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European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:01 pm on 31st January 2018.

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Photo of Viscount Bridgeman Viscount Bridgeman Conservative 12:01 pm, 31st January 2018

My Lords, I think plenty of your Lordships will share the view that the one country we would not wish to be disadvantaged as a result of Brexit is Ireland. However, Ireland is already suffering: beef exports have fallen as a result of the collapse of sterling. Sadly, it is Ireland that is most likely to suffer in the coming negotiations.

Had there been no progress with Ireland and Northern Ireland, we could well not be having this debate at all, or at least in this context. Noble Lords will appreciate that in the early stages of the negotiations last year the EU adopted an inflexible approach: no deal between individual members and the UK. It was described dismissively by Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph as Euro-theology. Talks were indeed in danger of stalling and stage two was in danger. With the determination on all sides to have a soft border, how could regulatory bodies be shared with the EU on the one hand while Northern Ireland was placed apart from the rest of the UK on the other? This has been stated by many speakers but I refer particularly to the speech yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes.

Thanks to the constructive efforts by UK, Ireland and Northern Ireland officials and the Barnier team, a form of words was agreed that I suggest is a drafting masterpiece. I am going to take the opportunity of reading it:

“In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market”.

If it is not entirely clear, perhaps that is intended. Naturally, the type of confectionery beginning with “f” shall not pass my lips; I would call it constructive vagueness.

The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have both made statesmanlike speeches, the Taoiseach in particular emphasising the bonds between the two countries. It has become known as the 8 December agreement and my right honourable friend Karen Bradley, the new Secretary of State, called it pragmatic, which is a very good description. I take this opportunity to wish James Brokenshire a speedy return to health; he has contributed so much to this early debate. So the logjam has been broken and we can move to stage two.

I am a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, formed as a meeting group for Back Benchers of both jurisdictions, and we have come a long way since the troubled times of the 1990s. Now it is a constructive and friendly group where we can agree to differ on Brexit, with frankness, without rancour or confrontation. It is particularly important at this time, when there is no devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. But I must emphasise that, with all the friendliness and mutual understanding in this group, Ireland is totally committed to the European Union. In the United Kingdom’s future dealings with Ireland over Brexit, friendly and constructive though we hope they will be, it is vital that this is borne in mind.