I thank the Chairman for his kind welcome and also the staff of the Seanad who have been very helpful in making arrangements for today from my point of view. I bring the Members greetings from the House of Lords, their sister chamber on the other side of the water. I especially appreciate being here not just because of the subject, but I understand the Members will be moving out of this Chamber in the near future to allow for renovations. That is also planned for the Parliament in Westminster once the complicated and very expensive business of contracts and where to put us during the work on the building is sorted out. It is a delight to be here again in this building.
I am very grateful to the Members for facilitating the sitting today because I was in Colombia on peace process business; I came back yesterday. I mention that because one of the things that has struck me in being involved in the Colombian process is their failure to understand the importance of something we learned in the Irish peace process, that is, the fundamental significance of the relationships between various important groups. The Members will recall that in our process North, South, east and west, we identified three key sets of relationships between unionists and nationalists in the North, between people in the North and in the South and between Britain and Ireland. Of course, the relationship with the United States was important and, particularly as we are thinking about it today, the relationship with Europe, but the three key sets of relationships in our process were the three that I have mentioned. We established the process in three strands, each mirroring in its content and membership those who represented those relationships. The form of the process followed the function of addressing those relationships rather than the reverse.
In Colombia, they worked extremely hard. They have gone around the world trying to identify all sorts of useful processes, but they have not understood the significance of these historic disturbed relationships. That is a problem in the European Union itself. The EU was a peace process. The purpose of the whole European project was to ensure there would never again be a terrible war in Europe so all the instruments with which we have become familiar - freedom to travel, to trade across borders, the development of the euro - were instruments to the purpose of relationships which would not break down into war. As time has gone on, people have forgotten about the purpose and focused more on the instruments to deliver the purpose. That is one of the reasons the project has got itself into some difficulty and it may well be one of the important reasons we are having to address, unfortunately, the question of Brexit.
I will not focus on all three sets of relationships. The committee has had many sittings to address a number of them. In particular, I will not focus on the relationship between the rest of the United Kingdom and Ireland because although it is very important - economically, it may be more substantial than the relationships between North and South and in some ways more complex to address - I will focus more on the relationship between North and South and also the relationships within Northern Ireland. I will explain the reason I believe that is relevant shortly.
Unfortunately, the North-South relationship is less of an issue in economic terms than we would wish. I would rather there was a great deal more economic to and fro between North and South, but in percentage issues, with the exception of agriculture and agrifood business, and possibly of electricity and energy, we would like to grow the economy and the economic relationship between North and South much more. There is, however, an issue of individual people moving backwards and forwards, many of them every day, living on one side of the Border and working on the other side. As we all know, in the past few years that has been a great deal easier for many people in practical terms. I find it very encouraging that none of the political parties, North or South, wants a hard Border. That would not have been the case a number of years ago. Some political parties in the North would have been very keen to emphasise the Border and to make it a very hard Border. The consequence of the peace process, working together over a period of time and appreciating the value of that, means that nobody, including now the largest party in Northern Ireland, the DUP, wants a hard Border.
It is very positive that among all the parties now there is an attitude that we want to make sure that as little harm as possible comes from the consequences of Brexit. However, there is less free movement than we would sometimes like to believe. When I was working as a doctor and psychiatrist, I was keen to encourage the secondment of doctors, particularly young doctors in training, to the South and from the South to the North. I also talked to some people in the police because I thought it would be good if we could have some secondment backwards and forwards between the police services. It is funny what really gets in the way. It was not professional recognition or salaries, but pensions. There was a huge problem about making sure that if somebody went North or South, they did not lose out on pension contributions. When I spoke to some colleagues in a couple of other countries about this, they said it was the same with them. Freedom of movement is one thing and professional recognition is another, but sometimes it is these practical national issues that get in the way.
When we think about the question of the free movement of people and what they can do, there are other places to which we can look to see the consequences, positive and negative, helpful and otherwise, not only with the movement of people, but also other things. We think very much about the freedom of movement between countries in the European Union and I mentioned, for example, professional recognition. If one goes to work in the United States or Canada as a doctor, one will get one's professional recognition in one province in Canada or in one state in the United States but one will not be able to simply move and work in another part of the United States or another part of Canada. It would be much easier for one to move in Europe than it would be within the United States or in Canada. On the other hand, there are some quite positive aspects of the relationship between Canada and the United States. As in so many other areas, it is valuable for us to look and see what things we can learn from the experiences of others, and I will return to that, particularly in regard to the EEA, in a few minutes.
There is the importance of the North-South relationship. While it is the case that the British and Irish Governments, the United Kingdom Government and Brussels will have to do much of the heavy lifting in connection with the Brexit negotiations, it is important that there are open and constructive North-South channels. That is one of the reasons in a number of debates, particularly before the Westminster election, in March and April that I and others in the House of Lords, perhaps most notably Lord Trimble, suggested that in the event that it is not possible to get the Executive re-established in Northern Ireland - we hope this will not be the case - before the end of this month or at whatever point is necessary, that any change, and the legislation which would be necessary for any change, would keep the Assembly in business in order that it might be possible to have an elected body that could relate North-South on issues particularly related to Brexit. It is important that the people of Northern Ireland, through their elected representatives, engage with the people of the rest of the island through their representatives in order that we can address this North-South relationship. It is important to point out that it would not be satisfactory if the two major parties in the North, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, which will obviously have the most to say about this, were to leave the heavy lifting on these difficult issues to the Government in Dublin and the Government in London to address. It is too easy to leave these responsibilities to others and then sometimes criticise others for the outcome. It is important that we all take up our responsibilities to address these issues. I hope it is the case that the Executive will be in place soon but if it is not, I would again say in this Chamber today that it is very important to maintain the elected body of the Assembly in order that there are those within Northern Ireland with whom to engage, people who are elected to serve and represent the people.
That means there would also be the possibility of a serious engagement within Northern Ireland about these questions. When the issue of the referendum arose, knowing that I was a very committed remainer, as people describe it now, some of my colleagues in the Liberal Democrats asked me: "Are you going to run a campaign for remain in Northern Ireland?" I said, "No, I am not". They said, "Why, do you not believe in it?", and I said, "Absolutely, I do." However, if we were to run an effective campaign to remain, I know what would happen. The community would split down all the old usual dividing lines and Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance would also say "remain" and the two main unionist parties would say "Brexit". All we would have done would be to deepen the division in the community on yet another issues. Those colleagues asked me: "What are you going to do? Are you going to ignore it?" I said: "No, on the contrary, we are going to be very active about it. We are going to have a community initiative and we are going to create a public conversation in which we address all of these issues." The young man who is accompanying me today, Mr. Conor Houston, was responsible together with my colleague, Eva Grosman, in the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building in Belfast, for creating what was the only significant public initiative in the run up to the referendum and since then, called "EU Debate NI". That brought on to platforms in meetings of people from the Border areas, including lawyers, farmers, business people, students and others, people across the range of views on the remain side and the Brexit side to have a serious conversation about the implications. It was extremely successful not only because it enabled people to talk about it, but because there was not the polarisation and the vitriol that there was in England over the question. People were able to have a good conversation about it and the Ulster Unionist Party in the end took a position that it would vote to remain. The Democratic Unionist Party said that it had discussed and thought about it but, on balance, it would vote for Brexit, but they also decided that, on balance, it was not a question of splitting in a partisan way. That is important when we examine these questions in Northern Ireland, where it is so easy for us to fall into divisions, that we find it possible to explore the practicalities we face, and there are some real practical difficulties that we face.
What are these practicalities? It is not too difficult to identify what the problems might be, but it is quite difficult to be clear on what size they will be. For example, in terms of getting facts, some estimates of the Northern Ireland balance of payments with other parts of the EU have suggested there may be a surplus of some hundreds of millions of sterling but a more recent Northern Ireland Assembly research paper suggested a deficit of about £2 billion. The facts are quite difficult to come to grips with and in many ways we will have to wait and see whether all the problems we expect are as great as we fear or whether they are even worse that we imagine. There are some benefits, for example, to being in the European Union, which we do not need to lose. I cite the simple example of mobile phones. As Members of Seanad, the Senators undoubtedly travel a good deal not only within Ireland, but beyond it, and they will know that excessive roaming charges have now been reduced by the European Union, which is of great benefit. This was a problem not only when we went to other parts of Europe, but in Northern Ireland if one used one's phone not even near the Border, but in Portrush or Portstewart, one was often caught with having to pay international roaming charges because the nearest mast was in Donegal. Some people have suggested there will be a return to roaming charges, but there is no need for that if, for example, the UK Government were to say to the telephone companies that it would only give them a licence if they were to continue to address roaming charges in the way that they do with the rest of the EU, and they would not be given a licence unless they did that and could be held to that.
There may be some issues that do not have to be as bad and they may some that will be worse. It will be difficult to be sure what the result will be in advance. We have to explore all the questions and perhaps examine the possibility of having more information technology for traceability of people and movements between Britain and Ireland.
On that point, I should point out that things are not actually frightfully consistent, even at present. When I came over from London this morning, I showed my passport. I will travel to Belfast on the train this evening and may or may not use my passport. When I return to Britain on the ferry, I will not use my passport at all, but if I travel on some flights, I will have to use my passport as photo ID. There is an idea that there is complete consistency and that problems will be created because of inconsistencies due to Brexit, but the truth is that we are not as consistent as we might like to believe we are. If we think about and discuss the issue more and come to an agreement, we may find ourselves being able to be more consistent and provide for better traceability. In Ireland we are very used to the traceability of animals but less so of people. Perhaps we might be more able to trace the movements of people in a way that is accepting of their privacy and does not intrude excessively into it. Where, for example, we need customs checks and checks on the movement of goods and services, it may not necessarily always be the case that they need to be made at the Border. It would be quite possible to create authorised economic operator status, as already happens, for some companies. It is a little excessive for small or medium-sized enterprises, but something of that nature could be done to enable some companies to address these issues more easily.
In many ways, the perceptions of a hard Border, checkpoints, watchtowers and so on were security-related rather than related to customs. I see no evidence of a serious threat of a return to that security problem. I say that because, although some dissidents remain, one of the things the last Assembly elections and, to some extent, the Westminster elections showed was that the political project of the leadership of Sinn Féin and the success it had achieved demonstrated that democratic politics was the way forward, whatever one's political vision. The use of violence does not help that vision; rather, it detracts from it. The success of Sinn Féin, often at the expense of others - that is democracy, as we all know - has demonstrated to its own satisfaction and that of many of those who follow it that democratic and peaceful politics rather than the use of violence is the way forward. When people think of the problems of Brexit and a hard border as something that threatens the peace process, as distinct from the political process or economic relations, it is not as great a danger as some might have perhaps feared.
We need to be aware that moving from the current arrangements to the new dispensation does not have to happen overnight. In a very useful paper, Professor David Phinnemore from Queen's University, with a number of colleagues, explored the question of the European economic area, EEA. I pay tribute to the professor and Ms Katy Hayward, with whom we have co-operated quite a lot in the past couple of years when they sought expertise in these areas. I am sure many colleagues will know of the paper he, with a number of colleagues, produced which explores the question of the European economic area. Even in the paper, it tends to be seen as the alternative to the current arrangement or a complete separation. That may very well be a possibility. It would certainly maintain the free movement of people, goods, capital and services while remaining outside the European Union.
There is, however, another possibility, namely, making an agreement that by the end of the two-year period starting from the invoking of Article 50 there would be a transition period for Northern Ireland, during which it would be within the EEA but outside the European Union, which would smooth the way for an ultimate Brexit. This would make it clear that there was time to explore the practicalities, that is, all of the things members and I have mentioned, without necessarily trying to find a resolution for all of them within the two-year period and at the same time making it clear that the people had made a determination on Brexit and that that, therefore, was what would happen. There would be an interim period to make it easier to address some of the economic questions, in particular. The costs are significant. It is not clear to us how great they will be, but if there was a transitional arrangement, they might be lower for us in the short term. One of the criticisms of EEA status has been that a country pays the money but has little say on the rules. That would probably be less of an issue if it was a short-term transitional rather than a permanent arrangement in which, over many years, a country had little or no say on any rule change.
As a Northern Ireland politician, the committee knows that I could speak at considerable length about almost anything at all, particularly when I have a captive audience, but it would be much wiser for me to finish there and take the opportunity, if colleagues wish and with the permission of the Chairman, to have questions and answers. I again thank the committee for giving me the opportunity to speak to it.