My Lords, I support this amendment, moved so compellingly by the noble Lord, Lord Patten.
The land border between the United Kingdom and Ireland is a state border—for tax, excise and legal jurisdiction. It is also a border across which public services connect, public agencies operate, people make their daily commute, livestock graze and goods flow back and forth without restriction. The levels of integration across the Irish border are among the closest in the world, bringing material economic benefit to the island—particularly to Northern Ireland—and, even more importantly, a remarkable transformation of a border that fewer than 20 years ago was a highly securitised boundary, close to which hundreds of people lost their lives. Soldiers, police officers, customs officials, farmers, factory workers, musicians and teenagers were all killed near the border because of a conflict about the border.
The 1998 Good Friday agreement and the Act that followed it, which is referred to in the amendment—I point that out to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice—brought that conflict to an end by making the border a point of co-operation, without raising questions about the sovereignty or constitutional integrity of either the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. This was made much easier by the fact that common EU membership of the United Kingdom and Ireland had already removed many of the barriers to such co-operation and movement. This was because the EU came to form a customs union and create a single market, both of which transcended state boundaries. Thus from the quiet rural hamlets of Fermanagh and Monaghan to the busy border towns of Newry and Dundalk there is no need for customs controls, no tariffs payable, no need to pay VAT at the border, and no checks for quality, standards or regulatory compliance.
As a line of soft integration between the UK and Irish jurisdictions, the Irish border has faded into relative insignificance, allowing Irish and British citizens—nationalists and unionists—both to feel quite comfortable in Northern Ireland. Given the bitter sectarian and violent history, this is a remarkable achievement. But it is also a fragile one, and we ignore that at our peril. To withdraw from the EU is to remove Northern Ireland from the conditions that currently make the Irish border so frictionless. Finding a resolution to the border conundrum while respecting Brexit must somehow preserve those connections and protect those benefits of co-operation. This is an economic necessity as well as a political imperative.
In their joint report with the European Union of December last, the UK Government repeated their commitment to protecting the operation of the 1998 agreement and to the avoidance of a hard border. Indeed, they went so far as to preclude,
“any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls”.
The amendment would bring into legal effect the commitments the UK Government have already made to the European Union and to everyone. In Brussels, a means of doing so in legally operable terms in the withdrawal agreement is currently being negotiated. It is essential that we do likewise in passing this amendment to the Bill.
Any customs partnership must be tight and seamless enough to avoid such checks while ensuring that the border is not a back door into the EU’s single market. Any technological facilitation must not entail physical infrastructure, random checks or compliance checks at any point. The amendment will provide much-needed security and legal certainty, with no fudges, creeping barriers or sly erosion of the finely honed balance. It will ensure that cross-border movement, north-south co-operation and day-to-day, mundane integration will continue to happen unimpeded. It does not tie the Government’s hands on the precise solution, except to insist upon what everyone says they want anyway: namely, a border as free, open and invisible as it is today. In my view this can only mean reproducing in some form the customs, trade, rules of origin, standards and regulatory arrangements that we now have across it.
It is our responsibility to ensure that Brexit does not mean the emergence, at any level, of any new conflict about the border, because that would be both economically catastrophic and politically lethal. That is why this amendment is so vital.