Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:52 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Crossbench 12:52 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, we are indebted to my noble friend Lord Lisvane for a timely broadening of the debate. Nevertheless, I shall talk mainly about Northern Ireland because it seems to me the most urgent. We are in great danger of flogging dead horses at present, because we are not too sure which horses are still alive—so be it.

The backstop is of course the fundamental feature of the debate on the Northern Irish situation at present, but in the background there is the Belfast agreement and the commitment of all parties to the principle of consent in any constitutional change. This is a treaty obligation that both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have accepted, and it has been fundamental to the peace process, which the EU has supported in many ways across, now, more than 20 years. If the backstop were activated, that would change the constitutional position by, in effect, excluding Northern Ireland—it is hoped, only temporarily—from the UK.

In very recent exchanges with the United Kingdom Government, the EU has indicated an aspiration to ensure that this situation does not arise and that, if it does, to work towards reaching an agreement on trade and, thereby, on the Irish border. That is admirable and realistic, but the phrasing of the commitment is still asymmetric. In their letter of 14 January—this Monday—to the Prime Minister, available on the Government’s website, Mr Tusk and Mr Juncker reaffirm their aspiration to avoid the backstop. So far, so good. They write:

The Commission can also confirm the European Union’s determination to replace the backstop solution on Northern Ireland by a subsequent agreement that would”— note the hypotheticals—

“ensure the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing”.

That is baffling. If their determination is shared by Her Majesty’s Government and the Republic of Ireland, why can the commitment not be made by all parties at this stage?

I realise that it has been affirmed time and again that future arrangements can be agreed only once the withdrawal agreement has been completed. But does this make any sense? Yes, to be sure that future arrangements can be implemented only at an appropriate time. But putting them beyond discussion and agreement and allowing that to undermine the negotiation of a withdrawal agreement reminds one of publicly insisting on red lines before negotiating. Surely there is too much at stake to allow this rigidity to derail agreement.

I have family both north and south of the Irish border. My family, including those who have served in this House and the other place, have long been liberal unionists so I am not tempted to support the DUP, least of all some aspects of its policies. I know in my bones what the loss of peace and good order would mean. If change in the Northern Ireland constitutional status happened by consent, in accordance with the Belfast agreement, so be it. I would support that, but I am at a loss to understand why the EU negotiators wish to risk the peace agreement they have supported for many years by allowing for the possibility of profound constitutional change that is not consented to as the Belfast agreement requires. Can the Minister shed any light on that by explaining why the Government have not managed to convey to the EU negotiators that this is effectively unconsented constitutional change?