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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 14th March 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Suttie Baroness Suttie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 7:00 pm, 14th March 2018

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to listen to the wisdom and experience of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames. He helps put all this back into perspective for us. I shall speak to Amendments 215, 198 and 187A, to which I have added my name. All three tackle the issue of avoiding a hard border and of upholding the progress made in the last 20 years since the Good Friday Belfast agreement.

Whereas there is virtually universal consensus about those aims, as the debate this evening has shown, there is still scarily little consensus about how they can be achieved in reality, especially given the timescale we are now talking about. Various options are being floated for the Irish border issue, but every one of them is considered utterly unacceptable to at least one section of society on the island of Ireland. This has all been further complicated by the confidence and supply arrangement that the Government have found themselves in since last summer, and the hard-line position on Brexit taken by the DUP.

In the absence of a credible policy from the Government and the current policy vacuum, various myths and assumptions have started to take hold. The first and most popular myth is, as my noble friend Lady Doocey has so clearly spelled out, that this problem can somehow magically be solved through “technological solutions”. The proponents of this myth have somewhat ironically given enormous credence to a paper written by one researcher for the Constitutional Affairs Committee in the European Parliament. As my noble friend said, and as the disclaimer in the document makes clear, that paper has no official status. People have perhaps been so keen to promote it because it is more than the Government themselves have been able to produce.

But even if such technological solutions were indeed feasible, as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said, it is highly unlikely that they could be fully implemented within the next decade, never mind by next March. We just need to look at the track record across Whitehall to know how long it takes to introduce new technological systems, and how often there are severe technical and teething problems. On giving evidence to our EU Committee, a senior Swiss customs official acknowledged that on the 120 border crossings between Switzerland and the EU, even with technology some hardware has to be installed, with CCTV cameras, number plate recognition, drone technology and so on. Any such hardware could be very vulnerable to vandalism, so people on the ground would be required to protect it. It is not hard to see how this could quickly be ratcheted up to become a physical border. The chief constable of the PSNI, George Hamilton, has expressed publicly his concerns and warned that border posts and security installations created as a result of a hard Brexit would be seen as fair game for attack by violent dissident republicans.

The second dangerous assumption is that because the Irish have the most to lose economically as a result of Brexit, they will have to sort out the problem and fix it in Brussels. There are even those who say that the inevitable consequence is that Ireland too will have to leave the European Union. But Ireland is a sovereign state and the Irish people overwhelmingly continue to support membership of the European Union. This is particularly true among young people. They did not have a say in the Brexit referendum in 2016, so it is deeply unreasonable to say that it is now down to them to sort it all out.

The third key area of debate is that somehow or other the issue of the border has been exaggerated; some have even used the word “weaponised”. However, just two days before the EU referendum the Prime Minister, Theresa May, said:

“if we were out of the European Union with tariffs on exporting goods into the EU, there would have to be something to recognise that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. And if you pulled out of the EU and came out of free movement, then how could you have a situation where there was an open border with a country that was in the EU and had access to free movement?”

On this I agree with the Prime Minister.

During an EU Select Committee visit to Ireland and Northern Ireland in January, we heard many people voicing concern about the differences in interpretation in London and in Dublin on the joint agreement reached between the EU and the UK on 8 December. In Dublin there is understandably a firm belief that it was an agreement that was to be honoured by both sides.

The purpose of Amendment 215 is to give effect to paragraphs 49 and 50 of the joint report agreed on 8 December. Paragraph 49 of the joint agreement envisages three different scenarios for finding a solution to the Irish border issue. The second scenario envisages,

“specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland”.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, has already read out the details of paragraph 49, so I ask the Minister when the Government intend to come forward with these specific solutions, and why they have not yet come forward with proposals. I am sure the Minister will agree that this is becoming increasingly urgent, given the imminent European Council where these issues will be examined on 23 March.

I shall conclude by saying a few words about some of the unseen consequences of leaving the European Union, and the impact on the Good Friday Belfast agreement. Since we both joined the European Economic Community in 1973, Irish and UK Ministers have had the opportunity to sit around the table in Brussels on a monthly basis. They have sat around that table as equals. These meetings have provided an unseen but vital opportunity to discuss the issues of the day and to work around problems. This has provided a vital information flow which has had a not inconsiderable influence on the peace process. In his concluding remarks, can the Minister say what thought the Government have given to enhancing UK-Ireland relations in the absence of these hugely valuable diplomatic channels? On this, as with so many other issues surrounding Brexit, the full consequences are not yet fully understood, but we must do all we can to avoid any reversal of the hard-won peace and progress achieved over the last 20 years.