United Kingdom Internal Market Bill - Committee (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 9th November 2020.

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Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 6:00 pm, 9th November 2020

My Lords, it is difficult to know where to start; there are so many things of major concern in the proposals in this section of the Bill. First, I support Amendment 162, which I signed, for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, has just set out. But we need to step back a moment and see how and why it is that we are discussing such dramatic and momentous proposals in the first place. The answer lies in events a year ago. The amendments to the protocol that were produced by the Government have largely been accepted by the European Union, but the fact is that the withdrawal agreement that emerged from those proposals is such a bad deal.

I have heard so many people, including President-elect Biden and others, say that we must all protect the Belfast Good Friday agreement, and that is very true. However, of course, the agreement is balanced. Focus has been, almost exclusively, on preventing a land trade border on the island of Ireland. I do not want to see this, but, equally, I do not want a trade border in the Irish Sea between one part of the United Kingdom and the rest. That is what is actually being implemented as a result of the agreement that the Government signed a year ago, and that is completely contrary to the Belfast agreement, which makes it clear that the status of Northern Ireland cannot change without the consent of its people. If anybody thinks that our status is not changing as a result of what is happening, they are fooling themselves.

I got a Written Answer a short time ago from the noble Lord, Lord True, in which he made it clear, in response to my Question, that UK officials will implement EU law and seek to ensure that it is applied at Northern Ireland ports. The idea that nothing has changed or that the status of Northern Ireland is not changing is completely erroneous.

I want to make my point very clear about the Belfast Good Friday agreement: it is balanced, and a border in the Irish Sea is just as injurious to that agreement as a land trade border on the island would be. I hope that people accept that. I listened very carefully to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, who has vast experience of dealing with the downstream consequences of our Troubles. There are very few people, if any, in Parliament who have any experience on that scale, so I think we have to listen very carefully to what he and others have had to say.

There are alternatives, which is what frustrates me: it was never necessary to do a lot of this. The reason why we are doing this, and why this Bill is before us, is the mess that was created a year ago. I believe very strongly that there are alternatives. As a country, we should legally prevent our territory being used to export unregulated goods to the European Union. We could indemnify the European Union if any of them eventually got through. We could set up cross-border bodies to establish a working relationship with the Irish Republic to ensure that the single market is not contaminated. There are a lot of things we can do.

Specifically, I understand the idea that the Government put forward of having a safety net. But the way to do that is not to announce that you will break international law when, in fact, the European Union accepted our proposals for an amendment to the protocol in the explanatory document of 2 October last year, which contained the provisions for a regulatory border and border inspection posts. It was the Government’s idea.

I think that they should prepare an emergency provisions Bill to be used in the event that the European Union demonstrated bad faith or the dispute resolution mechanisms within the agreement were set aside by the EU, preventing Northern Ireland from having proper access to goods and services from the rest of the United Kingdom. I believe that widespread parliamentary support could be built up to prevent such a thing happening in an emergency. Laws can be passed in this House and through our Parliament very quickly, as we know, specifically where they apply to Northern Ireland. They have been done many times before and can be done in 48 hours.

I believe there are alternatives not only to Part 5 of the Bill but to the withdrawal agreement as it currently stands. Going back to the genesis of this mess, which was on 2 October 2019, I say to colleagues that that document contained provisions for border inspection posts and application of the relevant EU rules as well as stating:

“regulatory checks can be implemented at the boundary of the zone”.

The zone here is the 27 EU member states and Northern Ireland. Any idea that this is something new or different is wrong: it was there from the very beginning in October last year, and I deeply regret that our colleagues in the Democratic Unionist Party supported that then, saying, quite clearly, that it was a

“serious and sensible way forward”.

Of course, two weeks down the line, they had to change their tune. Nevertheless, that was the green light for Dublin and the EU, and that advantage was pressed home.

If ever there was a case for the other place having a chance to look at this legislation again, this is it. I sincerely hope that the House of Commons will revisit this. If they talk to people, to some of us who were involved in negotiating the Belfast Good Friday agreement and to colleagues, they will find that none of us want to see Northern Ireland decoupled from the rest of the United Kingdom. I see this whole measure and agreement as a dagger pointed at the heart of the union. Other colleagues have mentioned what is happening in Scotland, and we see changes in Wales and even Jersey. I do not know whether we can get certainty about where the Isle of Wight stands on all of this, but the fact remains that the union is in serious trouble with the way we are handling things. However, there are alternative ways out that can maintain stability, do not break up the United Kingdom and do not set one section of the community in Northern Ireland against the other.

I have no doubt that it may well have been the case that some EU official did threaten to stop food travelling to Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Only a fool with no knowledge of history would dare to say anything that would prevent food getting to Ireland. It is such a stupid thing to say. I do not believe that the United Kingdom needs to turn itself inside out and break up its whole international standing to prevent such a thing happening. There are alternatives.

I do not believe that this Parliament or any party in it would stand by and allow one part of the United Kingdom to be, effectively, starved out because of regulations if the European Union was being particularly difficult. I think we can overcome all of that by consensus and can ensure that the Government are given the strength that they need in the negotiations. If somebody in the European Union did think, for one moment, that they could get away with such a thing, I would disabuse them of that thought. This is not the way ahead.