My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, who made some important points about the energy market, especially on the island of Ireland.
Amendment 46 is consistent with the provision of the EU withdrawal Act after a near-identical amendment passed by your Lordships’ House was accepted by the Government last summer. The central purpose of the UK’s, Ireland’s and the EU’s shared objective of avoiding a hard border is to protect the hard-won peace and reconciliation. That peace process was begun by the Good Friday agreement of 1998 but is still just that: a process—which is now, I think, sadly in reverse. Although it would be wrong to overstate the link between that and recent dissident IRA activity, specifically the car bomb in Derry/Londonderry, it does demonstrate the willingness of paramilitaries to exploit the current Brexit uncertainty and devolved government limbo to undermine the fragile peace, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said last week in this House.
The border is often described as the Irish border. It is not just that: is the UK’s land border with Ireland and the EU. Therefore, it is our responsibility as much as it is Ireland’s and the EU’s. Some 110 million person crossings take place over the border every year. Northern Ireland, with a population of 1.8 million, exports £3.4 billion over the border. It is by far its biggest export destination outside the UK and the first export destination for new and growing enterprises. At least 5,000 Northern Ireland companies, and probably many more, trade with their neighbours over the border. Tens of thousands of people live on one side and work on the other. Supply chains operate across the border without impediment. For instance, each year, more than 400,000 lambs and 750 million litres of milk are exported from Northern Ireland to Ireland for processing; 4.6 million heavy goods vehicles and light vans cross the border every year, along with 22 million cars. These crossings take place all along a 300-mile border with 300 crossing points.
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Life has become pretty normal for most people in Northern Ireland over the past 20 years or so. Like anyone else in the UK, people there go to jobs near to them or in the next town. They go to doctors, chemists and hospitals near to them. They buy local fresh food. They use trains, buses and roads to get around.
The difference is that for many in Northern Ireland, the next town can be in a different jurisdiction. If we get Brexit wrong, it will cause serious inconvenience and cost. But for British and Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland, getting Brexit wrong will bring immediate and harsh consequences; many aspects of normal life will be much harder or even impossible. People live on one side of the border and work on the other. Because of EU rules that the UK helped to make, cancer care and ambulance services are run jointly across that border. You can get a prescription on one side and medicines on the other because of more EU rules that we share. Cheaper energy and more choice across the island of Ireland again exist thanks to those common EU rules. Cross-border work and co-operation on the island of Ireland, facilitated by EU laws, covers livestock movement on farms straddling the border, food safety, tourism, schools, colleges, farming, fighting crime, tackling environmental pollution, water quality and supply, waste management, GPs, blood transfusions, bus services, train services, gas supply, electricity supply and so on.
All those things add up to making life feel normal after, just 20 years ago, the Good Friday agreement all but finished the violence and murder which killed thousands of people, including many in Britain. The border being invisible today is a big part of that peace process and we must not let Northern Ireland go backwards by putting up any new barriers.
It is those very low-level, ordinary aspects of daily life that are the real signs of the precious achievement of the peace process. Although I strongly reject the Prime Minister’s deal, I cannot and will not join those attacking what is known as the Irish backstop. Any Brexit deal of any kind must include this insurance policy or backstop. It is an insurance policy: a rainy-day back-up plan in the event that a new UK-EU trade deal is not ready by the end of 2020—or beyond. It is a sensible policy to be used only if needed—and everyone hopes it will not be—to ensure that the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland remains open and invisible.
It is not just that Ireland and the EU will not accept it any other way; nor should we in the UK. Whatever happens with Brexit, it is vital we protect what we have achieved together in Northern Ireland in the past 20 to 30 years and avoid any hardening of the border in any way. I call on our fellow politicians to stop playing politics with Northern Ireland, as so tragically happened in the House of Commons yesterday, and insist on an insurance policy regarding the border. We should also demand an end to attacks on the Irish Government, who, in insisting on the backstop, are merely fulfilling their obligations under the Good Friday agreement, as we in the UK should also be doing.
The UK and Irish Governments, along with the EU, were right to prioritise the Irish border in the Brexit negotiations. Your Lordships’ House has rightly focused on it too, not least because the blunt truth is that maintaining an open border always was the Achilles heel of a hard or no-deal Brexit.
Experts argue that there are four key ingredients for successful border management: first, trust and co-operation between authorities and agencies on both sides; secondly, the harmonisation of these agencies’ approaches; thirdly, the application of common standards to minimise the need for checks and controls in the first place; and, fourthly, the use of technology to improve efficiency. Those arguing that technology can solve all the Irish border Brexit problems are plain wrong. It may help, but whether a border is frictionless depends on the rules being applied to movement across it being the same either side—it is the rules themselves, not so much the means used to facilitate enforcement of those rules. Yet Brexiteers seem unwilling to acknowledge that leaving means a growing divergence of the rules on either side of the border. Their conundrum is that divergence is something they favour to build their free-trade, deregulated, low-tax nirvana— fantasy, I think—otherwise, they argue, what is the point of Brexiting?
The UK and Ireland have their common—I stress, common—obligations under the Good Friday agreement to ensure peace, stability and progress. The agreement contains two approaches to this that directly affect the border: intensification of British-Irish and north-south co-operation, and de-securitisation. De-securitisation meant not only the removal of security installations but the British Government’s commitment to bringing about measures appropriate to and compatible with a normal, peaceful society. The last remnants of the militarised border were removed only 12 years ago.
It is simply no good politicians or commentators saying, “Nobody wants a hard border so there won’t be one”. There will be if we do not stop it, because if we Brexit without a deal or without a backstop, both Ireland and the EU will have responsibilities to ensure protection of the single market and customs union. The UK will have its own responsibilities, including meeting World Trade Organization requirements, which in turn mean a hard border.
It goes far beyond customs. A quick glance at the list of areas covered by technical notices for no deal—published by the UK, Ireland and the EU—shows quite how exposed the Irish border region will be. Everything from animal breeding standards to VAT vehicle standards will require urgent fixes, and in many cases these cannot be made unilaterally. The UK is disentangling itself from the EU and its legal environment—the very environment that makes the border as open as it is, created by common EU rules, including on customs. Ireland does not have the competence to negotiate separately with the UK on these matters as it no longer has exclusive sovereignty over the things that the backstop covers. The Irish Government can make some concessions over the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland—for example, hauliers not needing international driving licences to work across the Irish border—but these are limited. When it comes to customs and trade and a wide range of regulatory areas, the decision is not Ireland’s but the EU’s. The consequences of no deal are ominously clear.
“If you were to push me to speculate on what might happen in a no-deal scenario in Ireland, I think it is pretty obvious you will have a hard border, and our commitments to the Good Friday agreement and everything we have been doing for years with our tools, instruments and programmes will have to take inevitably into account this fact … So of course we are for peace. Of course we stand behind the Good Friday agreement, but that is what no-deal would entail.”
Ireland has avoided talking about what it would do in the event of the UK crashing out of the EU, and Mr Barnier did seek to clarify the spokesman’s comments, focusing on the UK’s own responsibilities in the event of no deal or no backstop. The truth is, border controls would be mandatory under both EU and WTO rules—if we exit without a deal or if there is no backstop. There can be no cobbled-together, sticking-plaster solution to this problem, and the Taoiseach was correct when he said:
“We would have to negotiate an agreement on customs and regulations that would mean full alignment so there would be no hard border”
That is what Amendment 46 is designed to secure, in line with both the UK’s responsibility as a guarantor of the Good Friday agreement, and as a nation—so far, at least—respected for upholding its international and bilateral obligations. I hope the Government will accept Amendment 46; otherwise, we will need to vote on it on Report, especially after the dangerous torpedo the House of Commons launched last night at the Irish border backstop, the Irish Government and the Good Friday agreement.