Northern Ireland

MPs support legislation paving way for return of Stormont powersharing

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris sought to reassure MPs that the measures will not reduce the UK’s ability to diverge from EU rules.

Narrow Water Point and Warrenpoint Port seen from from Flagstaff Viewpoint on the hills outside Newry where the Newry River flows out to Carlingford Lough, the UK and Republic of Ireland share a border through the lough
Irish border Narrow Water Point and Warrenpoint Port seen from from Flagstaff Viewpoint on the hills outside Newry where the Newry River flows out to Carlingford Lough, the UK and Republic of Ireland share a border through the lough (Liam McBurney/PA)

Fast-tracked legislation designed to “safeguard and durably strengthen” Northern Ireland’s place in the Union and UK internal market has been approved by MPs.

The two motions aim to give effect to commitments made in the UK Government’s Safeguarding The Union command paper and are expected to clear the way for the DUP to end its two-year blockade of Stormont.

The UK Government has said the changes cut post-Brexit bureaucracy on Irish Sea trade and ensure EU law alignment would no longer automatically apply in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris sought to reassure MPs that the measures will not reduce the UK’s ability to diverge from EU rules.

The DUP’s Sammy Wilson argued that Northern Ireland will be “subservient” to EU rules while concerns were raised by some Tory backbenchers.

The motions were approved in the Commons on Thursday without the need for a formal vote.

They will be considered by the House of Lords on February 13 and peers must approve them before they can become law.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “This package will safeguard and durably strengthen Northern Ireland’s integral place in the Union and the UK’s internal market, and do so by placing commitments in that package into law.”

He added: “This legislation will also change so that new regulatory borders between Great Britain and Northern Ireland cannot emerge from future agreements with the European Union.

“This is an important new safeguard to future-proof Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.

“No Government in the future can agree to another protocol, nor can the UK internal market be salami-sliced by any future agreement with the European Union.”

Conservative former minister Sir Edward Leigh told the debate: “What worries me about all this is not the deal as such, but I’m a Brexiteer and I want us to have a dynamic and deregulated economy.

“What happens when we try and diverge from EU laws? Will some civil servant have to sign this off?

“And will it be a question of no minister before we even get to the House of Commons?

“Can he assure me therefore that we will be able to enjoy our Brexit freedoms under this deal?”

Mr Heaton-Harris replied: “I can honestly say to him that this package of measures will not change the freedoms and powers we have secured through leaving the European Union, or through the Windsor Framework.”

He added: “It will not reduce our ability to diverge, nor our commitment to do so should it be in the interests of the United Kingdom.

“And if the legislation does carry significant adverse effects, of course the House would expect the minister to set out any steps to be taken in response to this assessment.”

Mr Wilson (East Antrim) said it is “well known that I do not support this deal” and suggested MPs should have had more time to examine the proposals, which he said were “hurried through”.

But DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “We have restored Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom’s internal market.”

He added: “There is no need for a so-called green lane. There is only a need for one lane, and that is the lane that deals with goods flowing through our Northern Ireland ports and onwards to the European Union or are deemed at risk of entering the European Union.”

Welcome sign to Belfast Harbour Estate at Belfast Port
Belfast port Welcome sign to Belfast Harbour Estate at Belfast Port (Liam McBurney/PA)

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood told Sir Jeffrey: “I think he has done a lot of good work over the past couple of weeks and he’s been very brave.”

But Mr Eastwood added: “The SDLP don’t support this command paper actually.

“We think it has moved far beyond the principles set out in the Good Friday Agreement, it is undermining north-south cooperation, and it’s far too much focused on east-west.

“Moving on from this point, we need to ensure that any future negotiation is done with all parties and both governments so everybody can feel comfortable with the result.”

Conservative former minister Sir John Redwood asked the Government to explain why 20% of goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will not be able to use the internal market lane, adding: “Why wouldn’t the UK Government, who I was told were in charge, want to ensure that practically all goods could use the internal market lane?”

Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker replied: “The point here is that 80% of the goods going on that route are staying in Northern Ireland, they’re UK goods.

“The 20% are goods which are going on to the European Union.”

DUP MP Carla Lockhart (Upper Bann) said, if laws were imposed on England, Wales or Scotland by a “foreign parliament”, it would be seen as “outrageous”.