My Lords, my reason for putting down Amendment 187A was to ensure that if we are to leave the EU, we do so in a way that does least damage to all the communities that we, as parliamentarians, represent.
Northern Ireland is in some ways a microcosm of the challenges that the UK faces in pursuing Brexit. But Northern Ireland adds further complexities, with delicate issues stemming from the Troubles and the peace process. These have been added to by the current political difficulties following the collapse of the Executive some 15 months ago. Since the signing of the Good Friday agreement nearly 20 years ago, there has been an enormous change in attitudes in Ireland that could not even have been imagined when I was a young girl growing up in Dublin. I am one of many of my generation who grew up in the Republic and who thought of the north as almost a foreign country. When I was a child, I had an uncle who manufactured children’s clothing. When he won a contract to make school uniforms in Northern Ireland, the family greeted this news with as much excitement and awe as if he had been invited to China to make uniforms. That was how alien Northern Ireland was to us: a mere 60 miles away—the same distance as London to Oxford—but light years apart.
Contrast that reaction to how young people today see the border—or rather, do not see it at all: people who have reached adulthood without ever having to experience, first-hand, stops and checks as they travel from one part of Ireland to the other. I did not even visit Northern Ireland until I was living in London and had to go to Belfast on business. I am not sure what I expected, but I was completely bowled over by how absolutely beautiful it was and the amazing people who live there. Today, 35,000 people cross the border every day for work, leisure, education and pleasure. No borders should be erected that will undo this progress.
The purpose of the amendment is to put into concrete legal terms what the Prime Minister and her Government are already committed to. The joint report on phase one of the Brexit negotiations that was published last December included a commitment to no physical border on the island of Ireland as a result of the Brexit vote, and the Prime Minister repeated that promise earlier this month. That commitment is clear and unambiguous, but how is it to be achieved?
The Prime Minister referred in her Mansion House speech to the Smart Border 2.0 report. It is not an EU report, as some have said, but was commissioned by one of the EU committees and has been submitted to the European Parliament for consideration. The report examines how technology could be used to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It uses examples of “smart” borders currently operating between Norway and Sweden and the US and Canada to demonstrate how technology can significantly speed up border controls. However, it makes clear that, despite all this technology, there are still 14 manned customs posts between Norway and Sweden and 39 between the US and Canada. In the US, so-called trusted traders—those who have preregistered with the Government—wait an average of 15 minutes to cross the border, while those who have not preregistered wait an average of 81 minutes. So the report demonstrates that, despite technology, even “smart” borders require manned border points, barriers and electronic surveillance including CCTV and number-plate recognition systems. This is very different from the current border between the north and the south and contradicts the Prime Minister’s statement on
“We have ruled out any physical infrastructure at the border, or any related checks and controls”.
The report makes no mention at all of agriculture, including the issues of animal welfare and checks to ensure that shipments are free from harmful pests and plant diseases, but that is a key element of cross-border trade, with food and live animals accounting for one-third of Northern Irish exports to the Republic in 2016. In addition, intra-company supply chains are highly dependent on cross-border movement; lamb and wheat are just two examples. These checks need to be made at borders and will be mandatory if the north diverges on regulation. Saying there is a technological solution is just a fanciful claim that is not backed up in reality either in Europe or around the world. Casually adopting the word “technology” as an easy solution does not address how to deal with the many crossing points between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is clear, particularly in the report, that technology cannot make a hard border soft and that regulatory alignment is the key to solving the problem.
It is essential that the Government honour their commitments because the inevitable result of border controls will be more smuggling, and we know from bitter experience that that is how the men of violence get back into business. The peace that was so hard-won in the Anglo-Irish agreement remains extremely fragile. It would be tragic if we were to tiptoe back into that quagmire because the Government found that they could not, after all, honour their promise. I very much hope that noble Lords will support this amendment on Report.