European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:52 pm on 5th September 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour 12:52 pm, 5th September 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that intervention because he is absolutely right and confirms what I was asserting.

Nowhere is the serial dishonesty of the Prime Minister starker than on the Irish border. Do not take it from me; take it from our very own Civil Service, whose work on no-deal planning emerged in mid-August in what was known as Operation Yellowhammer. Its analysis made it crystal clear that, although Ministers keep saying that they will not do so, not putting up border controls will be unsustainable because of,

“economic, legal and biosecurity risks”,

and that this could lead to “direct action” and road blockades. I fear that that is an understatement.

Next, there is the Northern Ireland Civil Service, an organisation under considerable pressure because of not just Brexit but the shameful lack of a Government in Belfast. Its top official said bluntly that the impact would be much more severe than in Great Britain and would have profound and lasting social and economic consequences, and that the overall consequences for Northern Ireland would be grave.

Worse again—if that is possible—the new chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland warned that Brexit could become a “trigger” and a “fuelling point” to attract more people to extremist groups. His assistant chief constable was reported to have said in an interview that,

“we would be concerned for a six to 12-month time frame there would be some sort of upsurge in support for dissident republican groupings and activities”.

Those are not my words; they are the words of police chiefs. I could go on but, on the basis of just those three assessments by professional public servants, I ask this: why in God’s name would we ever wilfully facilitate these no-deal outcomes? The Prime Minister seems happy to do so, but I am not—and I trust that this House is not happy either.

At the root of the problem is that the Prime Minister and his fellow Brexiteers never have had a proper plan of their own for Brexit. They never put one forward in the referendum, and on the Irish border he still does not have a plan. That is why many of them openly favour no deal: because it is the only alternative if you have no plan.

The truth is that no deal equals a hard border because that is what falling out under World Trade Organization rules means. I am no fan of former Prime Minister May’s withdrawal agreement, but I accept the backstop knowing the complexities of Northern Ireland from my time as Secretary of State. In his reckless, bull-headed fashion, the Prime Minister has made the backstop the villain of the piece, but it is an insurance policy and, if alternative arrangements are found to achieve the same objectives, of the same open border as we have now, then it is set aside. What is wrong with that?

The Prime Minister and many commentators here—and, sadly, some elements in Belfast as well—try to pretend that Northern Ireland is no different from anywhere else: that it is just another border, like, as he famously said, that between two London boroughs and just another straightforward place where trade in goods is the only issue. In fact, the Prime Minister seems to have dumbed this down even further and decided that the only goods traded are animals and food. I thought the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Patten, was extremely telling. I have great respect for the noble Lord, Lord Howell, but he did not answer his noble friend’s question: there is no other border in the whole world like the Irish border. That is why it needs a particular solution and not a no-deal outcome.

The Prime Minister surely knows deep down that it is not true either that this border is simply about animals and food. It is a 300-mile border with some 300 crossings—those are the formal crossings; leave aside the farms that cross the border and other communities that straddle it—unlike almost every other border in the world. It has unique arrangements under the Good Friday/Belfast agreement for north-south co-operation and that agreement is an international treaty. A little-noticed document published on 7 December by the Department for Exiting the EU lists no fewer than 157 different areas of cross-border work and co-operation on the island of Ireland, north and south, and many have been facilitated by Ireland’s and the UK’s common membership of the EU. These areas are the things of everyday life; they go well beyond animals and food and must never have a new border erected to block, discourage or thwart them. They include food, tourism, schools, colleges, farming, fighting crime, tackling environmental pollution, water quality and supply, waste management, bus services, train services, cancer care, GPs and prescriptions, blood transfusions and gas and electricity supply.

Almost every one of these areas is about people’s everyday cross-border lives and almost all are linked to the European Union, and Ireland’s and the UK’s common membership of it since 1973—we joined at the same time. To interfere with those arrangements—either through no deal, the terms of any divorce deal or any new trade agreements that we may someday, somehow strike with EU partners—would be a terrible step backwards for which the people of the island of Ireland would pay a terrible price, as would we in Great Britain.

With other Peers, I learned one other thing the other day. With Stormont suspended and unlikely to be resurrected unless Brexit is stopped, if no deal occurred there would be no legal powers left for the Northern Ireland Civil Service to maintain the necessary civil contingency and security arrangements in border communities and beyond. In other words, no deal means direct rule. That is the serious consequence for the island of Ireland of no deal.

I am desperately worried for the future of Britain under no deal, but I am absolutely livid about the impact on the island of Ireland. It will destroy the work of successive UK and Irish Governments in helping courageous and visionary leaders in Northern Ireland to remove borders and instead put them back up. If for no other reason than to maintain peace and progress in Northern Ireland and good relations with the Republic, I urge that this Bill pass without amendment.