Belfast Telegraph

UK-Irish relations 'too important for game-playing' during Brexit talks

Stability in Northern Ireland and closer UK-Irish relations must not become "collateral damage" of Brexit, a former top diplomat has warned.

Independent crossbench peer Lord Jay of Ewelme also backed calls against the Government using the issue of the border between the Republic and Ulster "as a pawn" in divorce talks with Brussels.

Lord Jay, who served as British ambassador in Paris and is a former head of the diplomatic service, told peers the potential implications of Brexit for Ireland, both north and south, were "far too serious for game-playing".

The peer made his comments during a debate on a report by the House of Lords EU Committee, entitled Brexit: UK-Irish Relations.

The UK's only European land border is between Northern Ireland and the Republic and the committee said Brexit was a "huge challenge" for Ireland.

The report called for continuation of the open land border between the UK and Ireland and ease of movement across the sea boundary between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Opening the debate, committee member Lord Jay pointed to its findings that "strengthened checks for UK and Irish citizens at the sea boundary between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would be politically divisive and inherently undesirable".

He said: "Maintaining an open Irish land border is essential.

"Any re-imposition of border controls or restriction on the movement of goods would be fraught with danger, but moving the border to the Irish Sea is not a price worth paying."

Highlighting recent warnings against the Irish border being used "as a pawn to press the EU into agreeing a broader trade deal", Lord Jay added: "The potential implications of Brexit for Ireland, north and south, are far too serious for game-playing."

He went on: "Closer UK-Irish relations and stability in Northern Ireland need not and must not become collateral damage of Brexit.

"In an era of blossoming bilateral relationships, after long years of mistrust and misunderstanding, the Government must be sensitive to the implications of its actions for the people and communities of Ireland, north and south.

"Anything less would diminish the efforts of all those people who have worked so long and so hard for peace across these islands."

During his contribution, Lord Trimble, former first minister of Northern Ireland and ex-leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, addressed the wider issues facing the region, with the failure to reinstate the collapsed power-sharing Stormont Executive, which he blamed on the republican side.

"Sinn Fein is determined not to do it until it has milked this situation for as much as it possibly can and they are prepared to dig in," he said.

Amid the continuing Brexit talks, Lord Trimble, who jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Good Friday Agreement, also offered a "personal observation" on "something that worked very well for myself in the negotiations we had".

He said: "If you are not prepared to walk away you have no leverage, but you must be prepared too for the insults that will follow."

Labour former Northern Ireland secretary Lord Hain branded the Government's paper on the border "long on good intentions but breathtakingly short on practical detail".

He warned a "hard Brexit" would undermine and destabilise the delicate balance of the Good Friday peace agreement.

And he cautioned ministers against "cynically dumping the border problem on Brussels" and leaving open a "back door through the Irish border to illegal uncontrollable migration and easy jihadi entryism".

Lord Hain said his major concern was that the border looked like becoming just another bargaining chip in the negotiations with Brussels.

The "thorny and intractable issues" around the border would not arise if the UK remained in the customs union.

"In my view the only way of resolving the border conundrum is for Northern Ireland to be within the same customs union and single market as the Republic.

"Either Northern Ireland alone or, far more preferable, the whole of the UK.

"You can leave the EU and still stay within the single market and the customs union," Lord Hain told peers

Independent crossbencher Lord Kilclooney said it was a weakness of the report that it did not have evidence from the main representatives of the Unionist community.

It was a "somewhat biased exercise," which had not gone down well with the majority in Northern Ireland, he said.

Responding to the statement in the House of Lords, former diplomat and independent crossbencher Lord Hannay of Chiswick said it showed to him the Brexit Secretary "has learnt the good old American advertising adage that when you have a fairly dodgy product you must accentuate the positive".

Former ambassador Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, who wrote Article 50, the procedure by which the UK will leave the EU, was scathing of the Government's approach towards the devolved administrations on Brexit.

The independent crossbencher challenged ministers over why a ministerial committee set up to coordinate Brexit positions with the devolved administrations, will only meet next month.

Lord Kerr said: "Why has it not met since February?"

The peer also demanded to know why the Government's 10 Brexit position papers, he described as "little essays", which had been published over the summer had not first been seen in draft by the administrations.

Lord Kerr said: "Why is the Government so determined, systematically to break the promises given to the devolved administrations of close consultation?"

Responding, Brexit Minister Baroness Anelay of St Johns said: "There has been continuous conversation not only between ministers, but between officials too, where so much of the detailed technical work can be done and that will continue."

Tackled by another peer over the UK Government's attitude towards the administration in Cardiff, Lady Anelay said: "Nobody in this Government would treat any member of the Welsh government with lofty disdain and has not."

Non-affiliated peer Lord Carlile of Berriew, a former independent reviewer of terror legislation, said: "I absolutely am terrified of the possibility that what has been achieved in Northern Ireland will in any way be lost."

Labour peer and former cabinet minister Lord Adonis said: "The truth is since we don't know what form Brexit is going to take, we don't know what the impact might be and how serious the consequences might be for the political stability of Ireland, north and south."

Referring to the "magical thinking" that had seized the Government, he said: "I am not aware of any border in the world where customs controls are magically frictionless and it all takes place in the internet cloud."

Lord Adonis told peers a hard Brexit would put "the prosperity and security of Ireland in the lap of the gods".

For Labour, former Northern Ireland Secretary Lord Murphy of Torfaen branded the Government's written response to the committee's report, published just an hour before the debate started, as "vacuous".

He also warned resolving the border issue would be difficult.

"Although everybody, all of us in Britain and Ireland, do not want a return to the border that we all witnessed, particularly in the Troubles, I just don't see any way out of this which is easy," he said.

Lord Murphy stressed the far-reaching importance of restoring the powersharing administration at Stormont.

"The key to the success of Brexit in Ireland and Northern Ireland and the success of the future prosperity and stability of Northern Ireland lies in those negotiations in Belfast."

Responding for the Government, Northern Ireland Minister Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth assured peers the border would not be used as "a pawn" in the Brexit negotiations and insisted it was a top priority.

He also stressed the Government's commitment to strengthening the relationship between the UK and Ireland.

Lord Bourne said: "We are tied by centuries of history, geography and trade, and indeed familial ties."

The minister underlined the need for the parties in Northern Ireland to reach a deal on powersharing.

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