European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Exiting the European Union
Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord. His description of the difficulties that he saw arising within the European Union and the way in which the European Union has not been governed very intelligently by the people in Brussels was seriously meant and I hope that everyone will reflect on it. But I hope he will forgive me if I go back to the amendment in front of us. It is unnecessary. The amendment asks the Prime Minister,

“to support the maintenance of the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland”.

The Prime Minister does that now. It is in the White Paper, so the amendment is unnecessary for that reason. That is a technical answer to the amendment, but I will move on to a general discussion of the common travel area.

As was mentioned in the debate, the common travel area has existed since 1923. From the mid-1920s onwards, tariff differences existed because tariffs were charged on the Irish border—and those continued right up until our entry into the European Union. So going back to having tariffs is not a new thing for us. Having to have regard to the movement of persons is not, again, a new thing. Noble Lords may not be fully aware that the impact of the common travel area on the free movement of people is not general. It applies only to citizens of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. It does not apply to other citizens.

I remember hearing in a news bulletin several months ago that the Irish police had intercepted a car that had just crossed over the unmarked border. Police stopped the vehicle in order to remove from it half a dozen persons who were travelling to work within the Republic of Ireland but had no right to do so. So that is an example of the movement of persons being monitored. How effective that monitoring is is another matter—and whether that monitoring can be done in a more effective way, again, is open. So there should not be any insuperable difference on the question of the free movement of persons, provided that there is serious co-operation between the British and Irish Governments. Without knowing the detail, my understanding is that very active discussion is going on at the moment between the British and Irish Governments about how that could be handled.

If there is a serious problem, it comes with the issue of tariffs. The tariffs that were charged from the mid-1920s to the 1970s were enough to stimulate smuggling. It was a local cottage industry, particularly in South Armagh. If significant tariffs come back, it will create, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, mentioned, another line of activity for the boys down there who will profit from it. They might complain about it but they will certainly enjoy the profit and might not be too keen if someone took the profit away. So one has to be aware that there is more than one side to this.

There will be difficulties if there are serious tariffs, but the difficulties will exist mainly for the Irish Government rather than for ourselves. In the paper mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, Mr Lux talked about installations on the Irish side of the border. That is where they will be, because under EU law there is an obligation on countries that have part of the EU’s external border to have installations on that border. So if installations exist they will certainly exist south of the border. Whether they exist north of the border I am not sure; that is a matter for our Government to consider. However, the difficulties are going to be there.

The difficulty for the Irish Government is not just to do with the installations but with trade. Although the Irish have tried to develop their trade in other ways, their largest market is the United Kingdom. A tariff between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom would have very serious implications for them. Incidentally, their second largest market is the United States. Almost all their trade is done with Anglophone countries; they have very little trade with the rest of the European Union.

That actually points to a solution. When we joined the European Union in 1972 the Republic of Ireland joined on the same day; and it did so because of the economic factors I have mentioned. Those factors are still there. The Republic of Ireland is going to have to think very seriously, in a couple of years, about where their future prosperity will lie. At the moment the Irish Government are probably trying to do what they can to educate people in Brussels about the problems that they will face and about the desirability of having tariff-free access. That is also the objective of our Government. They, too, want tariff-free access, and if they achieve that there is no problem—although we should bear in mind what my noble friend Lord Lawson said in last week’s debate: that as things stand, it does not look as though there is much chance of getting agreement on the absence of tariffs. If we do not get that, the Irish Government will have a problem. We would of course want to be sympathetic and do what we can to mitigate matters; but at the same time that is not something that we need as a major element in this debate.

The amendment talks about,

“the open border … as set out under the provisions of the Belfast Agreement”.

Look at the agreement: what provisions? I do not see any. The common travel area was part of the background at the time that we were discussing this, but to say that this is something mandated by or based on the agreement is not correct. It is just a way of hyping up the argument, in the same way that some people suggest that the current peace might be threatened by what is happening here. That is the equivalent of shroud-waving and is not something that we should be too concerned about.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill Portrait Lord Lester of Herne Hill (LD)
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My Lords, when the Minister replies to this debate he has a choice. He can focus on the amendment and explain why it is unnecessary—which he can probably do fairly easily. If he does that, but does no more than that, the Government will be losing a very important opportunity, which is to reply to the remarkable speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and seek to reassure the inhabitants of Ireland, north and south, about the very real concerns that have been expressed by my noble friend Lord Alderdice and the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Trimble, among others.

I am not Irish, although there are times when I wish that I were; but I have lived in Ireland as a privileged guest of the nation for 44 years. I am a member of the Bar of Northern Ireland and of the Republic. I have been frequently to the north, as well as living in the Republic. I say to the Minister—if he does not know it already—that the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, are not debating points; they are very real. As the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said, Ireland joined the European Community when we did. I think that the Irish were always more European than we were; they saw John Bull’s island as between them and Europe and saw their destiny in Europe—and Ireland has benefited enormously from its membership of the European Union, as have we.

The troubles mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, are acute and I am concerned that, whatever happens with the amendment, which I regard as trivial compared with these issues, both in the debate on Second Reading and in the White Paper the Government have shown a disregard for the seriousness of the issues affecting Ireland as a whole. I urge the Minister, if not today then as soon as he possibly can, to make sure that full reassurance is given to the people of Ireland, north and south, about the concerns that have been expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Hain. That is far more important than the fate of this amendment.

Lord Howell of Guildford Portrait Lord Howell of Guildford (Con)
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My Lords, I declare two interests as the last surviving member of the Whitelaw commission which led to the Sunningdale agreement in the 1970s and as a long-standing fan of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who in his assessment of the situation in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland speaks for nearly all of us. The only questions for us today are what this has to do with the Bill before us and why this amendment is necessary now. If, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has just suggested, we are asking for reassurances, I think that we can give them. As my noble friend Lord Trimble has said, the common travel area has been in place since 1923. The trade interests of the Republic of Ireland with the United Kingdom are overwhelming and growing very fast, not only in goods and agriculture but obviously in services as well. It seems to have been largely overlooked that the services element in international trade is rising much faster than the goods element, leading to more and more of the earnings of both the whole of the United Kingdom and the Republic being expressed through digital and data transformation. Indeed, McKinsey has said that it represents more than half the total earnings of international trade. The whole pattern of trade has changed radically in the past 10 to 15 years with digitalisation and it should come into every assessment of the new relationship.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, is right to say that the problem lies with the European Union. Will it be able, first, to accept the common travel area—it must because it was there long before the European Economic Community was formed—and will it accept that concessions are needed, or bilateral arrangements of the kind that can perfectly well be organised now between the Republic and the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is a part? In the low-tariff world we are moving into, indeed a zero-tariff world more generally with 80% of all industrial goods not covered by tariffs—people talk as though tariffs are a wall, but they are not—I think that we can be assured that a practical solution is possible. I imagine that it has already been discussed by Ministers and many officials in Dublin, Belfast and London.

I am absolutely sure that various elements of gluing the situation together can develop, with one that I cannot resist adding being that Dublin is showing an enormous interest in association with the Commonwealth. One of the most lively branches of the Royal Commonwealth Society—I declare an interest as its president—is in Dublin. It is attracting a great deal of interest because the Republic sees more and more that its future lies in its relations with the rest of the British Isles while working within the reforming European system, which is going to be difficult because the EU is going through vast political, economic and social changes. So I see very little problem—I do not say that there is no problem because the noble Lord, Lord Hain, speaks with authority—and believe that it can be resolved through good will on all sides. I see that good will in place and there is absolutely no necessity for bringing this issue into the Bill before us.