European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Report (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 2nd May 2018.

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Photo of Lord Carswell Lord Carswell Crossbench 4:45 pm, 2nd May 2018

My Lords, I have lived all my life in Belfast. That is rather a long time: even longer than my old and valued, noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames has. During those years, I have been backwards and forwards across the border many, many times, without let or hindrance. That is why I want to focus—just for the purpose of my remarks this afternoon—on subsection (2)(b) of the proposed new clause. I am not going to touch on the rest of it: there are many good things in the rest of the new clause, but I will say nothing about them. However, one thing is very clear: people of good will all agree on the ideal of the smoothest possible operation of the passage of people, goods, livestock and vehicles across the border. However, that good will needs something more: it needs good sense. When that criterion is applied, I fear that it is rather more difficult to accept the portion of proposed new subsection of (2)(b) that deals with this. It would, in effect, have the consequence of fixing everything in aspic: not a stone to be moved, not a blade of grass to be bent unless the two Governments agree.

Recent history does not give us any great confidence in that. I say with regret that the approach of the EU negotiators to this issue has been rigid and intransigent to the point of being obstructive. I am equally sorry to say that the Government of the Republic have thrown themselves in line with that. That is most regrettable because their predecessors were taking a very much more constructive, co-operative and sensible line. When the present Government took over, they immediately reversed that policy to being equally difficult—if I may put it as politely as possible—as the EU.

What the amendment really appears to involve, if the Governments do not agree, is the status quo, which in effect means a full customs union: either the whole United Kingdom with the EU or Northern Ireland alone with the EU. I am afraid that I would find it equally impossible to support them. I hope that sense will prevail and that it will triumph over experience, but, as with all the old phrases about hope and experience, it is difficult to be entirely confident. If it does not, what will happen? I am talking about this imprecise and unfortunately misleading phrase of a hard border.

I ask your Lordships to look at three facts. First, it would not involve some sort of iron curtain. I lived through times, personally and professionally, with a real hard border during what we called the Troubles, with checkpoints manned by armed soldiers, border posts, watchtowers looming over the countryside—dreadful things—large numbers of roads closed off, bridges destroyed and roads cratered to stop access. There is no suggestion, and should never be, that we want to return to that or will do so. Going back before we joined the EEC as it was, I remember the border. It was an ordinary border between states. There were customs officers, you had to have a triptyque for your car and there were inspections, but they were not terrible obstructive or difficult to negotiate. With the greater volume of trade these days, we will want to do something better than that and, if possible, not return to that.

Secondly, the passage of persons has never been a problem—the common travel area sees to that. When I was a youngster in the 1940s and early 1950s, I rode my bicycle up and down to Dublin many times, and nobody looked sideways at me. In the 1970s and 1980s my dear late mother sat happily on the train travelling down to visit my brother who lives in Dublin. That is not a problem and should never be.

Thirdly, as noble Lords have mentioned, the Provisional IRA war ended 20 years ago, and it has stayed that way. Most of the perpetrators of dissident violence are dissident republicans who, in various manifestations, have been causing violence in smallish quantities compared with what it was, but it is still there. The source of discontent leading to violence in the first place was nothing to do with the border and its arrangements. It was a wholly different fons et origo. I am not going to go into it now, but it was focused on discontent which had many sources and many problems in it from other directions. I am sorry to say that those who talk up the risk of a resumption of violence are misguided. It is an emotive argument, another project fear, which was roundly described a few days ago by a highly respected, very experienced and very independent-minded commentator in the Belfast Telegraph as “quite simply scaremongering”.

We need to look realistically at what could be arranged even in the absence of agreement between Governments. Technology is advancing at a dizzying rate. The possibility of resorting to it has been dismissed airily by the EU negotiators, and I am sorry to say that the Irish Taoiseach has run along with that and dutifully repeated their sentiments by talking about magical thinking. One of the things I have seen practically no mention of during the whole of this affair is an important document which emanates from the EU itself. A report by Lars Karlsson, a senior customs officer in Sweden, was commissioned by the policy department of the EU Parliament. It goes into very great detail about possible technological devices and concludes that a border arrangement can be managed,

“that serves both sides of the border with maximum predictability, speed and security and with a minimum burden and cost for traders and travellers”.

The report says it could be done,

“using a combination of international standards, global practices and state-of-the-art technology”.

It is much too long and too complex to try to summarise now, but I commend that report to your Lordships’ attention. I am quite sure there could be an extended argument about its viability, and I would not dispute that, but it requires consideration.

I cannot say whether it received any attention during the negotiations with the EU, but it is the EU’s own document and it deserves attention. Perhaps ideally to get to the situation that the report suggests requires governmental agreement and we may be going round in a circle. Indeed, it might not produce as easy arrangements as many people would like. But it shows that it is not necessary to resort to the complete status quo and not necessary to adopt the customs union which would be, in effect, the result if this amendment. Perhaps we should all remember in this aspect of the withdrawal as well as others that the best is the enemy of the good. I cannot support the amendment.