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My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 8 to 11, which stand in my name and that of my noble friends Lord McCrea, Lord Hay and Lord Browne. These amendments and the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, are very similar. Indeed, some might say that they overlap slightly, but I think that is no bad thing because of the situation in which we find ourselves.
I speak as a unionist and a supporter of the leave cause. We are clear that the withdrawal agreement does not get Brexit done, but that is to be proved. It merely creates an opportunity to get it done for Great Britain, but not for the United Kingdom. The final agreement will determine whether it is done for Great Britain and the United Kingdom. I will be happy to be proved wrong on this occasion, but I suspect—I say it myself—I will not be proved wrong.
The withdrawal agreement leaves Northern Ireland behind in the single market and, despite the legal technicalities, inside the EU customs union. The vote to leave was a vote not of Great Britain but of the United Kingdom. It does not respect the referendum result. There was never any discussion about the difficulties of a land border. The European Union dismissed all solutions, and, shamefully, many used the implicit threat of republican violence to make it appear unsolvable. The result was not to solve the trade and customs issue but to move the problems from the UK-Irish border to inside the UK.
The EU can hardly now approve a series of alternative arrangements that it spent three years dismissing as unworkable and undeliverable without admitting it was disingenuous on the land border. The act of putting a regulatory customs and tariff border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain did not solve the trade problems; it multiplied them. Great Britain is Northern Ireland’s largest market, and something like 70% of Northern Ireland’s retail goods come from Great Britain, so these potential checks will be more harmful than if they were at the land border.
The Prime Minister has given many interviews and there were commitments in the Conservative manifesto saying that our concerns are mistaken. I hope we are mistaken, as I said earlier. If we are, there can be no difficulty in putting those words and commitments into law. It would add a further layer of confidence that, in any breach or failure to fully implement the Prime Minister’s words and his Conservative Party’s manifesto commitments, it should not be Northern Ireland businesses and consumers who pay for that failure but the Government.
In the coming year, there is not one negotiation but two: the UK-EU free trade agreement and the Joint Committee working on the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol, which has often been spoken about here today. This measure in law would reinforce and bolster a strong negotiating position in a joint committee. The Government’s comments to address the concerns of Northern Ireland at the next stage of negotiations are being given practical action with legal weight.
I turn briefly to Amendment 9. The United Kingdom internal market is vital for the well-being of Northern Ireland, as others have said. We trade more with the rest of the UK than with the rest of the world. As a unionist, I do not want to see any barriers to trade placed inside my country, but from a practical, economic point of view it harms Northern Ireland to have any impediment to internal trade with the United Kingdom. This amendment attracted not just cross-party but all-party support in Northern Ireland. That has already been stated, and it cannot be stated often enough. That level of support is rare in itself, but on Brexit it is unprecedented.
The recently published New Decade, New Approach ushered in the restoration of devolution a little more than a week ago. It states:
“To address the issues raised by the parties, we will legislate to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market, and ensure that this legislation is in force for
This amendment can put that government commitment into action. Furthermore, the Government have stated that there will be no negative impact on Northern Ireland businesses. The only way to demonstrate that is to carry out the assessment called for by this amendment. It will ensure that there is ongoing monitoring, not just a one-off snap-shot.
Amendment 10 again will ensure that the Government put action behind their words. Everyone can welcome the Government’s commitment to the UK internal market, but action is needed to back it up. No one in the Government could oppose putting the Conservative Party’s manifesto into legislative effect. The Government’s assessment has identified the problems that would be caused by the Northern Ireland protocol. This amendment allows a route to be pursued that can negate those problems by ensuring that the protocol does not continue to apply.
One of the greatest benefits of leaving the European Union is the ability for the United Kingdom to move forward with trade deals. The problems of securing EU-wide agreement on such deals are well known. Leaving the European Union gives the UK the ability to leave the cumbersome vehicle of the European Union behind and secure economic advantage through trade deals. As part of the United Kingdom, if we are truly to leave the European Union as one country, Northern Ireland should be able fully to participate in such trade deals. Amendment 11 will assist that. Trade is one of the key planks within the United Kingdom that binds us tighter as a nation.