European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:03 pm on 30th January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 6:03 pm, 30th January 2018

My Lords, naturally I want to begin by referring to the Irish border question, as we are one of the regions most affected by the decision taken in 2016. I believe that the question of the Irish border has almost been weaponised in this debate because, in my view, the scale of the problem has been grossly exaggerated. Statistics are dangerous things, but I want to give some figures from the Irish Central Statistics Office. In 2015, imports to the Irish Republic from Northern Ireland accounted for 1.6% of total Irish imports. Coincidentally, the percentage of exports to Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic amounted to 1.6%.

Of course, that does not tell the whole story. It is perfectly obvious that there are local issues, particularly around agriculture, the movement of animals and things of that nature, and the processing that continues. We have to put this into perspective, however. When people bandy around language about threats to the Good Friday agreement, most of those making such claims did not negotiate the Good Friday or Belfast agreement and, as far as I am aware, have not consulted any of us who did. We should bear in mind that we should be cautious with language, because people are using this for political purposes. It has been used deliberately in the Republic, by Sinn Fein, to try to create a huge crisis. It is a difficult issue—there is no question of that—but I believe that there is a will on both sides of the Irish Sea to resolve it. I also believe that the United Kingdom Government will not put up a border. The only threat of a border comes from Brussels forcing the Irish Republic to put one up, and we all know that, politically, it is impossible for them to do so. Therefore, we have to look at alternative mechanisms. There are quite a number at our disposal. I appeal to colleagues to remember that when they use such language and this example, it is seized on by elements not in favour of a peaceful outcome and a settlement within the constitutional framework that the agreement set out to achieve.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, is back in his place. Earlier, in his contribution, he said that he wanted the devolved Administrations to have a legislative consent Motion and that one from each of them would have to be in place before a decision could be taken. I hope he realises what he is saying. He would be giving a veto on the future of the United Kingdom’s position in the European Union to Sinn Fein because it would have the ability in the Stormont Assembly—if it were functioning—to veto any legislative consent Motion, irrespective of the terms. He must understand that that is the inevitable consequence of what he is saying. I accept that there are consequences to and difficulties with the devolution settlements. People need to realise something about the powers that would naturally come back to the devolved Administrations. The devolved Administrations —and the United Kingdom as a whole—have not had any input on, for example, agricultural policy for 46 years. We have no capacity at the present time, let alone the devolved Administrations.

Energy is another key issue. We have constructed, or are trying to construct, an all-Ireland energy market, but it is not an energy market on its own. It is connected by both gas and electricity to Great Britain, and our UK energy market is physically connected to France. Clearly, big issues there need to be resolved. I also want to make a point about mutual recognition agreements, particularly as they apply to things such as medical devices. The CE safety mark that applies to many goods is one of the matters that we will have to thrash out as the legislation proceeds and other Bills come before the House.

I close by making the point that we talk about the wonderful trade opportunities we have. That is true, but we are still running an £80 billion deficit with the European Union. While it is vital to maintain the maximum amount of trade that we can, there is something seriously wrong with how we are doing business if we have a £1.5 billion a week loss on trade, week in, week out. What is wrong with us? There are clearly other policy issues. Our membership, or lack of it, of the European Union is not the whole story. It is a part of it but not all of it.

One thing I became aware of recently was that many people in this country feel an allegiance to the European Union that almost exceeds their allegiance to the United Kingdom. I had not been aware of that before. I understand that there are lots of people out there to be convinced, but we have had the referendum. It was an “in or out” referendum and the Head of the Government made that clear. Parliament passed the law and, whatever our position as a party—already alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney—it is done. We should get on with it and get the best possible deal, but trying to rehash the thing will merely create further division and leave us with no prospect of a future.