All 1 Lord Trimble contributions to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018

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Wed 2nd May 2018
European Union (Withdrawal) Bill
Lords Chamber

Report: 5th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Scotland Office

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, it is always a pleasure to listen to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames. I share his concern about some possible dangers in the situation, although not perhaps in quite the way he expressed it—but I shall come back to that later.

I recall a question that was asked of a leading member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party shortly after the beginning of the inter-party talks. The interviewer asked him whether he was confident that Sinn Féin and the republican movement would stick with the political process. The reply was: he trusted the circumstances that led Sinn Féin to that point. My interpretation of it was they were not necessarily coming of their own good will; they had not had a damascene conversion; they were coming because the circumstances left them with this option. I agree, too, with the comments about how Sinn Féin Members elected to the Assembly have carried out their functions and it would take a very unusual situation to move them away from where they are.

I point to these circumstances because I think that it is a mistake to link this process, this legislation, with the maintenance of peace in Northern Ireland. I do not see a connection in the terms that have been said and I am dubious about whether this should be addressed as any more than scaremongering, and scaremongering on a fairly limited basis.

However, there are things to worry about. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, referred to what Monsieur Barnier has been saying and saw various ways of interpreting that, the third of which was the bleakest and, I think, the nearest to the truth. That is because pressure has been coming from Brussels and Dublin for some time for a significant change to be made to how Northern Ireland is governed. The drive is there to get Northern Ireland into a special situation: linked permanently to the European Union and with the union with the rest of the United Kingdom to that extent weakened. That is what Barnier openly called for a couple of days ago; it is implicitly what Coveney said in a newspaper article a week or two ago, where he called on the British Government to abandon some of their red lines in pursuit of peace and prosperity—so the threat is there as well. If that goes down the way—here I should say that our own Government have rejected this proposal; some of it was published some time ago—there is a danger that the things being said today and how the vote goes may strengthen the hand of Barnier in his demands on us and weaken the hands of our own Government. There has to be careful consideration of that.

I have not yet mentioned the amendment. I had thought of going through it in a little detail, but I shall confine myself to just one bit, subsection (1) of the proposed new clause. That reads,

“a Minister of the Crown or devolved authority must—

(a) act in a way that is compatible with the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998”.

I am all in favour of that. I am all in favour of acting in accordance with the terms of the agreement; I have a personal affection for that agreement. I will not go into detail on that, because it would take too long, but it is something I would like to see.

Then we come down to the very last line of the amendment. It talks about various things,

“not subject to an agreement between Her Majesty’s Government and the Government of Ireland”.

What is missing? There is something very important missing. There is no reference to the people of Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Northern Ireland Executive. Do not dodge that by saying, “Oh, the Assembly is not sitting at the moment”. There is a very important principle here, which is at the heart of the agreement. The heart of the agreement contained what we call the principle of consent with regard to the people of Northern Ireland, their future and the institutions they create.

A long time ago, back in the 1970s, Governments tried to impose an arrangement on the people of Northern Ireland, through the Sunningdale agreement. Another long time ago the Anglo-Irish agreement was made, without reference to the views of the people of Northern Ireland. Both were huge decisions and big mistakes by the British and Irish Governments which prolonged the political instability, and the violence as well. When we got to the agreement, thankfully by then the two Governments had learned the lesson and the negotiations fully involved the people of Northern Ireland and we, collectively, took control of that—“ownership” is the term used. This amendment would deny us that.

Some people have gone around suggesting that Brexit might damage the Good Friday agreement. Brexit is not going to damage the Good Friday agreement; this amendment will, because it excludes the people of Northern Ireland. If future arrangements are to be made over the Northern Ireland border it is obvious that you have to have the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives closely involved in that. If not, you are going to make the same mistake.

Baroness Crawley Portrait Baroness Crawley (Lab)
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On that last point, surely the reference to the UK and Irish Governments contains the basic assumption that there will be extended talks with the Northern Irish Government, and it refers to the fact that the British and Irish Governments are the official guarantors of the agreement.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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In the examples I mentioned, going back to 1985 and 1973, there was no consultation by Her Majesty’s Government with the unionist elected representatives. The Irish Government, of course, consulted closely with nationalists, so there was that imbalance. In any event, I come back to the amendment and I think that the proposed new clause has the wrong approach and should be looked at again.

I have one other point and it is simply this: we made the agreement 20 years ago; it was a bit rough at times for a short period afterwards but it has settled in. There are still some difficulties but I am quite sure that those difficulties will be overcome and these institutions will survive because they have the wholehearted endorsement of the people of Northern Ireland. In doing it, we also helped to change the relationship between Belfast and Dublin and, indeed, between Dublin and London to a certain extent as well: relations between them in recent years have been very good. They have been extremely good and I am delighted, but the behaviour at the moment of the Irish Prime Minister and Coveney, backed up by the European Union, is actually destroying that relationship and doing considerable damage to it. I know that we cannot directly affect that, but the message should go out very clearly to Dublin and to Brussels that they are not to continue to damage the basis of our institutions in pursuit of some petty objective, such as getting yourself elected as the head of a European body in Brussels.

That is where I want to stop. It is hugely important that the Government stand firm on this proposal to move to what is called the backstop and against a situation where Northern Ireland is to be moved away from the rest of the United Kingdom and permanently attached to Brussels, as far as these things are concerned. That is the wrong way to go.

Lord Hain Portrait Lord Hain (Lab)
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My Lords, I support this amendment, moved so compellingly by the noble Lord, Lord Patten.

The land border between the United Kingdom and Ireland is a state border—for tax, excise and legal jurisdiction. It is also a border across which public services connect, public agencies operate, people make their daily commute, livestock graze and goods flow back and forth without restriction. The levels of integration across the Irish border are among the closest in the world, bringing material economic benefit to the island—particularly to Northern Ireland—and, even more importantly, a remarkable transformation of a border that fewer than 20 years ago was a highly securitised boundary, close to which hundreds of people lost their lives. Soldiers, police officers, customs officials, farmers, factory workers, musicians and teenagers were all killed near the border because of a conflict about the border.

The 1998 Good Friday agreement and the Act that followed it, which is referred to in the amendment—I point that out to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice—brought that conflict to an end by making the border a point of co-operation, without raising questions about the sovereignty or constitutional integrity of either the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. This was made much easier by the fact that common EU membership of the United Kingdom and Ireland had already removed many of the barriers to such co-operation and movement. This was because the EU came to form a customs union and create a single market, both of which transcended state boundaries. Thus from the quiet rural hamlets of Fermanagh and Monaghan to the busy border towns of Newry and Dundalk there is no need for customs controls, no tariffs payable, no need to pay VAT at the border, and no checks for quality, standards or regulatory compliance.

As a line of soft integration between the UK and Irish jurisdictions, the Irish border has faded into relative insignificance, allowing Irish and British citizens—nationalists and unionists—both to feel quite comfortable in Northern Ireland. Given the bitter sectarian and violent history, this is a remarkable achievement. But it is also a fragile one, and we ignore that at our peril. To withdraw from the EU is to remove Northern Ireland from the conditions that currently make the Irish border so frictionless. Finding a resolution to the border conundrum while respecting Brexit must somehow preserve those connections and protect those benefits of co-operation. This is an economic necessity as well as a political imperative.

In their joint report with the European Union of December last, the UK Government repeated their commitment to protecting the operation of the 1998 agreement and to the avoidance of a hard border. Indeed, they went so far as to preclude,

“any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls”.

The amendment would bring into legal effect the commitments the UK Government have already made to the European Union and to everyone. In Brussels, a means of doing so in legally operable terms in the withdrawal agreement is currently being negotiated. It is essential that we do likewise in passing this amendment to the Bill.

Any customs partnership must be tight and seamless enough to avoid such checks while ensuring that the border is not a back door into the EU’s single market. Any technological facilitation must not entail physical infrastructure, random checks or compliance checks at any point. The amendment will provide much-needed security and legal certainty, with no fudges, creeping barriers or sly erosion of the finely honed balance. It will ensure that cross-border movement, north-south co-operation and day-to-day, mundane integration will continue to happen unimpeded. It does not tie the Government’s hands on the precise solution, except to insist upon what everyone says they want anyway: namely, a border as free, open and invisible as it is today. In my view this can only mean reproducing in some form the customs, trade, rules of origin, standards and regulatory arrangements that we now have across it.

It is our responsibility to ensure that Brexit does not mean the emergence, at any level, of any new conflict about the border, because that would be both economically catastrophic and politically lethal. That is why this amendment is so vital.