Northern Ireland Protocol
Published date : 15 July, 2021
It is a pleasure indeed to speak in this debate. I begin, as other speakers have done, by congratulating the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) on securing it, although I am bound to point out that it is no surprise that we are here debating the subject—in many ways it was an inevitability. The hon. Member said that he wants us to look forward rather than back; I can certainly understand that sentiment, but I hope he will forgive me if I take an inevitable look backwards as well, to get the waypoints and to get some bearing on how we go forward.
We are here because of the way Brexit was won in the referendum and then negotiated—if that is the word—in the years that followed. Perhaps through necessity, it had to be all things to all people; that was the only way that it could secure the narrow margin it secured. Since then, whether they are in favour or, like myself, very strongly against it, people have had to watch as one by one the promises made to secure it turned to dust—promises to the fishing industry, promises to the farming sector, promises to maintain freedom of movement and even a promise that we would maintain our membership of the single market once we were out of the European Union, as I believe the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster once claimed.
We are here today to discuss the impact of Brexit in Northern Ireland. All of it was predicted and predictable, foreseen and foreseeable. What makes it so disappointing that we have reached this juncture is that those in the UK Government who have taken us to this point have twisted, obfuscated and misrepresented at every stage to persuade the population to believe that the consequences that we now face would simply not arise.
Throughout that period a profound British exceptionalism has been on display, with the UK Government and their supporters noisily asserting their own sovereignty and expressing a wounded surprise that any other EU state that also still had sovereignty should not only have that sovereignty but have a willingness to use it to defend their own interests, including the integrity of the single market. Part of the problem was
that the UK Government spent considerably more time negotiating among themselves than they did with European partners, and that allowed a fundamental set of questions to go unanswered for political convenience for too long. Those questions were: what kind of Brexit exactly, specifically, is it that we want? How are we going to get it? What implications will arise from that once we get it?
It was quite possible to leave the European Union and remain in the single market and the customs union. We would have become a coastal state with control over our fisheries, and we could have withdrawn from the political project of ever closer union that seems to cause such existential angst on the Conservative Benches. We could have left in a way that would have not created the present issues in Northern Ireland. Any form of Brexit that went beyond that made the risk of creating trade and regulatory borders a very live one indeed, with any such border having to fall either in the Irish sea or across the island of Ireland itself. After the unceremonious defenestration of the backstop and its political architect, the cry of the current Prime Minister to “get Brexit done” and the ensuing undignified stagger towards an agreement have left us with the protocol in its current form.
Part of the problem we have with that results from the philosophy that the Prime Minister and his advisers at the time had, which was to move fast and break things. There can be no doubt that the protocol was agreed simply to get the Government out of a big political hole at the time, and to allow them to say in Great Britain that they had got Brexit done and worry about the consequences for Northern Ireland after the event. This demonstrated cynicism and short-sightedness in equal measure. Nevertheless, it is an agreement that resulted from the negotiating objectives that Her Majesty’s Government held at the time. It was entered into freely, and if it is not to be implemented fully in its current form, it has to be renegotiated in good faith and in the proper way. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex observed in his contribution that the world was watching. I agree: the world was watching during the G7 conference and the world will still be watching to see how the protocol is implemented, whether in its present form or in an amended and agreed form.
The hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) pointed out that Northern Ireland did not vote for Brexit, and it would be remiss of me not to point out that Scotland also did not vote for Brexit. Allow me to be the one to point out—I hope other Members will appreciate this—the great irony in the fact that if Scotland were to become independent and join the European Union, it would once again enjoy free unfettered trade with Northern Ireland. Our businesses would enjoy that in a way that they simply no longer have under the terms of the protocol.
I think there is a shared interest in making sure that there is as close to seamless trade as can possibly exist across these islands, within these islands and with the European Union. In that sense, the right hon. Gentleman and I are on the same page.
An agreement on animal welfare, sanitary and phytosanitary standards would eliminate the need for very many of the checks and reopen that trade. It is that sort of pragmatic renegotiation of the protocol, in the light of experience and of everything that has come from the nature of Brexit, that would be desirable in order to remove not just the barriers but the symbolism that the frictions that are being felt so keenly in Northern Ireland represent.
I knew that mentioning Scottish independence in this context would wake up hon. Members on the Government Benches. Nobody in the Scottish National party wants to set up hard borders with anywhere. It is simply because we are having to live with the consequences of this English nationalist dream and misguided venture that the question arises.
While it is fine and necessary to set an objective of restoring that frictionless trade, it must be done in the correct way. [Interruption.]
Being mindful of your strictures, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will draw my remarks to a close. We need to identify practical ways in which that can happen. Above all, the UK Government must stop the empty sabre-rattling. They must stop blaming their predecessors for the misfortunes that they have created for themselves. They must stop blaming everybody else for the misfortunes that they have landed themselves in and for the outcomes of their own choices—[Interruption.]
A little bit of self-reflection and self-awareness on the Government Benches would not go amiss at this juncture.
More to the point, the Government need to work to rebuild trust and to secure a durable solution that works in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland and across these islands.
Back to All Parliament