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European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Committee (7th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 14th March 2018.

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Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour 5:45 pm, 14th March 2018

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws for enabling me to speak to this amendment on the common travel area and to Amendment 198 in my name and those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Altmann and Lady Suttie, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake. It seeks to deliver into statute what the Government agreed with the EU on 8 December:

“The Good Friday or Belfast Agreement reached on 10th April, 1998 by the United Kingdom Government, the Irish Government and the other participants in the multi-party negotiations (the ‘1998 Agreement’) must be protected in all its parts, and that this extends to the practical application of the 1998 Agreement on the island of Ireland and to the totality of the relationships set out in the Agreement.”

My noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton will also address this specifically on Amendment 215, an important amendment that he has tabled with the support of other noble Lords—and noble Baronesses.

We scarcely need to remind ourselves that the Good Friday agreement, which my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen negotiated, was a triumph of politics over violence in post-conflict Northern Ireland. When I spoke in this place over a year ago, I said that a hard Brexit and the hard border that would inevitably follow it would test the delicate balance of the three strands of the Good Friday agreement—relationships within Northern Ireland, between Belfast and Dublin and between London and Dublin—on which the peace settlement is based. That, sadly, is coming to pass.

The Good Friday agreement was a good-faith effort to take the toxin out of identity politics in Northern Ireland, where those who identified themselves as Irish could live with those who identified themselves as British and with those who see themselves as Northern Irish. There is no doubt that since Brexit, which the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against, the divisive politics of identity is coming increasingly to the fore again. That is profoundly disturbing. Meanwhile, there has not been a local Administration for over a year—an equally profound government failure. Relations north and south are also deteriorating, to the extent that a senior member of the party propping up the Government can publicly call the Taoiseach a “nutcase”, and “not Indian” but a cowboy. To get the full flavour of that particular witticism, noble Lords need to know that Leo Varadkar’s father was born in Mumbai.

The tensions between the UK leaving the EU and Ireland remaining in it are clear. Following the phase 1 joint report on Article 50 on 8 December, the EU produced a 120-page document setting out the legal framework for fallback positions in the absence of agreement between the UK and the EU on the way forward. There were howls of protest and the Prime Minister rejected it out of hand, but where is the Government’s legal framework setting out what they think they signed up to on 8 December? Presumably, it sits alongside the Brexit Secretary’s impact assessments.

We are still desperately unprepared for Brexit and this is no more evident than on Northern Ireland. The UK Government, having agreed with the EU three months ago in the phase 1 agreement to maintain a frictionless border to preserve the Good Friday agreement, continue to fail completely to demonstrate how they can combine an open Irish border with the UK remaining outside both the single market and the customs union with the European Union. There is a simple reason for that—they cannot. Yet in her desperate attempt to keep her Cabinet—never mind her party—together, the Prime Minister continues to spin platitudes and delusion. Just last week, she was still maintaining that the United States/Canada border could be a model for an open border in Ireland. This is just nonsense. There are armed guards patrolling that border; there are flags on it; there is infrastructure on it—all the things that were specifically promised would not be on the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. If they were, they would be recruiting sergeants for mayhem, civil disobedience and attack.

Ministers still maintain the fiction that technology is the answer. All technological solutions require resources, infrastructure and preparation to implement. They do not substitute for the need for checks and inspections but merely aid the efficiency in crossing the border legitimately and identifying potential breaches of compliance or false declarations. As the former Permanent Secretary at the Department for International Trade, Martin Donnelly, has made clear, on the Northern Ireland border there is absolutely no evidence, and no serious expert in the customs field, who thinks that there can be an invisible technological border. He said that it does not exist anywhere in the world.