Brandon Lewis – 2022 Speech on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

The speech made by Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in the House of Commons on 27 June 2022.

I thank all Members who have spoken on Second Reading. I will attempt to respond to as many of the points raised as possible, perhaps leaving out the choice of sandwich that the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) has been talking about this evening and in various interviews. There have been a huge number of thoughtful and insightful speeches and a wide range of views have been expressed across this House. That shows the interest and the support, certainly from the Conservative Benches, for ensuring a resolution to the issues affecting the people of Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland protocol, while agreed with the best of intentions, is causing practical problems for people and businesses in Northern Ireland, including trade disruption and diversion, significant costs and bureaucracy for traders. It cannot be right that it is easier to send goods from Great Yarmouth to Glasgow than to Belfast—still a part, and an important part, of the United Kingdom. Everybody in the United Kingdom should be able to access products and goods in the same way.

Political life in Northern Ireland is, as it has been, built on compromise and power sharing between communities, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) outlined, but the protocol does not have the support of all communities in Northern Ireland. As a result, we are seeing both political and social stress in Northern Ireland, including the lack of functioning of both the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly, as rightly outlined by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland).

It is clear that the protocol has become a major political problem, and it is putting a strain on the delicate balance inherent within the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It is worth noting, and it might be forgotten from what some Opposition Members have said today, that all party leaders in Northern Ireland, at some stage or another over the past few months, have been clear that there is a need to change the Northern Ireland protocol. This legislation is about preserving the wider social and political stability in Northern Ireland, finding a more stable and sustainable solution, and ensuring that the frictions faced by businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland on goods coming from the rest of the United Kingdom are removed.

It remains the preference of the UK Government to achieve these benefits through negotiations. These are negotiations that have been conducted by the Foreign Secretary and predecessors over the past 18 months. The lack of flexibility that we have seen from the EU, as rightly outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), has led us to the point where it is right that we make a decision about taking forward a solution that works for the people of the United Kingdom and, within the United Kingdom, the people of Northern Ireland.

This Bill will enable us to implement a successful negotiated settlement as well. It is important to recognise that that will require a significant change in approach from the EU Commission, as a number of hon. Friends have outlined. I am afraid that that change has not yet been forthcoming. The scale of problems and the depth of feelings aroused by the protocol unfortunately, if anything, have been exacerbated, rather than eased by the current EU approach—whether it was through triggering article 16 over crucial vaccine supplies to Northern Ireland in January 2021, launching infraction proceedings following emergency easements to ensure the movement of food and parcels to Northern Ireland in March 2021, or repeatedly failing to show pragmatic flexibility in more than 300 hours of negotiations over the past nine months and continuing to insist on processes that would add to, rather than remove, the burdens currently felt by businesses moving goods to Northern Ireland.

John Redwood

Has my right hon. Friend noticed how Labour always takes the side of the EU, even when, as in this case, the EU is damaging the Good Friday agreement and diverting trade expressly against the legal provisions of the protocol?

Brandon Lewis

My right hon. Friend makes a fair point. He will know from attending oral questions to the Northern Ireland Office that I have regularly had to listen to the hon. Member for Hove at the Dispatch Box taking the side of the EU—but then, the hon. Member wants to rejoin the EU, so I suppose we should not be surprised.

We should also be clear about the reality, when we hear about the flexibility of the European Union and the offer it has made, based on its October offer. That would be a backwards step from the current situation, which is already not working for businesses and people in Northern Ireland.

Sir Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Scottish nationalist party tonight votes against this great piece of legislation, it will be voting to continue the situation whereby Scottish seed potatoes—the best-quality and the healthiest seed potatoes in the world—will be banned from export to Northern Ireland?

Brandon Lewis

My right hon. Friend is renowned for always speaking good sense, as he did in that intervention. I can go further; I was given an example not too long ago about the frustration of people in Northern Ireland at not being able to secure a supply of trees from Great Britain to plant in the Queen’s canopy to mark the platinum jubilee, because of the threat to the single market. The last time I saw trees uproot and walk across a border was in “Game of Thrones”—I happily commend the “Game of Thrones” studio tour to everybody in this Chamber when they visit Northern Ireland—but that is not a real threat to the EU single market.

The lack of progress and the subsequent failure of the Northern Ireland power-sharing arrangements is exactly why we as a Government must be prepared to act in the best interests of Northern Ireland and for the stability and delivery of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

Karin Smyth

The Secretary of State talks about the movement of goods. When I was shadow Northern Ireland Minister, I repeatedly asked him, in the run-up to the final decisions, why he did not prepare British businesses better for the agreement he had made. He consistently said, “There is unfettered access, always, both ways.” Why were British businesses not prepared for the deal he agreed?

Brandon Lewis

We have delivered unfettered access from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. I appreciate that hon. Lady is talking about where we do have real challenges, with goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. There were flexibilities and vagueness, and some areas of the protocol, in terms of implementation, were not resolved. That was why we had the grace periods, why we had to extend the grace periods and why we now have the standstill. That is exactly why the EU’s offer, which it pretends provides flexibility, is a backwards step from where we are today; and it is why nobody in this House should accept it unless they are determined to do damage to Northern Ireland.

This legislation will fix the practical problems that the protocol has created in Northern Ireland. It will enable us to avoid a hard border, protect the integrity of the United Kingdom and safeguard the EU single market. The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) spoke at some length—more than half an hour—in his opening remarks, and yet in the totality of those remarks we heard no plan, no proposal and no alternative from the Labour party, just words. The same goes for the hon. Member for Hove.

There were two interesting points, however. The right hon. Member for Tottenham raised Magna Carta to show the importance of treaties. He is right that Magna Carta is an important piece of our history, but he may want to recall that there were 63 clauses in it, and treaties evolve; that is why only four of them remain in place today. He also outlined, and I quote:

“In our discussions, the DUP had consistently said that it wanted a negotiated settlement”.

I gently say to him that that seemed to be a surprise to all the DUP Members, so he learned something else—[Interruption.] He talks from a sedentary position, but he might want to check Hansard.

As I say, what we have heard is an outline of noise without any real proposals or any alternative. Many hon. Members, however, have raised important points around the question of legality, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) and for North Dorset (Simon Hoare). I can assure the House that this Bill is not just necessary, but lawful. Proceeding with this Bill is legal in international law and in support of our prior obligations to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The protocol is undermining all three strands of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, as the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) well outlined, and the institutions that underpin it. It is the Government’s assessment that this Bill is currently the only way to provide the means to alleviate the socio-political conditions while continuing to support the protocol’s overall objectives of including and supporting north-south trade and co-operation, in the interests of both the EU and the UK, by ensuring that we protect its single market while protecting the UK’s internal market. These are all aspects of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

We recognise that necessity can only exceptionally be invoked in lawfully justified non-performance of international obligations, as was covered very eloquently by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon. This is a genuinely exceptional situation. It is only in the challenging, complex and unique circumstances in Northern Ireland that the Government have decided to bring forth this Bill. It has always been this Government’s position that should the operation of the protocol or withdrawal agreement be deemed to undermine the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, this would take precedence as the prior commitment under international law. That was outlined back in March 2019 by the then Attorney General and the then Secretary of State for the Department for Exiting the European Union. That was not just the understanding of the UK Government; it was the basis on which the protocol was agreed by both parties. The text of the protocol itself is clear that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement should be protected in all its parts. We should all take note of the important and powerful words of Lord Trimble, an architect of the Good Friday agreement.

Many colleagues have raised article 16. We have always reserved the right to take safeguarding measures under article 16 and have made the case that since the summer of last year, the threshold had been met. This Bill is the most effective, efficient and sustainable way to address the far-reaching problems that have arisen as a result of the application of the protocol. Article 16 in itself does not solve the problems in the way this Bill will. It is not only temporary but starts another process.

Hon. Members such as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) talked about the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. We have been clear with all parties in Northern Ireland that we do need to see, and I want to see, the Executive back up and running to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. That has to be a priority for all of us. We want to see that Assembly and Executive as soon as possible. The people of Northern Ireland deserve a stable and accountable devolved Government who deliver on the issues that matter most to them. It is clear from comments today that this Bill is a key component that will see the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly return, as we heard from the right hon. Members for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and for Lagan Valley. I think we can all welcome those comments. This Bill builds on that work. That is what I have heard in the conversations I have had in meeting all party leaders who want to see Stormont return.

The New Decade, New Approach agreement restored the devolved institutions after a three-year impasse, and we all need to work together to uphold the stability that it provided. We as a Government have a strong record in making sure that the institutions are up and running after too many years of hiatus. The New Decade, New Approach agreement, as set out in legislation, provides for a period of up to 24 weeks for Northern Ireland’s political representatives to restore functioning devolved institutions. I expect the parties to make full use of this time to engage with one another in earnest to restore fully functioning devolved institutions and to develop a programme of government that I have written to all the party leaders to encourage work on.

We do have a role on the international stage. The UK has shown what it stands for in the world, not just with rhetoric but with actions, through our extensive support of Ukraine, our unprecedented offer to those fleeing political instability in Hong Kong, and our leadership of international institutions that is demonstrated again this week at the G7 and NATO summits. We have led the way on climate change, as in so many other areas. That is why it is important, and we are focused on ensuring, that we are acting within the bounds of international law. Indeed, we have repeatedly emphasised that it is only the rare, exceptional circumstances in Northern Ireland that make this intervention necessary.

Stephen Kinnock

In a tweet that the Secretary of State issued on 1 January 2021, he said:

“There is no ‘Irish Sea Border’. As we have seen today, the…preparations the Govt and businesses have taken to prepare for the end of the Transition Period are keeping goods flowing freely around the country, including between GB and NI.”

Can he explain how that tweet is compatible with this Bill?

Brandon Lewis

Absolutely, and I appreciate the opportunity that the hon. Gentleman gives me to talk about what I said back in January. This highlights exactly the behaviour we expected from the European Union around inflexibility in implementing the protocol. What we have seen since has reinforced that point, and that lack of flexibility and lack of understanding of the nuances of Northern Ireland have led us where we are today. [Interruption.] I gently say to him, while he chunters from a sedentary position, that if he looks at the decisions we took last year to ensure that goods could continue to flow to Northern Ireland, he will see that we took them under criticism from the EU, but they have been vital to ensuring stability in Northern Ireland and access to at least those products that are flown overseas, as international partners have recognised.

The EU has recognised that there are problems with the Northern Ireland protocol; it is just not willing to show the flexibility that is needed to resolve those issues. We are clear that we will ensure that we protect the EU single market, a tiny proportion of which could be deemed to be at theoretical risk. That is why it is important that we get the balance right.

Ian Paisley

Can the Secretary of State use this opportunity to confirm something, because there will be businesses listening to his every word? In fact, he is probably box office tonight in Northern Ireland among many businesses. In relation to clauses 4 to 13 of the Bill, can he confirm that goods entering what is called the green channel—going from GB to Northern Ireland—will be treated in exactly the same manner as goods travelling from England to Scotland, or from England to Wales?

Brandon Lewis

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and it is absolutely our determination that the Bill will ensure a good, flexible free flow of products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, in the same way that they would move from Great Yarmouth to Carlisle, Birmingham or London. That is what we want to deliver.

One of the reasons we have taken what colleagues refer to as the Henry VIII powers is to ensure that we work with business to make sure that those regulations deliver that free-flowing, flexible process without the bureaucracy that is deterring businesses from accessing Northern Ireland.

Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson

The Secretary of State refers to an important point, namely the regulations that this Bill will make it possible to introduce. Clause 1 is clear that nothing in this Bill should harm the Act of Union. Will he confirm that the regulations that will be brought forward from this Bill will not do anything to harm the Act of Union?

Brandon Lewis

Absolutely, and that is why it was important to have that in the Bill—the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Let us be clear: for just under a quarter of a century, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement has been the foundation of peace, stability and political progress in Northern Ireland. All three strands of the agreement are under threat, as we stand here today, and that is a direct result of the protocol. This Bill is the route to a solution. It is legal, it is necessary and it is right for the United Kingdom. Most importantly, it is not just right for the whole UK; it is right for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland. It creates the environment to facilitate the return of a fully functioning Executive.

While the Opposition have voiced criticisms, they have proposed no alternatives. We are taking the decision to act to protect the hard-won gains of the peace process in Northern Ireland. We owe it to the people of Northern Ireland to fix the problems, and that is why, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I commend this Bill to the House.