Belfast Telegraph

Brexit Bill still unamended as Government wins latest Commons votes

The Government has won the latest Commons votes over key Brexit legislation, amid warnings that dissident republicans would target border officials if there is no deal.

Majorities ranging from 20 to 28 helped ministers ensure the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill remains unamended after five days of MPs examining it line by line, although further battles await in the final three days before Christmas.

Independent MP Lady Hermon (North Down) had attracted Conservative support for her proposal to make the co mmitment to the principles of the Good Friday Agreement clearer in the Bill although she later decided against forcing a vote.

Her decision came after Brexit minister Robin Walker offered to meet her to discuss the issue further and also urged her to work with the Government to ensure the agreement is "respected as we moved forward".

Lady Hermon opened proceedings by issuing a direct warning to Tory MPs about the consequences of a hard border, which she argued would "in evitably" exist between Northern Ireland and the Republic if the UK and EU failed to agree a deal.

She said the UK Government had a "moral" responsibility to take care of all officials, including those from HM Revenue and Customs, Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and UK Border Force.

The Bill seeks to transfer European law into British law, and says it may not amend or repeal the Northern Ireland Act 1998 - which is underpinned by the agreement.

Lady Hermon said she believed the wording was technically correct but questioned what it meant, insisting the language must be clearer in stating its commitment to the principles of the agreement.

She told the Commons: "May I just say ever so loudly and strongly to senior members of the Conservative Party - I do not want to hear them or see them on television talking about pushing ahead with no deal. Let's just move on from no deal.

"It's an absolute nonsense, it is so reckless and so dangerous because dissident republicans ... are active, they're dangerous, they're utterly ruthless."

Lady Hermon added: "In the event of no deal, we certainly face a hard border and dissident republicans will regard PSNI officers, HMRC officers and UK border officials as legitimate targets.

"I don't want that on my conscience and I don't believe for one moment the Prime Minister wants that either, or the Government."

Tory former minister Anna Soubry had indicated she would have voted for Lady Hermon's amendment.

She also urged Brexiteers to compromise, adding: "They've got to drop the rhetoric and they've got to come and find a solution to this Brexit problem which is undoubtedly going to be a nightmare unless people compromise.

"That is why I will no longer vote against my conscience - I am going to go through the lobby with (Lady Hermon) because it's the right thing to do."

Tory former attorney general Dominic Grieve said any suggestion that leaving the EU involves "uncoupling Northern Ireland into a separate regulatory regime for the benefit of maintaining the Good Friday Agreement" is a "complete non-starter".

"Totally unacceptable to me, but I have to say I did not understand the Prime Minister's words and the agreement she reached as being indicative that she was intending to do any such thing.

"If she was, all I can say is that she's not long going to survive the views of her own political party which as far as I can see are unanimous on this, irrespective of whether the members concerned were those who most enthusiastically embraced Brexit or most vigorously sought to prevent it."

DUP MP Ian Paisley (North Antrim) said the UK Government is clear in its support for the Good Friday Agreement, adding: "It'd be wrong to add it to this Bill."

MPs later switched their attention to the Brexit divorce bill, defeating opposition proposals linked to this.

Debate finished shortly before 8pm - well ahead of the scheduled 9.14pm finish before the final three votes.

The Bill will return to the Commons next week for further scrutiny.

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