On Wednesday 29th March, four years on from when we were supposed to leave the European Union, we still find Northern Ireland trapped inside with EU law still very much applying to Northern Ireland. I made a speech in the House of Lords in support of Lord Morrow's Motion to the Windsor Framework (Democratic Scrutiny) Regulations, 2023 - the Statutory Instrument, known as the Stormont Brake.
My Lords, I welcome the tabling of this fatal amendment to the Motion. At the very least, it has given your Lordships’ House an opportunity to discuss something that has been rushed through by His Majesty’s Government. I see that they are called the Windsor Framework (Democratic Scrutiny) Regulations. We are not really having much scrutiny. We have this SI on one aspect, although Downing Street said that this was the way that we could discuss the Windsor Framework. If I was going back to my days way back when I taught, I would want to start by asking how many people have actually read the detail of the Windsor Framework, and then how many people have actually read the EU legal text interpretation of it, because the two things are very different.
I must say right at the beginning that the problem with His Majesty’s Government on this issue has been that they started off by overselling hugely what was in the framework. The Prime Minister went to Northern Ireland, spoke at the Coca-Cola factory and made out as if everything had been solved; it was just wonderful. He was almost jumping up and down with delight, as has been the Secretary of State - who I am very pleased to see here listening to us today.
Of course, there were all the things said in that first 24 hours: the blandness such as “Removes the Irish Sea Border, Restores the free-flow of trade, Protects NI place in our Union” that was a tweet from the Secretary of State. Northern Ireland people are not stupid, and Northern Ireland people then went on to read the framework document and what the EU said and, as I said, they are very different indeed.
In his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, talked about the new issues that arose just yesterday following a contribution from a spokesman in the European Parliament. I will mention that in a moment, but I want initially - and this should be a wider debate because that is what the Prime Minister said we would have in discussing the framework and this SI - to deal with the actual brake. I genuinely think it is a bit of a sham. It is similar to what takes place in Norway, which is not in the EU although it is aligned with it in certain respects. That measure has been invoked only once when Norway tried to stop something called the post office workers directive. I remember being involved in helping to support people in Norway on that issue. They campaigned and worked extremely hard but, in the end, the EU set out the many penalties it was going to impose if the directive did not go through. So I do not think that anyone should think that this is a proper brake.
Even if the brake worked and was brilliant and everyone said, “There’s no problem with it”, I do not accept that we should have to have it in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland had the same ballot paper in the referendum. We voted to leave the European Union as a United Kingdom. We joined the original common market as one United Kingdom. Why are we even having to discuss this?
It is interesting how many of your Lordships have talked about how we must compromise. One noble Lord said that we could not possibly have a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because it would be absolutely dreadful, and he asked what would happen if there were some kind of border. Let us think about why we say these things. We say them because the republican movement, the IRA, bombed all over Northern Ireland and on the mainland. The pro-union people in Northern Ireland did not bomb in Northern Ireland or on the mainland, although there were of course paramilitary terrorists on all sides.
The reality is that we would not even be thinking of talking about some kind of structure - we do not need structures anyway; even the EU has said that a border could be invisible - yet we immediately put an Irish Sea border into our own country because there is no threat there. All noble Lords should examine their consciences on this matter in terms of what we are prepared to do. We are letting violence and threats of violence attack our sovereignty. So let us not talk about this Stormont brake as being anything other than a wonderful bit of camouflage that has been applied in the hope that it will be agreed to as, of course, it will.
I refer again to what Bernard Van Goethem, one of the senior veterinary officers in the European Commission, said yesterday. One sometimes thinks that perhaps this is why the Government wanted to rush all this through because so much is now coming out about what the framework actually says and does. He said that the EU has now said that new light-touch arrangements for the movement of retail food consignments from GB to Northern Ireland will not be fully implemented until SPS inspection facilities at Northern Ireland ports have been completed and audited. He told the European Parliament that officials from the EU veterinary office in Grange, County Meath, will carry out an audit of the facilities before the new system under the Windsor Framework becomes fully operational.
He went on to say that the process to change EU law through so-called implementing Acts to facilitate the arrangements was conditional on the completion of agri-food inspection at four Northern Ireland ports.
He told members of the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee that none of the implementing acts will be adopted “Unless we are sure controls are done in a proper way. The controls currently in NI are not up to the standard required by EU legislation. We have the assurance from the UK Government that the current facilities… will be upgraded by October 2023 and that the final definitive SPS inspection facilities will be built by July 2025.” Finally, he said that EU officials will be present to oversee the operation of border control posts where agri-food controls will be carried out under EU rules. What sovereign country would allow a foreign entity to be responsible for examining borders, checks and customs in its own country?
Another big issue, one that the Secretary of State and other government officials have gone on about, is pets. It is wonderful: you can now take your pet from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Those of your Lordships who are going to Northern Ireland this summer will be able to take your pets and, it was implied, will not have to do anything; it will be like taking them from London to Glasgow. Of course, we now learn from the European Union that cats and dogs can be taken from GB to Northern Ireland, isn’t that nice of them?
If they are microchipped and accompanied by a pet travel document issued by the UK authorities. The owner will also be required to produce a document stating that the pet will not move beyond Northern Ireland into the south. The noble Lord talked about 320 different crossings. It will be very difficult to stop that pet from moving. Again, this is something the Government completely oversold. Again, people in Northern Ireland are not stupid.
On labelling, from October this year, all prepacked meat and some prepacked milk products will require “not for EU” labels. From October 2024, all milk and dairy products will require labels, while by July 2025 all retail goods should be labelled individually. Look at the extra costs that creates for GB businesses; no wonder they do not want to deal with Northern Ireland.
Of course, Northern Ireland will then have to look to the Republic of Ireland for more of its goods, more expensive goods, as well, which is exactly what the Irish Government want: an economic united Ireland. Your Lordships must not fool yourselves that this is all about economic trade; underlying this is a deeply credible move by the Irish Government, backed by the EU, not just to punish the United Kingdom for daring to leave the EU but to leave Northern Ireland out on a limb, and more and more out on a limb as more of these regulations come in.
We have heard from some of the hauliers, the people who actually go in and out. Paul Jackson, a very experienced haulier, said that this is “an irreversible fracture to trade between GB and NI.”
I go back to what was said at the beginning about all the things that are making sure of free trade, free movement and so on: it is just not true.
I am sorry if noble Lords feel that I am going on a bit, particularly those on my left, but I have another example: seeds and garden plants. You cannot transport soil from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and that was all meant to have been changed, but it has not. If individuals want to buy seeds, as they normally would, from a grower in Great Britain, they are told on the websites of all the big seed and plant distributors that those distributors cannot sell to anywhere outside the United Kingdom “including Northern Ireland”, without the consumer first spending a minimum of £250 to get a certificate.
Individuals who grow from seeds in their garden and want to get their own plants, but who do not want to go to a garden centre, can no longer do as they have always done without paying £250. How dare Ministers say that this has all been sorted? We know that it has not, but they do not want to admit it.
Noble Lords will be pleased to know that I am not going to mention duty-free today. That is another issue, and I will find other ways to bring it up and the fact that Northern Ireland has been left in limbo.
There are leading politicians in Northern Ireland who say, and it is true, that it has now become a form of a colony, the EU’s first. If Stormont goes back with this present Windsor Framework, it would be almost like what happened in France during the war with the Vichy Government: all those MLAs would be collaborators with a colonial Government, taking foreign laws from a foreign legislature governing much of our economy in Northern Ireland and keeping us in a foreign customs code, whereby Great Britain, our country, where our capital is, would become a third country and a foreign country to us. It is just not acceptable.
Article 164 of the withdrawal agreement said that we could change everything about the protocol except the essential elements. That is precisely what has happened; nothing fundamental has changed. The one thing that we could probably all agree on in your Lordships’ House is that the European Union got exactly what it wanted from the negotiations.
It held out for a long time remember that we were all told that we could never open it up or discuss it again and there would be no renegotiation. Then it recognised the need to look like it was reacting to some of the real problems that even the most fanatical supporters of the EU saw were causing difficulties. Then it secured this, on very favourable terms, retaining a huge say over what happens in a part of a sovereign nation that, having left the EU, is not meant to be subject to its rules.
We talked about elections coming in Northern Ireland, and there are obviously elections coming here. I know that there is a great feeling of wanting everybody to be united. However, I end by quoting one very senior Conservative in the other place who did not vote for the framework, he did not vote against it, because he is loyal to his party. He sent me a text to say why: “I will not be voting for this framework. I decided that this was one vote where I do not want the judgment of history against me.” That is what I hope your Lordships are thinking.