Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:50 pm on 23rd July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench 8:50 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, I intend to confine my remarks to the Irish dimension of this problem. I am well aware that there is a debate about the White Paper and the pros and cons that exist, but I do not want to engage with that. I want to deal with the impact of the White Paper, and initially of Chequers, on the evolution of the problems that we are all aware exist around the Northern Irish border. I accept that the Irish border question has been inflated beyond its proper weight—and I am not particularly defending the way in which the Government have chosen to handle it. But we are where we are and, while it has been inflated, it is a real problem that requires a resolution.

The important thing to say is that, in the period since the Chequers summit, there has definitely been a feeling that this problem is moving towards a more benign compromise. Mr Brian Walker, a Northern Irish journalist—and senior editor at the BBC in London in the past—published an article immediately saying that the bogey of the Irish border was starting to vanish before our eyes. The next day the Sunday Independent, the largest-selling Sunday paper in Ireland, said that it was now time for Ireland to stop working against Britain and to work with Britain to get a good compromise.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to how Michel Barnier’s views have evolved between March and May and up to the present time. The FT reports today his conciliatory remarks on the Irish question after the White Paper. That is part of a pattern. The EU in the earlier part of this year made a bid to expand the backstop already agreed on 8 December in a way that effectively removed Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. It was as simple as that—constitutional separation as the price of the deal. There has been a steady retreat from that. The Prime Minister has said that no British Government or Prime Minister would ever accept such a proposal. In fact, I can think of a couple who might have, but she is quite right in saying that the vast majority of British Prime Ministers would never have accepted such a proposal. Gradually, the language of Michel Barnier has changed—saying that he is not proposing any alteration in the constitutional order of the United Kingdom and that he wants proposals that work on the basis of precedent. He is not proposing now a border, with a capital “B”, in the Irish Sea. There already are checks with respect to agricultural foodstuffs and so on—and there is a precedent already for the type of thing that he envisages. All the signs are that we are moving away from the very extravagant EU negotiating stance towards something that can be dealt with.

Members of this House have mentioned the role of the DUP. The Government must take their views in mind, given the voting balance of the House of Commons. There was a famous moment, recorded in Jonathan Powell’s book, The New Machiavelli, when Ian Paisley was in a meeting with Tony Blair and said to him, “My farmers are British, but unfortunately my cattle are Irish”, by which he meant that he recognised that there were issues around foodstuffs—at that time, the BSE crisis—in which Ireland might require separate treatment. It is not a constitutional atrocity to acknowledge that simple, physical fact. Can the DUP not handle it when the White Paper says at paragraph 42 that we regard Ireland as an epidemiological unit—one unit, north and south—in the context of a discussion about agriculture and foodstuffs? We are moving towards a settlement here, or should be.

Despite what the Taoiseach said last week—he said that he did not want to have any checks, even in the event of a hard border—the European Union has told him that that is not on. He has tried to say it twice now and he has twice received a stern message: “No, you can’t do that—it’s a hole in our defences and we won’t accept it”. He wants to do that, but he cannot. Consequently, as we head towards a no deal, the consequences are dramatically bad for Ireland; most Dublin commentators seem to think that the IMF report understates the damage that would be done in the event of a no deal. Another report was done by the French Council of Economic Analysis in the last couple of days, and another one from Copenhagen Economics. All of them stress the heavy damage that would be done to the Irish economy in the event of a no deal. Everything—every economic reality and political reality—points towards some compromise.

As for the timing, the longer Ireland lets it drift, you get into what the former Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, calls a “terrible Halloween party”, by which he means that Ireland, having failed to get its issues dealt with on its own in June, will go into the mix with all the other 27 countries, which have their own issues and all the things that they want from Britain. If we go to that Halloween party, Ireland will lose out.

Therefore, everything now points towards moving this dreadfully divisive issue into a better place. I have not stressed it, but everybody knows that the broad proposals on alignment in the White Paper will probably make it easier to handle the issues of the internal border as well. I am not saying that this is the way it should have been approached, but it is where we are now. There has been a failure in the discussion of the implications of the White Paper to draw out the fact that, at least with regard to Ireland, the approach that has been adopted has, thus far—it could be overturned tomorrow—been relatively successful.