I have to remind the Secretary of State that it was this Government who signed up to the trade and co-operation agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol as it currently stands. It might not be necessary to try to renegotiate had more time been given over to this Chamber to allow Members to scrutinise it before it entered into law. Does the Secretary of State regret the decision taken by the Government to curtail the amount of parliamentary time available to Members to scrutinise that before Brexit was done?
I think the hon. Gentleman is arguing to go back in time and take even longer to get Brexit done. I am not sure the British public or anybody would thank him for that, but of course the business of the House is generally agreed through the usual channels; that is always the case.
Our position has been consistent, whether set out by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union or the Attorney General in March 2019. The Secretary of State pointed out that if
“the objectives of the protocol were no longer being proportionately served by its provisions because, for example, it was no longer protecting the 1998 agreement in all its dimensions”—[Official Report, 12 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 289]—
the UK could seek agreement to end the provisions, which would be, for obvious reasons, no longer necessary to achieve the protocol’s objectives. The objectives of the protocol are very clear and they respect the Good Friday agreement. At the moment, that is under massive threat in all three strands, and we need to make sure we are protecting the peace and prosperity that we have seen in Northern Ireland thanks to the Good Friday agreement.
Another week, another rattle of the sabre by threatening to deploy article 16. I wonder who the Secretary of State imagines is impressed by such behaviour, apart from a number of hardliners in a Conservative and Unionist party that seems increasingly incapable of conserving or unifying anything, least of all itself.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman might want to have a closer look at what is happening in Northern Ireland, in the sense that there is a view across all parties that we need to resolve the issues in the protocol. Some parties have stronger views than others about what those issues are. Nobody in the Unionist community supports the protocol any more, so it does not have consent across the communities. We no longer have a First or Deputy First Minister, and we no longer have a North South Ministerial Council. That is the Good Friday agreement under threat. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman stands for, but I stand for defending the Good Friday agreement and defending the United Kingdom, its people and its residents. We will do that.
I associate myself and my party with the Secretary of State’s remarks at the outset about victims of historical abuse and the forthcoming apology.
Another important part of the Northern Ireland protocol is article 3, which says:
“The United Kingdom shall ensure that the Common Travel Area and the rights and privileges associated therewith can continue to apply…in particular with respect to free movement to, from and within”—
the island of Ireland—
“for Union citizens and their family members, irrespective of their nationality.”
Does the Secretary of State recognise the potential economic and political strain that the introduction of an electronic travel authorisation system could put on freedom of movement across the border? What engagement does he plan to have with the Government of Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic and their partners in the EU in respect of how to make sure such frictions do not take effect?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be aware that throughout the pandemic we have made sure we have kept the common travel area flowing and open. That has not necessarily been the case on the part of the Irish Government at certain points, but we have done that; we think it is important and we will continue to do that. I am looking to have further talks with the Irish Government. My officials have been talking to them about all these issues this week and last week, and I will continue to do that myself as well.
I take this opportunity to associate my party with the Secretary of State’s remarks about the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Our thoughts are very much with those who continue to grieve and who continue to be affected to this day.
When it comes to trade, the Government have not so much been ambushed by cake as by reality. While the Northern Ireland economy is thriving as part of the single market, the economy of the UK is labouring. Should the UK Government not, with the opportunities presented by the possibility of a change in Prime Minister, realign Great Britain with Northern Ireland in the single market and allow businesses across these islands to flourish?
I encourage the hon. Gentleman to do a little more research. It is very good news that the Northern Ireland economy is moving forward, as is the whole UK economy. Of course, in Northern Ireland there are more factors, not least the scale of the public sector compared with anywhere else in the UK. However, it is also true that the UK is moving forward as one of the fastest-growing economies in the G7, if not the fastest, with employment going up from where it was even before covid. That is because the Government are focused on delivering for people across the United Kingdom. I am sure he understands why, as a Unionist, I support that. He should too.
The right hon. Gentleman will, I know, be aware that this issue is subject to legal proceedings, so I hope he will excuse me being relatively brief in my reply. I reiterate our commitment in the Command Paper that we need to remove the burden on trade and goods with the UK and to ensure that businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland can continue to have full and normal access to goods from the rest of the UK. It is also worth colleagues across this House remembering that not only does New Decade, New Approach ensure that we have that full internal market in the UK, but the protocol that was agreed, in its principles, is very clear that it would not only not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities in Northern Ireland, as is currently a problem, but will respect the internal market of the United Kingdom. We are determined to deliver on that objective.
Lord Frost recently said that there could be “no role” for the European Court of Justice in arbitrating disputes around the protocol. If that genuinely now represents the view of the UK Government, in contrast to when they negotiated and signed that protocol, can the Secretary of State tell the House how he would prefer to see disputes arising from the protocol arbitrated and settled? If he cannot share the text with politicians in Northern Ireland or in this House, can he at least give us a clue about what the outline of such a solution might be?
As the hon. Gentleman may be aware, there are different mechanisms for arbitration where there are disagreements between parties about things that have been agreed in international arrangements, including the withdrawal agreement itself. Those are working very well. What we have seen this year is how the EU has used the ECJ, even with the infraction proceedings around the processes we had to take forward in March to ensure that we could continue to get goods to Northern Ireland. It shows a very one-sided approach to this matter. It does not work, including for the stability for the Northern Ireland, and it is right we correct that. We have outlined that in the Command Paper, and that is part of the negotiations we will be having with the EU.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we do want to take that approach. The reality is that in practice the outworkings of the protocol are having a detrimental effect. One of the key things in the opening part of the protocol itself is the determination that we would not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities. Regardless of people’s constitutional view of Northern Ireland, the protocol is having an impact, which is why the First Minister has also pointed to issues in the protocol that she wants to see resolved. Obviously, people across the communities are having issues as well. We need to get this resolved for all the people of Northern Ireland, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to do so in a realistic why, recognising the challenges on the ground, and to deal with it as partners with the EU in a way that can deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, with the understanding that, of course, Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
Let us not lose sight of the fact that a protocol setting the terms of trade has only been made necessary because of an EU withdrawal agreement that the Prime Minister—irrespective of its entirely foreseeable impact on Northern Ireland—defined the parameters of himself and then signed up to freely. Everybody knows that article 16 exists, but the continued threats from the UK Government to deploy it have worn so thin as to be utterly transparent in every sense, and can be doing little to help increase the trust and confidence necessary for the Government to achieve their stated objectives.
Let us also be clear that if we move from the current agreement, there will have to be another put in place that is likely to differ in substance, to use a phrase, only in limited and specific ways from that which it will be replacing. If the UK Government wish to return to the freest possible conditions for the movement of goods between GB and Northern Ireland, consistent with their international obligations, they could sign up right now to a dynamic deal on food and animal welfare standards.
A pragmatic renegotiation of the protocol in the light of experience, and in the light of everything that has come from the nature of Brexit, would clearly be desirable in order to remove not just the barriers that exist but also the symbolism that these trade frictions are causing that are being felt so keenly in Northern Ireland at the present moment. In that regard, will the Secretary of State ensure that the Government, in contrast to their approach to Brexit to date, set the tone of all their discussions with the EU in good faith around the negotiating table, rather than through the pages of The Telegraph or the tabloids, and at all times in a manner that builds, rather than undermines, the trust necessary to be able to secure a better deal for the people of Northern Ireland?
As I outlined in my statement, we are actually not using article 16. That is something that the EU attempted to do—I think, mistakenly—earlier this year, which has caused an issue and a sense within the Unionist community that is still an issue today. The hon. Gentleman should sometimes stand up a bit more for the people of Northern Ireland and across the UK as a spokesperson on this issue, rather than just for the EU.
The hon. Gentleman mentions talking to the media. When we are dealing with the EU, it is a bit odd for us to be told by a journalist about a plan for medicines or for chilled meats, when it could be days or weeks later that we formally hear from the EU. We do want to work with the EU, which is why we are proposing, as we have done today in our Command Paper, a way to move forward and work together to resolve the core problems, rather than continually to deal individually with the symptoms that continue to build issues of trust and frustration. Ultimately, that is the best way to get a result for the people of Northern Ireland and to have that strong, positive relationship between the UK and the EU.
They were not. I outlined the proposals here in Parliament last week, and I have not had those kinds of conversations. I saw some reports of such conversations, but I am not sure where they have come from or what the hon. Lady is referring to.
Northern Ireland’s largest cross-community victims group, WAVE, wrote to the Prime Minister opposing any de facto amnesty. Does the Secretary of State recognise that reconciliation is something for individuals and communities to achieve, rather than for the Government to try to impose, and that whatever mechanisms the Secretary of State is successful in bringing forward to promote truth and reconciliation they cannot be allowed to impede the process of justice where there is sufficient evidence and a public interest in pursuing outstanding prosecutions?
WAVE is a strong body representing victims, although the hon. Gentleman’s comment about it being the largest might be challenged by some of the other victims groups. I think they all have an important voice to be heard, whether we are talking about SEFF—the South East Fermanagh Foundation—WAVE or the many others out there. However, I accept his point about reconciliation. We are very keen to work with people, and we will be doing so in the weeks ahead, across civic society, victims groups and veterans groups, and wider society in Northern Ireland to ensure that we are finding a pathway through to see the society of Northern Ireland being able to fully reconcile. There are too many areas where we have not seen that developed in the years that have gone past since the Good Friday/Belfast agreement.
I have said in this House before that I think this is one of the things that unites many of us: we need to see more in areas such as integrated education. It is simply not acceptable in the modern day that so many people in Northern Ireland do not meet a Protestant or a Catholic until they go to work or university. If we want to see an area and a society coming together, education is a key area to work on.
Yes. My right hon. Friend, who I know has had a great interest in Northern Ireland for many years, is absolutely right. It cannot be right that, 23 years on from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, still only some 7% of children in Northern Ireland are able to enjoy integrated education. If we want to see society move forward, we need to be clear and honest with ourselves that there is much more work to do on that. She is absolutely right that we need to end the intergenerational trauma that we are seeing and find a way to help Northern Ireland move forward so that the next generation and today’s younger generation can look forward, while always understanding where we have come from and what has happened.
May I associate myself with your remarks before the statement, Mr Speaker, about the unfortunate way in which this information has entered the public domain? I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, but we should not be reading these things on the BBC and RTÉ websites before we can discuss them in the House.
I acknowledge the untidy and imperfect nature of some of the compromises that have had to be made over the decades, first to achieve peace in Northern Ireland and then to maintain it. However, whatever merits in principle there might be in proposals surrounding aspects of truth, reconciliation and ensuring that the hidden truths of the troubles can at last be told while it is still possible, there remain huge concerns about the apparent lack of formal consultation and engagement on them.
Does the Secretary of State understand the huge concern, unease and upset that these proposals for a statute of limitations will cause, not just across Northern Ireland, but right across these islands? Will he acknowledge that unease and commit to engaging with victims’ groups and political leaders to discuss the way forward? Will he also think again about that statute of limitations and find a way to ensure, whatever final proposals he brings forward to the House, that where independent prosecutors consider that there is a sufficiency of evidence and a likelihood of successful conviction and, importantly, where they independently judge that it is in the public interest to bring forward a prosecution, they will still be able to do so?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman about making sure that we are able to get to the truth and get to information. Nobody in this House ever wants to see again a situation like the Ballymurphy case, where the families have had to wait 50 years to get to the truth. We have to find a better way forward. The current system is failing everybody, so to do nothing simply is not an option that will deliver for people in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
We do want to engage. We have been engaging, and not just over the past 18 months. Even last week, my officials and I engaged with victims’ groups on these very issues. In the weeks ahead, with the Command Paper for people to read through and engage with, that engagement will continue, including with the political parties and our partners in the Irish Government.
I absolutely agree. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and its consumers should be able to enjoy the products that they have bought from Great Britain for years. Any ban on chilled meats would, in fact, be contrary to the aims of the protocol itself and would be against the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. An urgent solution must be found so that Northern Ireland’s consumers can continue to enjoy chilled meat products bought from Great Britain.
We have proposed options for either extending the grace period or putting permanent arrangements in place. We are working hard to try to resolve these issues consensually with our partners, but as the PM has always made clear, we will consider all options in meeting our responsibility to sustain peace and prosperity for the people in and of Northern Ireland.
Mr Speaker, may I associate myself and my colleagues with your opening remarks, and those from both Front Benches, in paying tribute both to the legacy of Jo Cox and to the public service of the outgoing First Minister, Arlene Foster?
In his discussions with Lord Frost and Maroš Šefčovič, to which of the following did the Secretary of State commit his Government? The integrity of the Good Friday agreement; the free flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland; building trust by working to implement what they agreed to in the protocol; or further standards-lowering trade deals, which could restrict the ability to agree a veterinary deal with the EU? Surely the Secretary of State must recognise that it cannot possibly be all four.
I fundamentally disagree with the principle that the hon. Gentleman has just outlined. The reality is that the Good Friday/Belfast agreement—he has fallen into the trap that too many people fall into—has more than one strand. East-west is a vital strand, and we will continue to protect it. That is why it is important for people to recognise and understand that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and should have the same rights and access to products as anywhere in the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee makes a really important point. He is absolutely right. In looking at how we move forward, we have to work, and I am determined that we will work, to do everything we can with our partners not just in Irish Government but across the parties, victims’ groups and civic society in Northern Ireland to ensure reconciliation and for an opportunity to recognise the accountability of the fact that Northern Ireland has suffered for far too long from the traumas of the past. Working together, I am sure that we can find a way to help Northern Ireland move forward and ensure that Northern Ireland can deliver on the phenomenal opportunities, expertise and excitement that is there to deliver for people and have that shared prosperous and stable society.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. The pain that the loved ones of the victims of the Ballymurphy killings have gone through over the past half century is unimaginable. I pay tribute to their courage, their fortitude, their dignity and their unswerving determination to seek the truth—however difficult that was—about how their loved ones died. The First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, put it extremely well when she said:
“Lots of lessons to be learned. Grief is grief. Justice must be blind. Too many empty chairs across NI and unanswered questions.”
The path to truth, justice and reconciliation, as we know, is an imperfect one. While the past cannot be changed, its truth can be acknowledged and reconciliations made easier. In that vein, the Prime Minister should come to the House to offer that apology in person on behalf of the citizens in whose names these actions were taken, and apologise not only for the length of time it has taken to bring truth to the families but for the unjustified and unjustifiable deaths of their entirely innocent loved ones. Does the Secretary of State agree more generally that justice delayed is justice denied and that the best interests of truth, reconciliation and the wider public interest are not best served by seeking to put a time bar on the pursuit of justice?
As I have already said, both I and the Prime Minister have apologised, actually, and the Prime Minister, as I said in my statement, is writing directly to the families as well. As I said, no apology can make up for the loss and the pain that the families have been through. I share the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments and appreciate the tone that he has used. We are in full agreement. My view is that we need to get to the truth and we need to allow the families of the victims who want that information—the knowledge of what happened —to able to get to it much, much quicker. That is certainly something I am focused on. He is also quite right that this is not about having time bars on anything but having a process that means that the families do not have to wait decades to get to the bottom of what happened—to understand the truth of what happened.
Yes, absolutely. I will also just say that the Northern Ireland Executive have been involved in the specialist committee, which feeds into the Joint Committee, through the work that we do through the engagement forums and, actually, a meeting with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič just a few weeks ago. They are consistently involved and feeding into the process and the work that we do with the EU, but as I say, the British-Irish Council date was set a short while ago.
On the hon. Lady’s comments about young people, she is absolutely right; I fully support that point. Community groups and youth groups have been working with young people, not just in the last few weeks but consistently over the last year or so. They do amazing work to help young people to see a way through to a prosperous and exciting future. We should all be doing all we can to support, promote and encourage that so that people are not tempted, whether through social media or though bad advice in the heat of the moment in the streets, as we saw a few weeks ago, into the type of behaviour that gives them a criminal record and curtails their opportunities for the future.
May I take this opportunity to associate myself and my party with the comments that have been made on both sides of the House about the disgraceful and despicable attempt on the life of a serving police officer in Dungiven on Monday?
In these times of heightened tensions in the community, language and leadership matter, so does the Secretary of State consider that the Prime Minister’s referring to the “ludicrous” barriers that result from the protocol—a protocol that he himself insisted on the terms of—are a help or a hindrance to reaching a solution in Northern Ireland that all parts of the community can accept?
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman betrayed a lack of understanding, in the sense that people of the whole community of Northern Ireland are affected by these problems and the outworkings of the protocol. Whether it is somebody who has a nationalist constitutional view or a Unionist constitutional view, the practical outworkings for both consumers and businesses are real for the whole community. There is an added sense, as I outlined earlier, that the identity of the loyalist Unionist community in Northern Ireland has been affected, so the Prime Minister was absolutely right. It is helpful in that it clearly recognises—the hon. Gentleman sadly does not—the sense of injustice and feeling of attack on identity that is there in the Unionist community. We have to be clear that we recognise that and want to deal with that with our partners in the EU. To pretend it is not there simply is not going to handle the problem.
My hon. Friend, who chairs the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, makes a very good point. He is absolutely right, not just in his admiration for cinema, but in his recognition that there is work that we need to do. I share his view of cinema in that respect.
One of the things I am looking forward to working through is the delivery of the new deal programme, the £400 million investment we have secured on top of the city and growth deals and the investment through “New Decade, New Approach”. That is looking very specifically at how we help Northern Ireland benefit from and take forward opportunities in the years ahead, as well as working with the Executive through the £15 billion block grant, to make sure that we are creating opportunity. That includes skills for the future. The social fabric is part of that. I passionately feel that integrated education has to be an integral part of that future, to bring people together and make sure that people are getting a really good education and the economy is growing and thriving.
One thing that those of us who spend time in Northern Ireland always see is the entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to see opportunities and drive forward in a positive way, which is great for the economy and creates jobs. As we come out of covid, Northern Ireland’s economy can have a really bright future.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I associate myself with the remarks of both Front Benchers in their condemnation of the violence we have sadly seen. My thoughts are with those injured in the disturbances, and in particular with those in the emergency services who have been working hard to keep their communities safe.
The disorder we have seen in recent days represents, for those of us who grew up with strong memories of the troubles, scenes we thought we had left behind for good. We do not strengthen communities by encouraging criminality and disorder within them. We can all agree how sickening it was to see young children being encouraged in acts of violence by their elders who lived through that cycle of violence themselves.
Moving on from where we are will require a number of things. It will require respect for the law and those who enforce it, whether that is the officers of the PSNI, the leadership of the PSNI or the prosecution service. All must be supported fully in dealing with criminality and maintaining public order in a way that is consistent, fair and proportionate across all sections of Northern Ireland. Above all, it will require leadership, integrity, honesty and respect from politicians. There has, sadly, to date been a dearth of some of those qualities on show in the way that the protocol has been negotiated and implemented. The price being paid for that is sadly all too clear. The protocol was entered into freely by the UK Government and it is here to stay. Surely we can agree that the only route to amending it is through trust and good will on all sides.
The great success of the Good Friday agreement was in ensuring that the symbols of a border in the island of Ireland disappeared. If we can all agree that there is now a trade border, we can surely agree that the symbolism of that matters. One practical step, which I have raised with the Secretary of State before, would be to introduce a realignment of sanitary and phytosanitary checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That would remove some of the more snagging aspects of the current protocol and the difficulties with symbolism that it causes. Will the Secretary of State, in his discussions with all partners in this process, continue discussions on whether that is something we can do to smooth the passage of the protocol? Will he agree to work with other devolved Governments, which that would also impact upon?
I certainly agree with and appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s remarks in the first part of his statement.
The hon. Gentleman spent a fair part of his question referring to the protocol. We have to be very cautious when talking about the intentions, issues and views people have about the Northern Ireland protocol. As valid as they may be, they do not—it should never be argued that they do—in any way legitimise what we saw the other week. As others have said, it is right that we work through any disagreement in a political and democratic way. We also have to be very wary of the simplicity of thinking that what happened the other week was over one particular issue. As I think I outlined, and as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) outlined, it was a multifaceted set of issues.
I recognise the issues that are there from the outworking on the protocol as we have seen it in the first part of this year. We are committed to wanting to deal with that. We are very clear that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK and an integral part of the UK customs territory. The protocol was put in place primarily because the EU has a clear focus on protecting its single market. Our focus is on ensuring that the Belfast Good Friday agreement is respected in all of its strands, and that includes east-west. That is why we are very clear that while we want to ensure that goods moving into the EU through the Republic of Ireland are properly dealt with, goods that are moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain are unfettered, as they are, and goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland can do so freely and flexibly in a pragmatic approach.
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 thank my hon. Friend for outlining this issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is very keen to ensure that GB businesses have all the information they need. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that a number of the issues we have found relate to companies in Great Britain not appreciating what they can do in order to continue their smooth supplies to people in Northern Ireland. We want to ensure that that is the case. I encourage businesses to engage particularly with the trader support service, which is there to help businesses and, as I say, has phenomenal response and success rates in helping them to ensure that they can deliver. We as a Government will continue to fund it to ensure that it is there to support business and the people of Northern Ireland.
There is considerable anecdotal evidence from food producers that exports continue to be below pre-Brexit levels. With the retailers’ grace period ending this month, export health certificates will be required for imports of chilled and processed meats. How do the UK Government plan to ease specific concerns of the agrifood industry over this requirement ahead of the end of that grace period?
In classic House of Commons terms, I refer the hon. Gentleman to an answer I gave a few moments ago: he will see our position in a written ministerial statement later today that deals with that very issue.