Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol: Scrutiny of EU Legislative Proposals (European Affairs Committee Sub-Committee Report)

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Excerpts
Friday 20th January 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hannan. It is quite interesting that this debate falls almost exactly to the day when the agreement in Northern Ireland about restoring elections fell—that was yesterday. The House will know that that has not happened, and that there will be a further set of negotiations, which will probably end at roughly the same time as the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. Yesterday, also, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference met as part of strand three of the Good Friday agreement —an agreement I chaired what feels like a million years ago. That really means that this debate is very relevant today. I wholly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Jay, on his extremely skilful handling, not just of the issue but of the Select Committee. The differing views on the Select Committee on the protocol are intense, and I rather suspect that the members’ skills would be very useful in Belfast and London at the moment.

The report says that “particular circumstances” apply to Northern Ireland; of course they do. I agree with the point made by some noble Lords that there should be greater flexibility on the part of the European Union on Northern Ireland. There is no direct comparison between what happens in Northern Ireland regarding the protocol and the European Union, so it is clearly unique. It seems that the Government and the European Union, in their negotiations, should understand that particularity.

In the debate so far, the comments by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and my noble friend Lord Hain, were particularly useful, with very practical suggestions as to what could happen to improve the democratic deficit and ensure that people in Northern Ireland have some sort of say over the regulations, as far as the protocol continues, over their lives. That does not seem to be a huge ask: that people who will be elected in Northern Ireland, hopefully, will have some say on the laws that affect it.

I hope that the Minister takes into account those very significant recommendations, but it depends, of course, if there is a Northern Ireland Assembly or a Northern Ireland Executive—the jury is out on that at the moment. We have had negotiations of sorts, but it was not exactly ideal that, a week or so ago in Belfast, half the community in Northern Ireland was not represented because of a rather silly row over the protocol. Great effort should be made by the Foreign Office and the Northern Ireland Office regarding how they approach the negotiations. Frankly, if we had decided, 25 years ago, that it was the Government’s view as to who should or should not meet, we would not have had the Good Friday agreement.

The weeks ahead are really critical, and the recommendation from the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, that the Minister should tell us a little bit about what is happening at the moment would be very useful. I know that we cannot go into great detail on any of it, but he can tell us, roughly, if any progress is being made. If progress is not being made on these negotiations, there will be no Assembly and no Executive, and there will be no proper local scrutiny of the European Union regulations. Therefore, no progress will be made on the central issue dividing the parties at the moment: the operation of the protocol.

Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Excerpts
Lord Dodds of Duncairn Portrait Lord Dodds of Duncairn (DUP)
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My Lords, I want to make a brief comment on Amendment 40, which is about approval by a resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly. In support of this amendment, it has been stated that adherence to the spirit and intention of the Belfast agreement is vital. But if we are to be faithful to that agreement as amended by the St Andrews agreement, and to its spirit and intention, then the amendment is defective in that it does not include cross-community consent. Is this a resolution by cross-community consent?

The point that I have made—and as other noble Lords who are aware of the details of the Belfast agreement will know—is that every major decision in the Northern Ireland Assembly is made on a cross-community consent basis. That means a majority of nationalists, a majority of designated unionists and a majority overall. Anything that is not specifically a cross-community vote is capable of being turned into one by a petition of concern. If you are using the argument that you are defending the Belfast agreement, as amended, then why is the cross-community element of resolutions in the Northern Ireland Assembly left out? Why is that the case? Why is it not required to have the support of unionists and nationalists? That is the basis on which the Belfast agreement was written.

My second point is about the involvement of Northern Ireland parties. I have a lot of sympathy there, but it is worth bearing in mind that in the run-up, between 2018 and 2020, when we had all the discussions about the backstop and negotiations overall, the Irish Government made it clear on a number of occasions to us that they did not wish to have any engagement directly with political parties in Northern Ireland on the issue of Brexit. They did not see a role. Nor did Michel Barnier see any role for the political parties in Northern Ireland; I put that point to him directly in his office in Brussels.

Lest we move to the position that the British Government have prevented this or not done enough, I say that the Irish Government and the Brussels Commission were very clear: “This is a matter on which the EU is represented by Monsieur Barnier. He speaks for the EU.” Leo Varadkar was very clear when we met him in Belfast and urged him to encourage a more imaginative approach that would involve the Northern Ireland political parties and the Irish Government talking directly to political parties about Brexit—and the UK Government, of course. That was rejected: “No, Michel Barnier speaks for the EU. It is between Her Majesty’s Government”, as it then was, “and the EU. There is no role for anyone else.” That was spelled out explicitly.

While I have a lot of sympathy with the proposition, this is not as straightforward as it would appear. I think some of the problems we have seen might well have been made easier to resolve had there been more flexibility on the part of the EU and the Irish Government, but it needs to be put on record that it was and, as far as I understand it, remains, the position both of the Dublin Government and Brussels. It would be very interesting to see whether Leo Varadkar maintains that position when he takes over as Taoiseach in a few weeks’ time. It would be worth exploring that with the Irish Government, because the portrayal that this has been a one-sided exclusion is not accurate.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I did not intend to come in at this stage—there are further amendments later that I am interested in making a contribution to—but I agree with an awful lot of what the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, has said. Over the last year or two, I have been complaining that the real difficulty in this negotiation, if that is the right word to use for it—and I do not think that it is, by the way—lies in the way the protocol was born. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the protocol, or of the Bill—and I think there is an awful lot wrong with it—I am not at all convinced it is doing what it set out to do: in fact, it has failed to do that, because the DUP has not moved considerably because of the nature of the Bill. One reason is that the negotiations have been almost exclusively between the European Union on one hand and the British Government on the other, as the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, said. That is a fundamental problem.

I understand why the Irish Government feel that way. They are part of the European Union; the European Union negotiates on their behalf. I thought it would be a good idea if that were reversed: the Irish Government could have negotiated on behalf of the European Union because, as we have heard a number of times this evening, the issues we are dealing with reflect two international agreements. The first and overriding one is the Good Friday agreement. That is an international agreement lodged at the United Nations and it overrides everything, so far as we can see, with regard to the future of Northern Ireland. How on earth can officials from the European Union understand the issues facing Northern Ireland in the way that the Irish Government could?

That reflects too, of course, on how you involve the Northern Ireland parties. If anybody thinks that this whole issue is going to be resolved in Brussels, that is for the birds. The issue is to be resolved in Belfast: that is where the impasse is. The impasse is: why have we not got the institutions of the Good Friday agreement up and running? It is simple. It is because people have not talked to each other. There have not been proper negotiations.

I spent five years of my life negotiating in Northern Ireland so I know how intense those negotiations have to be. There were negotiations involving the European Union at some stage, but nothing like the negotiations between, on the one hand, the two Governments—the British Government and the Irish Government—and, critically, the Northern Ireland political parties on the other. In the end, they will have to decide this.

One of the great tragedies of all this—it was not the fault of the DUP; it was the fault of Sinn Féin, in this case—is that the Assembly and the Executive were brought down over the then Irish language Bill. The result was that there was no proper Executive comprised of the parties in Northern Ireland, who could have discussed all the issues we have been discussing for the past three weeks. Had there been a proper Executive and Assembly up and running, we would not—I hope—be here in the way we are. I have a lot of sympathy for what the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, said.

I still hope that, over the next few months, the Irish Government can discuss meaningfully with the British Government. I particularly hope that there are proper, meaningful negotiations involving the political parties in Northern Ireland. By that, I mean negotiations; I do not mean going to Belfast for a couple of hours, meeting the political leaders, and then coming back again. That is not going to work. You have to get people around a table. You have to involve all the political parties in Northern Ireland. You have to do the things that we have done over the past 10 or 20 years to achieve a real, lasting solution to this issue. What we are doing now is a sham. It will not solve anything at all. The only way we can do it is through negotiations that involve the Governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland.

Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey (UUP)
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My Lords, I want briefly to follow what the noble Lords, Lord Murphy and Lord Dodds, have said. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, may be right about the European Union not wishing to negotiate with regional politicians. It has a long-standing position on that; the EU-Canada trade agreement got bogged down because of the Wallonians, I think, who blocked it for quite some time. But never mind what the European Union or Dublin thinks. This is what matters: what our own Government decide on who is going to speak for the United Kingdom at these talks. If our Government decide to involve people and politicians in Northern Ireland, that is our business. It is not the European Union’s business. At the end of the day we know what its stance is, but that is neither here nor there if our Government decide that they are going to create their own negotiations. Who they take advice from and consult in the United Kingdom is entirely up to them, so I do not see that as an obstacle.

I gently remind the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, that the first decision in our amendment to the Belfast agreement at St Andrews was to remove the necessity for cross-community consent for the election of the First Minister. Had that remained as it was, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson would be First Minister, not Michelle O’Neill.

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Lord Hannay of Chiswick Portrait Lord Hannay of Chiswick (CB)
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My Lords, I support this amendment. I have spoken on a number of previous occasions about the fact that we are fumbling around in the dark. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, made a noble attempt at an earlier stage in today’s debate to say something about what was going on but I am sorry to say that, if I was being impolite, I would say that what he said was the square root of nothing. Are we going to get something more than that? We ought to. That has been the practice of previous British Governments in negotiation as a third party when we were outside the European Union and in many other negotiations. I think it is pretty shocking that we are not getting that.

It also underlines a point which all our debates illustrate: that the Government have put the cart before the horse. Surely the right sequence would have been for the Government to enter into a serious process of negotiation from last February onwards; but they did nothing—absolutely nothing. We now know that nothing happened after February. As that process went along, they should have reported it to Parliament. At some stage or another, it would have been perfectly reasonable for the Government to say that we cannot go on like this for ever and, if we cannot get a negotiated agreement to sort out the implementation of the protocol in order to cure it of some of the imperfections which none of us contests, then we may have to go down a unilateral course.

If the Government had done that, I suspect that we would have had an agreement by now—but the lady who was Foreign Secretary at the time and who had her eye on higher things, which, alas, turned out to be a flash in the pan, went down another course, which was to put the cart before the horses. And that is where we are: with the cart firmly before the horses. Here we are, spending hours and hours discussing what we are going to do if this process of negotiation, which the Government say is their preference, fails. Well, the time to do that is when it has failed, when the Government have made a full and detailed report of why it had failed, and when we can see what the other side in the negotiation says about whether those reasons for failure are justified. Then Parliament can take a view on what to do next.

Instead of which, we are being asked to do all this now in the, alas, totally futile belief that this will somehow put the frighteners on Brussels. Well, it does not look to me as if Brussels is terribly frightened; nor has it been for many months. So I wish we could just get away from this and leave the process of deciding what we do if the Government’s preferred option fails, and then we will deal with that when we get to it. We will cross that bridge when we get to it.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I too support my noble friend’s amendment. When we look at this pointless and rather daft Bill, we realise that it has achieved absolutely nothing. They would have been more influenced by the man in the moon than by this Bill.

The Bill might have done something, but so far has done nothing, to achieve progress in Northern Ireland. I would be very interested if the people negotiating on the European Union’s behalf looked at a video of the last couple of hours’ debate in this Chamber. They would then realise that these are not the “technical issues” that we are told are being resolved at the moment. It is not about oranges, sausages and the rest of it; it is about people’s identity in Northern Ireland, whether they be unionists, who feel that their own British identity is threatened by the protocol, or nationalists, who feel that they are threatened in some other way.

The first thing the Government should understand is that in some ways the negotiations now have to be parallel: a negotiation between the European Union—with, as I said earlier, a much bigger involvement by the Irish Government—and the United Kingdom Government on the protocol itself, in parallel with negotiations to restore the institutions of the Good Friday agreement. Those institutions have effectively collapsed and there is a case for looking at them again. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, referred to the Taoiseach’s comment about changing the rules on the way the Assembly and Executive operate—remembering, of course, that the St Andrews agreement changed the rules of the Good Friday agreement. But they were changed by agreement. That is the issue: they were not changed unilaterally by one side or the other.

In the next six months—I will come to that in a second—there should be a structured negotiation on the one hand with the European Union and on the other between the political parties in Northern Ireland and, where appropriate, on strands 2 and 3, with the Irish Government. I do not think that has entered the Government’s head over the past eight to nine months. For all sorts of reasons, which everybody knows about, they have not really been bothered; they have let things drift. There have not been proper negotiations. It seems to me that one of the Government’s most important responsibilities is to ensure that Northern Ireland does not go backwards 30 years—and it is quite possible that that could happen.

I think the European Union sometimes does not understand the absolute uniqueness of the Northern Ireland situation, of the Good Friday agreement and of the identity issue. There is no comparison anywhere within Europe, perhaps even in the world, with what has happened in Northern Ireland, and it seems to me that that has not been appreciated by the people doing the negotiating.