The Government are committed to giving effect to the protocol in a pragmatic and proportionate way, one that is needed. We will continue to work with colleagues in Westminster, with the Northern Ireland Executive and with businesses to support our sensible approach.
As I announced last Wednesday in this House, the Government have taken several temporary operational steps to avoid disruptive cliff edges as engagement with the EU continues through the Joint Committee. These steps recognise that appropriate time must be provided for businesses to implement new requirements, and that action was needed in the immediate term to avoid any disruption to flows of critical goods, such as food supplies, into Northern Ireland. Since that statement, further guidance has been provided, including on parcel movements.
The protocol was agreed as a unique solution to the complex challenges that are before us. Its core aims include upholding the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions, north-south and east-west, and ensuring that the implementation of the protocol can be given effect in a way that minimises the impact on the everyday lives of communities in Northern Ireland, as the protocol itself pledges. The Government remain committed to meeting our obligations, and doing so in the pragmatic and proportionate way that was always intended.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. In recent weeks, we have seen the threat of instability return to Northern Ireland. Without responsible leadership, the Brexit deal that the Prime Minister negotiated always had the potential to unsettle the delicate balance of identities across these islands. It was only on 24 February that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that we are committed to jointly finding solutions
“to make the Protocol work”.
Just seven days later, the Secretary of State unilaterally undermined that commitment, sending a clear message that the Government’s word cannot be trusted, which raises serious questions about whether the Government have a strategy at all to deal with the complex realities facing Northern Ireland.
Provocation is not a strategy, and a stop gap is not a solution, so what precisely is the Government’s intention? Is it to push the protocol to breaking point, and undermine the cast-iron commitment to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, or is it to find the solutions that businesses are crying out for? If it is the latter, can the Secretary of State give us something tangible? What kind of agreement is being sought, for instance, on common veterinary standards that would deliver the long-term solutions needed to prevent disruption? Does he think that the Irish Government saying that we are no longer a partner that can be trusted will make such solutions more likely or less? Does he think that the behaviour of Lord Frost will make desperately needed flexibility from the EU more likely or less? Does he think that that approach will make the chances of a successful relationship with President Biden more likely or less?
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the actions taken last week breach international law for a second time? This is an extraordinary position for the Government to be in: having to break the law and trash Britain’s international reputation to remove checks that they claimed never existed. Is it not now time to show responsibility to the people of Northern Ireland, be honest about the consequences of the Brexit deal that the Prime Minister negotiated, and commit to working with the EU to find the long-term solutions that we desperately need?
I note from the hon. Lady’s comments that, from memory, she did not at any point disagree with the substance of any of the measures that we have brought forward, which are critical to protecting the flow of goods in Northern Ireland, so I assume that she inherently supports what we have done. She will be in good company, because the actions that we took last week have been backed by a range of businesses and the communities in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium itself said:
“The retail industry welcomes the extension of the grace periods…even if it is unilaterally, to allow us to continue to give Northern Ireland households the choice and affordability they need.”
That sentiment has been echoed by many others, who have said that the action was needed in relation to the immediate grace period deadlines.
I have spent a lot of time over the last few months, and certainly in the last couple of weeks, for obvious reasons, talking to businesses that were very clear that, had we not taken that action last week, we would have seen disruption to food supplies in literally the next couple of weeks. Underlying the point that the hon. Lady made in her opening comments about stability is the fact that it was important for stability for people in Northern Ireland, and for the future of the protocol, for us not to be in a situation where, because of the way things were being implemented, we would have had empty shelves again, potentially in just a couple of weeks’ time. I am sad that she was almost arguing that that could be acceptable. It simply is not.
In terms of the hon. Lady’s questions on the action that we have taken, the measures that I announced last Wednesday are lawful. They are consistent with a progressive and good faith implementation of the protocol. They are temporary operational easements, introduced where additional delivery time is needed. They do not change our legal obligations set out in the protocol, and we will continue to discuss protocol implementation in the Joint Committee. Some of the issues that she has raised are those that we are working in through the Joint Committee.
We would have liked to be able to get this agreement with the EU. Sadly, that was not possible within the timeframe in which we had to make a decision to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland did not suffer loss of trade and loss of flow of products into Northern Ireland in the next couple of weeks. That is why we took some simple, operational and pragmatic decisions last week.
I have to say I am a bit disappointed, although I probably should not be surprised, to see a Labour Front Bencher standing here and defending the EU, rather than defending the actions of the UK Government, who are standing up for the people of the United Kingdom and, in this case, making sure that we do the right thing by the people of Northern Ireland. As a Unionist, I ask the hon. Lady whether she really feels she is in the right place on this.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I say to my right hon. Friend that it is not the what but the how? The Government did not reluctantly inherit the protocol; they authored it jointly with the EU, with all its modus operandi. Do the Government understand the very destabilising effect on trust that such unilateral action has in both UK-EU relations and in UK-Irish relations? May I urge the Government to desist the narrative of unilateral action and debate, to get back around the Joint Committee table and to make sure that the protocol works, that everybody understands that it is here to stay, and that it can benefit very significantly the people, the economy and the communities of Northern Ireland?
As I said, the protocol was agreed as a unique solution to complex and unique challenges, recognising the unique situation of Northern Ireland, but we wanted to work these things through in agreement with the EU. The reality is that the EU had not come to an agreement on these matters. As we see these decisions go through, I hope it will be seen that they are pragmatic, operational and temporary. Just a few weeks ago, we saw the Irish Government implement temporary flexibilities very similar to what we are talking about, without giving an end date and without anyone criticising or challenging them.
We want to continue to work with the EU. We recognise that of course the EU’s focus is on the single market. We have to make sure our focus is always clearly on our commitment to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, which is not just north-south but east-west as well.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I echo the words of the Select Committee Chair: it is not the publicly stated objective of protecting the flow of goods that is at issue here; rather, it is the provocative and belligerent manner in which the Government seem to be determined to go about trying to achieve that.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said previously that he believed Northern Ireland was getting
“the best of both worlds”
through the protocol, and that any issues arising from the new arrangements could be resolved within the terms of that protocol, without needing to trigger the article 16 procedure. At a time when flexibility is needed, this action will ensure that the good will towards the UK Government that is needed to secure changes to the arrangement they took so long to negotiate is in shorter supply than ever before. The conduct of the Brexit negotiations came at the expense of the UK’s reputation for political stability and good governance. Is not this latest development one which will come at the expense of any lingering trust there may be in the UK Government as a trustworthy international partner, who can be relied upon to keep their word?
We are a trustworthy partner and have always been clear about what we would do and the reasoning for what we are doing. Rather like the Irish Government did a few weeks ago when they took sensible flexibilities, we have taken flexibilities. We have given a timeline for them; they are temporary, operational and the right thing to do for the people of Northern Ireland.
Returning to the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) about stability in Northern Ireland, it is undoubtedly the case—it can be seen in any engagement in Northern Ireland across the entire community—that the action the EU took when it talked about and actually started to implement article 16 on that Friday night had a huge impact on communities across Northern Ireland, and the issue still lingers. We need to recognise and understand people’s sense of identity in Northern Ireland, the impact on it and the tension created by that action.
Our actions were about making sure that we did not have a further problem, which could well have occurred in the next couple of weeks. According to the businesses we have been dealing with, if we had not taken action urgently last week, there would have been empty shelves in Northern Ireland. That is not what the protocol is about and it is not fair to the people of Northern Ireland.
I share the Minister’s determination to protect the integrity of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement in terms of both north-south and east-west. The EU’s decision in January to invoke article 16 was in complete contradiction of the spirit of the protocol. Shamefully placing the EU’s protection of its single market over the protection of the Good Friday agreement seriously undermined cross-community confidence of its operation. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is now incumbent on the EU to remedy its mistake and restore trust in the protocol in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend makes a very important and powerful point. He is quite right that it is important we remember that the Good Friday/Belfast agreement is about the entire community: it has a north-south and an east-west dimension, and people need to understand that.
I was very pleased that the EU Vice-President agreed to meet with businesses and civic society. We hear, from across communities and across businesses, their concerns and fears about the actions that have been taken and the fixes they need to see in the protocol, some of which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley asked us to get on with and do quickly just a couple of weeks ago. That is what we have done, for the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland and to ensure that the protocol can work and function as it was always designed and intended to do.
We welcome and support even the limited measures that the Government have taken to protect businesses in Northern Ireland, but even an extended grace period still leaves us with a reality that, in the words of the permanent secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, 20% of all the checks taking place on all borders across the European Union are now taking place in the Irish sea. That will increase substantially beyond the grace period, so we need a permanent solution to this problem—the sooner, the better.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I send my best wishes to his colleague, Minister Poots, who is now returning to work after his recent illness, which is really good news.
The right hon. Gentleman has highlighted the practical impact of some of these things, and the importance of our getting solutions to ensure a good, flexible flow of goods, as we have always outlined was our vision, going back to our Command Paper last year. That is why it is important that we continue the conversations, and I encourage the EU to go further with those with civic society and business organisations in Northern Ireland, which it promised to do. We are keen to see the EU engage further, which I hope it will do shortly to understand the needs and the flexibilities that are practical, both for Northern Ireland and, ultimately, the wider EU as well.
Could my right hon. Friend explain to the European Union that we are perhaps more committed to the Good Friday agreement and the avoidance of new infrastructure on the border between north and south than it has so far demonstrated itself to be, and that the idea that the Northern Ireland protocol is a work of such perfection that it is beyond improvement is a myth? Can he ask them also to explain why the sale of English sausages in Northern Ireland is somehow a threat to the integrity of the EU single market, or to the Good Friday agreement?
My hon. Friend makes a really important point, and I am determined, as the Prime Minister is, to ensure that the great British banger—the great Norfolk sausage—will continue to be enjoyed by those who wish to do so across the counties of Northern Ireland in perpetuity. However, it is important—this is why the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) was absolutely right—that we use these grace periods to get long-term solutions.
My hon. Friend is also absolutely right that our commitment to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement is steadfast. That is why all the actions we have taken, both last year and recently, have been about ensuring that we do not have borders, and that we respect the north-south and east-west dimensions. There is another important point here, which I hope has come through in the conversations we have been able to organise with Vice-President Šefčovič recently: it is important to understand the effect on the sense of identity that people in the Unionist community in Northern Ireland have. After the actions of that Friday a few weeks ago, it is important to repair that.
It really is a new experience to be lectured by the European Research Group about the Good Friday agreement. Last week, the Secretary of State rushed out—sneaked out—an announcement unilaterally on Budget day that his Government would once again break international law. Given that Governments across Europe and politicians on Capitol Hill and in the White House are furious about this move, is the Secretary of State at all concerned that this Government’s reputation is in tatters across the world?
I am afraid that I have to contradict the hon. Gentleman on pretty much every point he has just made. First of all, I do not think it is sneaking out of the House to stand here and make these points at oral questions, as we did last week. I outlined at oral questions the measures that we were taking, and obviously colleagues asked questions on them. We published the written ministerial statement, as well as, obviously, publishing guidance and other matters more publicly after that. So I do not think that really qualifies for that.
In terms of lawfulness, these are lawful actions, as I outlined last week and I have outlined already this afternoon in answer to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley. They are about implementing the protocol and they fit with our obligations under the protocol. We will continue to make sure that we deliver on that in a pragmatic and flexible way to work for the people of Northern Ireland. It is indeed international, but this is a lawful action.
I would just say that, bearing in mind that the Irish Government took similar action themselves just a few weeks ago and that these are temporary, pragmatic operational things to ensure that the protocol can work and to avoid further tensions and problems for people across communities in Northern Ireland, I would hope that people across the EU and our friends in the US will see that this is an important piece of work that we have done to ensure that we can deliver on the protocol, respecting the Good Friday agreement in all its strands—not just north-south but, importantly, east-west as well.
One of the key aims of the Northern Irish protocol was to prevent a destabilisation of the peace process, and we all remember how Monsieur Barnier took every opportunity to remind us how important that was when negotiating the agreement, yet the shortages that we are seeing in shops now, and the disruption to trade being caused by the EU’s insistence on heavy-handed inspections, is doing just that. What does my right hon. Friend think would have been the impact on the stability of the peace process if he had not taken this action?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I know that he has a huge background of experience and knowledge of issues of Northern Ireland. What I would say to him is that I understand that the EU has recognised and, to be fair, Maroš Šefčovič himself has apologised and said it was a mistake, but the action that the EU took did happen, and it had an impact. It has had an impact in terms of tensions and feelings of identity in Northern Ireland. My view, having spoken to businesses, is that if we had not taken the action that we took last week, we would have had empty shelves in supermarkets in Northern Ireland imminently. I think that would have raised tensions further and it may well have undermined the protocol fatally, in a way that is not in the best interests of the EU, the UK or the people of Northern Ireland.
I have to say that it is far from clear to me exactly what the Government are trying to achieve in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol at the moment, but whatever it is, I have to think that it can only have been damaged by what we saw happen and the continued insistence on unilateral action here. May we just have a pause and a reset, and focus on using this grace period to achieve the things that will be necessary for the long-term creation of sustainable procedures? Primary among those, surely, must be the agreement of an EU-UK veterinary protocol. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what is happening on that—what barriers remain to an agreement of that sort and when we can expect to hear of its successful conclusion?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We do want to work with the EU on a range of issues, and part of the issue around extending these grace periods was ensuring that we did not have a cliff edge and that we had that time and space for businesses to adapt and for us to work through some issues with the EU in a mutual way that works for everybody, as we have done this year. There were examples through January, on VAT on second-hand cars and other issues, where we worked through agreements with the EU that have worked to deliver on some of the issues for people in Northern Ireland, and we want to continue that way.
The reason we made the decision last week was purely that we were at this time-critical point. Because of the way supply lines and timelines work, if we had not made the decision last week, it would have been too late, even this week or next week, to prevent issues for supply lines into Northern Ireland. Going forward, we want to continue to work with the EU, including on issues such as that which the right hon. Gentleman outlined. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working with his counterparts in the EU on those very issues now.
Article SPS.5, paragraph 3(d) of the trade and co-operation agreement obliges the EU to ensure that its sanitary and phytosanitary procedures
“are proportionate to the risks identified”.
Is it not inconsistent with that provision for the EU to seek to end the grace period and impose full SPS checks, given that our food standards are every bit as good as its and some of the toughest in the whole world?
My right hon. Friend, who has a huge wealth of experience at the Dispatch Box in this particular field, is, unsurprisingly, absolutely right. We have fantastic, very high food standards here; they are world leading. That is why I hope and, as I say, I think it is right that we will be able, ultimately, to secure a good and practical, pragmatic agreement with the EU. Again, that just outlines why it was so important for us to take that action last week in order to ensure that we have the space to do exactly that.
Previously, it was “limited” and “specific” and now it is operational and pragmatic—different words, but the net result is still the same. The Secretary of State touched on this in an earlier answer, but let me press him: can he confirm whether anything that the Government have proposed in the unilateral extension of the grace period does, or potentially might, breach international legal obligations with the arrangements that we have entered into? And given his previous record on this matter, why should any partner believe a single word that the Government say?
I think the hon. Gentleman’s question is self-contradictory. He should know from experience of the UQ last year that I will always give him a very straight answer, even if it is a difficult one. The situation, as I said to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, is that these measures are lawful. They are within our obligations delivering on the protocol. They are operational. They are temporary, but I also say to him that we are entirely consistent. We are consistent through all these measures that our core focus is protecting the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, the peace process and ensuring that we respect that—not just north-south, but east-west as well.
The Government have done well to postpone the bureaucratic problems of shipments into Northern Ireland and have worked hard to resolve them, but sadly, issues persist. Does the Secretary of State agree that fresh minds should be brought to bear on the conundrum? The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, for example, could call on new help and advice from qualified business experts.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I have been fortunate in this role to be able to engage with and have advice and recommendations from the Northern Ireland business community through the business engagement forum, which we pull together and which meets regularly. That has been invaluable. I have also welcomed the engagement via the Joint Committee structures with representatives from business and civic society in Northern Ireland, of which more has been committed to. I hope that Vice-President Šefčovič and his team will be able to engage in more of that more quickly; it has been a few weeks since the last one. I think that it is important that we continue to take those meetings forward and that it would be good to have as much business involvement and contribution to this as possible, because that is what informs a perfectly good, really solid understanding of the needs of business for those flows of supplies for the people of Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister is far keener to celebrate a yet-to-be-built bridge between Great Britain and Northern Ireland than to take responsibility for the barriers that he has put there. Just five weeks ago, he said that the protocol must not
“place… barriers of any kind…down the Irish sea.”—[Official Report, 3 February 2021; Vol. 688, c. 948.]
Will the Secretary of State explain, then, why he negotiated an agreement that did just that?
The hon. Lady may want to have a look at the Command Paper that we published last summer around how the protocol can work. It was very clear about making sure that we had a pragmatic and flexible approach, so that goods could flow cleanly and simply for people in Northern Ireland. We have also always been very clear about building on the SPS checks, which, in one form or another, have been there since the 19th century. That is the reality of recognising the single epidemiological unit of the island of Ireland—we have always been up front and clear about that. We are also clear that we want to make sure that there is not just unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to mainland Great Britain, which we have done, but this good, flexible free flow. The impact that we have seen over the last few weeks is why we had to take the decisions that we did last week to ensure that we have time for businesses to adapt and time in other areas to work with the EU to get permanent and long-term solutions.
We in the Conservative and Unionist party value Northern Ireland’s place in our United Kingdom. Indeed, we take the view that my home town of Belfast is as much a part of the United Kingdom as my Bournemouth constituency. While the protocol is an obvious recognition of the fact that there are two sovereign jurisdictions on the island of Ireland, one of which remains a member of the European Union, it is clear that at least so far, the protocol is not working as we had intended. As the Government look to the future, does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to work with businesses in Northern Ireland, all the parties in Northern Ireland, the EU and our friends in the Irish Government to ensure that the solutions are pragmatic and practical going forward, and crucially, that those solutions must recognise and acknowledge Northern Ireland’s place in our United Kingdom and the economic, social, political and trading position that Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom demands?
The short answer is yes, absolutely. My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom. The economic flows around the United Kingdom are obviously important to the whole of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has the strength it has because of all the parts of the UK: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I have to say—I know he agrees with me on this; it is something he rightly feels passionate about—that the United Kingdom is stronger because Northern Ireland is in it.
Last Friday, the Government announced some temporary—I stress the word temporary—operational measures, one of which lifted the ludicrous ban on bulbs and vegetables grown in British soil being sent from GB to NI if they still have soil attached. Does the Secretary of State agree that there was never any rational basis for the ban and that with or without European Commission agreement the Government will maintain the ability to move such products from GB to Northern Ireland not only now but in the future? Our businesses need and deserve a cast-iron guarantee.
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. She is absolutely right: businesses want certainty. They want guarantees going forward. We took the decision last week to extend some of the grace periods. She is correct that this is temporary. It is temporary because we are committed to delivering on our obligations in a pragmatic and sensible way for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland. That is why it is important we use the grace period to work with the EU to get permanent solutions to ensure that those kinds of products can continue to flow in the way that they should be able to, the way they have, and the way that the Command Paper and the protocol always envisaged they would.
I welcome these measures. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is incumbent on him and the Government to make sure that certain foods and indeed medicines reach citizens in every part of the United Kingdom, whether they be in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland and that to have not taken these measures would have been irresponsible? How on earth could they therefore be seen as any breach of international law or as putting any peace process at risk?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Picking up on his last point, I ask colleagues to pause for a moment and think about where we would be if we had not taken those actions. In the next couple of weeks, we would have had empty shelves in Northern Ireland. What would that have meant in terms of tensions in Northern Ireland? I personally think that would be an untenable situation for the protocol. I think the decisions we took were important in terms of ensuring we can deliver on the protocol and show that the protocol can work in a pragmatic and sensible way that works for businesses and people in Northern Ireland. We took the decision on the advice of businesses, and that is why businesses have roundly supported the position and the actions we took last week.
I want to see extensions to the grace periods, but on a sound legal basis. If the protocol is to be sustainable, we need to see a genuine partnership between the UK and the EU to fix problems, not Northern Ireland becoming a pawn in a war of attrition with the EU. Does the Secretary of State recognise that unilateral actions undermine the constructive voices inside the EU that were working to achieve flexibilities, and therefore make finding long-term sustainable solutions more difficult, including a veterinary agreement?
I share with the hon. Gentleman the desire to work all these things through as partners and to get an agreement with our partners in the EU on issues like this. We would have liked to have done so with these issues. Sadly, the EU had not come to an agreement on some of these issues. Ultimately, we have to do what is right by the people of the United Kingdom and, of course, within the United Kingdom the people of Northern Ireland. Much as we would have liked to have had an agreement with the EU over the decisions last week, if we had not taken those decisions last week, businesses were clear with us, there would have been an impact. Even if we had taken the decisions this week or next week, it would already have been too late to prevent a detrimental impact for businesses and people in Northern Ireland. I just say to colleagues that we took those decisions last week because of the time urgency, the time-critical situation we were in. Going forward and at all times we would much rather always agree things with the EU. Of course, that needs both partners to want to agree them and sadly as of last week the EU did not want to. I hope we will be able to re-engage and make sure that these problems are solved more permanently in agreement with the EU.
I welcome the measures my right hon. Friend has taken. Can he confirm that as he continues to work with the European Union to find those lasting solutions to the protocol, he will absolutely hold them to the commitment they are reported to have made in the Joint Committee to “act at pace” and continue to further engage with the people of Northern Ireland on the issues relating to the protocol?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There was a commitment to act at pace. As I say, we would have liked to have come to agreement on these issues, but the pace issue got ahead of us and we had to make those urgent decisions last week to avoid further disruptions and problems for people in Northern Ireland. I hope that as we go forward we can work at pace together to make sure that there are ultimately the solutions to this that work for people across the UK. Ultimately, that is in the best interests of the EU; it is also in the interests of the protocol.
First, what effect has there been since January on time-sensitive Northern Ireland food exports to Great Britain via the Republic of Ireland and Welsh ports? Secondly, what would the Secretary of State say to Neil Alcock, of Seiont Nurseries in Arfon, just 30 miles from Holyhead, who says that he has found a way to export his plants: they go through Wales, then through England, then on a sea crossing, then through the Netherlands, Belgium and France, and then on another sea crossing to the Republic, and thence onwards?
I would say that we are working to ensure that he does not have to go through that kind of rigmarole and can continue to trade in his business, for the benefit of his employees and the customers he is serving in Northern Ireland. That kind of flexibility is probably why the Irish Government sensibly put in flexibilities on security and safety declarations just a few weeks ago—it is not that dissimilar. What is surprising is to have Opposition Members criticising the UK Government for taking actions similar to those they never challenged the Irish Government on just a few weeks ago.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he is reassured that the EU now has no desire to block suppliers fulfilling contracts for vaccine distribution to Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK? Does he agree that it is only through international collaboration that we will beat this pandemic once and for all?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a global pandemic and we need to work together globally to combat it, get on top of it and be able to move back to normal life. That is particularly the case on the island of Ireland, where that single epidemiological unit means we have people who work, live, school, shop and enjoy their lives in normal times on both sides of the border—in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—so we want to be working together on that. I hope that that will continue. The working across between the Irish Government, the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive has been very strong over the past year. I have been pleased to be able to chair the Joint Committee with my sort of opposite number, Simon Coveney, where we have been bringing together our relevant Ministers to work together on the battle with covid for the benefit of people in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State has referred to the temporary nature of last week’s announcement, as well as the tensions that have resulted from the implementation of the protocol for some months now. Does he grasp fully the degree of resentment that exists in Unionism in Northern Ireland, where the consent from the Unionist community has now diminished to the point where radical action and radical steps have to be taken by his Government as a matter of urgency?
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman outlines a strength of feeling that is absolutely there. The tension and palpable feeling within the Unionist community over what has happened in the past few weeks is clear, particularly following the action on that Friday night. I know he has made the case quite strongly about that. This is why it is important that we all work hard to ensure that we can find a pragmatic, flexible way to move forward to ensure that we can deliver things for the people in Northern Ireland in the way that was always intended. Ultimately, the future of the protocol will be in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland, through the consent mechanism.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he will continue to work with the EU, and hold it to its recent commitment in the Joint Committee to act at pace in further negotiations and in so doing always act in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland?
Yes, absolutely. From talking in the meetings we have had with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, I absolutely believe his commitment to wanting not only to work at pace but to understand the sense and feeling across the entire community and businesses in Northern Ireland. We had the engagement we organised for him just a few weeks ago, and the EU has pledged to do more of that engagement, which is a good thing, so that it can fully understand the needs of both communities and the business community in Northern Ireland. That is an important thing to continue as we move forward.
I thank the Secretary of State for his actions in the last week. Is he aware that businesses on the mainland are already losing business as Northern Ireland retailers scramble to source supplies from outside the United Kingdom? An example is a nursery retailer in my constituency which, for the first time in its 75-year history, is ordering from non-UK firms. It has had to place orders outside the UK economy for the first time, to the tune of £10,000. Will the Secretary of State outline when he will draw a line, not just short-term but long-term, and end this protocol, which financially damages all the economies of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has been consistent in his views on the protocol more widely, and I would say to him that our work is going to be focused on working with the EU to find pragmatic, sensible, flexible solutions to ensure that the protocol can work. It is part of our obligation and commitment under the protocol to work in a way that is beneficial for the people of Northern Ireland so that they can continue to have the flow of products that they have always experienced. Ultimately, this will mean that Northern Ireland has a huge competitive advantage and a unique position in the world from which it can see its economy grow in the years ahead.
The Northern Ireland protocol is an imperfect solution to a complex problem, ensuring that we continue to protect peace on the island of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that remains the Government’s priority, as it should be for every Member of this House?
Absolutely. It is important that all of us in this House continually reinforce the point—I will always do—that the UK Government’s commitment to the Belfast-Good Friday agreement is unwavering, and our recognition of that and all of its strands is important. That does not conflict with our view that Northern is an integral part of the United Kingdom and that the United Kingdom is better for Northern Ireland being in it.
Does the Secretary of State think the people of Northern Ireland are stupid? The Government said that there would never be a border in the Irish sea; then they signed up to one. Then they pretended it did not exist, but said that even if it did, they were sure it would have no impact anyway. Now they are saying that, actually, there is one, but we can just ignore it. Will the right hon. Gentleman stop taking people for fools and start showing the responsible leadership required to sort this out?
I assume that the hon. Gentleman therefore supports the moves we took last week in showing leadership to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. We have been consistent in what we wanted to deliver, and we have delivered unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the UK market. We were always clear that we recognised the single epidemiological unit of the island of Ireland, which meant that those sanitary and phytosanitary checks would be built upon and put in place, as they have been. As the Command Paper outlined, we want to see a clear, flexible ability for businesses to trade, so that consumers in Northern Ireland will not see their everyday lives disrupted. In fact, the early paragraphs of the protocol highlight that that is the intention of the protocol. That is what we have to focus on, and that is what the decisions last week were about.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the unique status of Northern Ireland means that it will not be possible for the EU to enforce its single market rules in the same way there as it can elsewhere in the EU? Does he also agree that the only way to achieve a sustainable solution is for the agencies in Ireland to work together with their UK equivalents to build trust and to work out how we can enforce the rules and tackle the key risks while leaving the border in a workable position that businesses can manage?
My hon. Friend makes an important and fair point. The Irish Government and their agencies work closely with the UK Government and our agencies and with the Northern Ireland Executive on a wide range of issues to the benefit of people in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and it is important that we continue to do that. He also highlights why it is important that we continue to be very clear about the needs of the people of Northern Ireland—why the protocol was put in place—recognising the unique circumstances and the complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland, and ensuring that the relationship with the Republic of Ireland can work in a smooth and effective way. As I have said before, I absolutely recognise that the EU’s core, prime focus is on the protection of the single market. We are focused not just on protecting the businesses and people of the United Kingdom but on the core determination and commitment to deliver on the Good Friday-Belfast agreement in all of its strands.
I support the aim of trying to minimise unnecessary and disruptive checks, but, on the method, can the Secretary of State tell the House under which article of the Northern Ireland protocol the Government have taken this decision, which he describes as “lawful”, to extend the grace periods? Is it article 16, which allows the UK unilaterally to take appropriate safeguard measures? If not, which other article is he citing as giving the Government the ability lawfully to take this step?
As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, the article 16 implementation was effectively made by the EU just a few weeks ago, not by the UK Government; that is what has started and led to some of the issues and tensions we have seen in the communities of Northern Ireland. I am pleased that the EU has apologised for that, but we need to recognise that it has had a lasting impact. The measures that I announced last Wednesday are lawful and consistent with the progressive and good-faith implementation of the protocol. They are temporary operational easements, introduced where additional delivery time is needed. They do not change our legal obligations as set out in the protocol—under any of its articles—and we continue to discuss our protocol implementation with the Joint Committee.
These measures are of a kind that is well precedented in the context of trade practice internationally, and they are consistent with our intention to discharge the obligations under the protocol in good faith. As I have said before, the measures are in line with the kind of flexibilities that the Irish Government put in place, and neither the right hon. Gentleman nor any other Opposition Member has yet criticised or challenged the Irish Government for what they did. We think those are sensible measures; there are flexibilities that the Irish Government thought they needed in the same way that we do with these measures.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend welcomes the interest that is being shown by friends and partners around the world in Northern Ireland as an essential part of the United Kingdom—friends who are so interested in our status and in the work that we are trying to do to make one area of our country prosper. I am sure that he welcomes the interest that President Biden has shown, as well as many in the Irish caucus of the United States. Today, Mr Coveney and Mr Šefčovič are meeting the Irish caucus in Washington. Will my right hon. Friend tell me who is there from Her Majesty’s Government, representing the people of Northern Ireland? Is perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), or one of the Northern Ireland Office Ministers going to be in that room, ensuring that the Irish voice that is represented by this House is also present?
My hon. Friend, as always, makes an important point. I welcome our friends and partners around the world taking an interest in any part of the UK. Our friends in the US have always had a very clear interest in issues and matters around Northern Ireland, and have been huge supporters of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement for many years. In this role, I have had continuous engagement with colleagues in the Irish caucus who are meeting Vice-President Šefčovič and Simon Coveney today. I look forward to talking to them again in due course myself. I do not think that we are involved as a Government in that meeting today, but I hope that Vice-President Šefčovič will continue that kind of engagement, particularly with the people of Northern Ireland—in both the business community and civic society—building on the meeting that we had a few weeks ago, as he said he would, to really understand some of the issues affecting people and businesses in Northern Ireland, and therefore work with us in a positive way to remedy any issues. I welcome any interest from people around the world and their support for all strands of the Good Friday agreement.
To be fair to the Secretary of State, he has made very little attempt to persuade the House or anybody else that the Prime Minister knew what he was doing when he signed up to the protocol, but does he recognise that he is now going to have to do a repair job to persuade not just Dublin, Brussels and Washington, but the whole of the world with which we want to work, that the UK is a reliable trading partner—and other forms of partner—because that is not there today?
I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not make similar comments about the moves that the Irish Government made in January and the flexibilities they put in place. He should support the UK Government in doing what is right for the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that, working with our partners in the EU, these temporary, pragmatic measures will give us the space to be able to get permanent, long-term solutions, in partnership. Ultimately, we will do what is right for the people of Northern Ireland in respecting the Good Friday/Belfast agreement.
I support the Government in taking necessary and proportionate action to defend Northern Irish business, but the Secretary of State will know that this House should be committed to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and that we cannot treat people in one part of the kingdom differently from those in the rest. Will he please redouble his efforts to build closer bilateral relations with our Irish friends? These things are best sorted out between Britain and Ireland, keeping the EU well away from the issue.
I am keen on making sure that we have really good bilateral relationships. I have worked with members of the Irish Government over the past year and we always have very productive and positive conversations. They are good partners to work with. The Irish Government are obviously part of the EU and our negotiation is with the EU, as I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate. I hope we will be able to have a pragmatic and positive relationship with our partners in the EU, as together we find solutions to this issue that are in the interests of people in Northern Ireland and, yes, in the interests of the whole of the UK and, indeed, the EU as well.