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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:38 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 6:38 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, during the debate, a number of noble Lords have kindly referred to Northern Ireland. Of course, we are extremely grateful that Members are taking a keen interest. We are the most affected region, I guess, because we have a greater complication than anybody else. Not only that, but because of the profile of our economy—its significant agricultural and food production aspects—it is a bigger deal for us than perhaps for other parts of the country.

At this time the Northern Ireland Executive have massively let the people down. They have become engaged in a war with themselves. They have collapsed. Since 24 June last year, their total written contribution to Her Majesty’s Government has been one letter, of two pages, which was written in August and merely stated the obvious. When the Brexit Secretary of State visited Belfast in September, he had to have two meetings with the two coalition parties. They would not even meet him together. This is a hugely important issue for our people, our businesses and our future yet the behaviour and performance of that Executive has been an absolute disgrace.

The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said that the Scottish Parliament had not produced a single piece of legislation since it was re-elected. We in Northern Ireland can do better than that; we have produced one piece of legislation, the finance Act. No other legislative device has hit the statute book since the elections of last year.

I do not support a physical border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. I certainly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, that everything we can possibly do to keep that border open must be done. However, I caution him not to close the door on electronic or other technical mechanisms, because using those could avoid having the physical border that would be a major setback for us all. We have to keep our minds open and look at all the possible methods.

This leads me on to an issue that I have raised with the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Bridges—on other occasions when he has given answers in this House. I ask him to give an absolutely clear, definitive guarantee at the close of this debate tomorrow night that there will be no border in the middle of the Irish Sea so that we would not find ourselves, as citizens of the United Kingdom, effectively seeking entrance to our own country when we turn up at Stranraer. I want to be absolutely clear: I will be waiting for that absolute and certain guarantee tomorrow night and, should we be here until 7 o’clock the following morning, I will be here to hear him. If that guarantee is clearly given, it will free us up to look closely with our colleagues in the Irish Republic at how we can fix this. We have had meetings with them and their minds are open. We have to look at all the options. It is not going to be easy but it has to be done, so I hope that the Minister will give me that guarantee.

The other thing which I would caution colleagues about is linking the Belfast agreement to the European exit. I do not doubt that there are political issues involved but there is no legal link. The results of the court case that was held in Belfast and subsequently referred to the Supreme Court are clear. The mentions of the European Union in the agreement are incidental. As one who was privileged to be in those negotiations for more than two years, yes, Europe was mentioned but in the context of the commonality between ourselves and the Republic, and what assistance it could give. I have to put on record that it gave us a special peace fund, which no other part of the European Union had. It is still working and we are very grateful for it. I make it clear that, while there is a political link, there is no legal or constitutional link.

My final point is that, having been part of a very complicated negotiation lasting over two years, I have to say that the expectations of some noble Lords as to how such negotiations can be conducted is somewhat wrong. Up until one hour before those two years of negotiations ended, I could not have said whether there would be a deal. Noble Lords may think that you can put everything out in front of the people you negotiate with and tick the boxes off every quarter, but that is an unrealistic prospect. Ministers have to go in and negotiate.

I assure your Lordships that if we had had to look over our shoulders every five minutes, when we were assailed from all sides by people shouting “Traitors!” and “Lundies!” at us outside the gates, and on top of that say every few weeks what we were discussing then we would never have got an agreement. So please do not believe that you can conduct an international negotiation on such a scale—a much bigger scale than we were involved in—and, at the same time, hog-tie the Ministers. They must be free to negotiate. If they do a good job, fine; if they do a bad job, then we will know and have an opportunity to pass judgment on them. Can your Lordships imagine what the negotiators on the other side of the table would do in those circumstances, knowing that they could cut the ground from under the Ministers negotiating with them? What would you expect them to do? If our opponents had known what our bottom line was on a particular issue, we would have been slaughtered before we even got to a deal.

Members have to be realistic. Whatever people may think, the fact of the matter is that David Cameron looked people in the eye, through the camera, and said, “This is an ‘in or out’ referendum”. We recommended remain because of our particular circumstances but the vote is over. We now have to implement the decision and you cannot do that with your cards face up on the table, because the person on the other side of that table will simply take every advantage. You would have no leverage whatever and simply be humiliated when you came back. We have already seen what could have been done when David Cameron negotiated with Europe. If he had asked for more and Europe had been generous in giving it, we might not be having this debate today.