic process in which this House is involved.

The consequences of Brexit could have more significance for the people of Northern Ireland than for any other part of the United Kingdom. Indeed, those consequences are more profound for the island of Ireland than for any other member state of the European Union. Brexit raises complex and profound questions which go far beyond law and constitutional matters. In the case of the island of Ireland, they bring to the fore the importance of human relationships and historic commercial and non-political alliance, and they focus on the tragedy of so much of the history of that part our kingdom. Speaking from my experience of more than 20 years as the Anglican Primate of All Ireland, I am given strength in drawing the attention of the House to these other issues which cannot be left aside in the important constitutional process in which we are involved.

The history of how the current healthy relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have been achieved is well documented. Many of us in this House have lived in and through those negotiations and episodes. There are some in your Lordships’ House who have made significant contributions to their achievement. Within Northern Ireland, the long journey to true and strong reconciliation between its peoples continues. None of us who have been privileged to be a part of that journey and to try to give some leadership and influence in it needs to be reminded of the risks in any alteration to the sensitive relationships north-south and east-west.

It is tragic that at this decisive moment the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive has produced a vacuum in the political peace process. We have come a long way on the road to a reconciled and shared community, but we have a long way still to travel. That is where the relevance to us of much of the Brexit debate comes in.

When Article 50 is invoked, it is those people of the United Kingdom living in Northern Ireland who will have the nearest livelihood and interests to the border—not just to the border with the Irish Republic but to that which has become the border between our United Kingdom and the European Union. It is they who will be affected by any new restrictions to that border. It is their lives which will be the most affected by any change in the nature of that border. It is they who will be among the first to experience the consequences of forthcoming negotiations.

As I said, there have been assurances. I hope that, in answering this debate, the Minister will be able to remind the House of the Government’s intention that there can be only an open land border between the United Kingdom which is Northern Ireland and the European Union which is the Republic. I give tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, for the way in which he has answered our concerns, but much more is involved in this issue than a line on the map.