I thank Chairman, Deputy Lawless and Senator Chambers and members of their committees. I thank them very much for the invitation to be with them today. We are really glad to be here. First, on behalf of the committee, as a whole, I share the sadness which has already been expressed at the death of Austin Currie. I would like to say that right at the very beginning.
For those members whom I have not met before, my name is Michael Jay. I chair the House of Lords Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland Sub-Committee. I have been pleased, in the context of the House of Lords's scrutiny of the impact of Brexit on Ireland and Northern Ireland, to visit the Oireachtas on a number of occasions, and to have met many members, and it is a pleasure to see them again.
The protocol committee includes a wide range of views and expertise both on Northern Ireland and the protocol itself. Our membership includes senior representatives of political parties in Northern Ireland from both unionist and nationalist perspectives, and draws from wider expertise in Northern Ireland affairs in the House of Lords. A range of these voices is represented in our delegation today, and my colleagues will introduce themselves the first time they speak. I should add that Jonathan Caine, Lord Caine, would have been with us today but over the weekend he was appointed as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office and, therefore, has left the committee with immediate effect.
Many members were present when a delegation of our committee participated in a meeting of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs in June. At that stage our committee was in its infancy, having been set up in April. Much has happened since then and it may be helpful for me to summarise our work over the past five months.
On 29 July, the committee published its introductory report. The chapters of the report set out in turn: the committee’s role; the development of the protocol; the economic impact of the protocol, including both the challenges and the potential opportunities it presents; the political and social impact of the protocol; and potential mitigations and solutions. The report acknowledged the difficulties in seeking to uphold seemingly contradictory principles underlying the protocol, namely, avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland while at the same time maintaining Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market. It acknowledged mistakes both by the UK and EU which had led to a mutual breakdown in trust.
At around the same time as the report was published, the UK Government published its command paper: Northern Ireland protocol, the next steps. This was followed by the publication last month of the four Commission non-papers on the operation of the protocol. Our work during the autumn has primarily focused on scrutinising the issues highlighted in these papers. In September we heard evidence from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland on the operation of Article 2 on rights of individuals, a vital issue that is often in our view overlooked amidst the political focus on trade issues. We wrote a detailed letter to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland last month on those issues. In October, we held an evidence session with representatives of the pharmaceuticals industry on the impact of the protocol on the provision of medicines in Northern Ireland. This is an issue of universal concern to all citizens, regardless of community or political affiliation. We will shortly write to Lord Frost summarising our concerns.
Meanwhile our key work in scrutinising EU law applying to Northern Ireland under the protocol continues. We have now written more than 50 letters to UK Government Ministers on the various regulations, directives and delegated Acts brought forward over recent months that will apply to Northern Ireland. Last week, we held a seminar on perceptions of a democratic deficit under the protocol, whereby EU law applies to Northern Ireland without its consent, and on ways to enhance Northern Ireland’s voice and influence in relation to the protocol. We heard from a wide range of business representatives, academics and parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, sharing perspectives from Westminster, Stormont, Brussels and Dublin, and we were delighted that Oireachtas colleagues were able to join us at that meeting. That engagement was a demonstration of our firm commitment to continued interparliamentary dialogue with all those with an interest in the protocol and in Northern Ireland.
Today’s meeting is another welcome opportunity to strengthen engagement between the Oireachtas and Westminster, and between our committees. I very much hope that we will be able to build on this engagement in the coming months, including, as the public health situation improves, by meeting in person, both in Dublin and in London. We look forward to answering members' questions about our work, but before we do so, let me finish my opening remarks by quoting the final conclusion from our introductory report:
Addressing the issues of conflicting identity that first Brexit, and then the Protocol, have brought to the fore seems an insoluble problem. That was also true of the political situation in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. But through a slow and painstaking process led by political leaders in Northern Ireland and successive governments in London and Dublin, the peace process took root and flourished, leading to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent steps towards a powersharing arrangement. This process took time, patience, dialogue, and most of all trust. The same is true in addressing the problems that Brexit and the protocol present for Northern Ireland. There is therefore an urgent imperative for all sides to make concerted efforts to build trust by recommitting themselves to that process of dialogue, repairing the damage caused to relations across these islands during the past five years, in the interests, as the protocol rightly acknowledges, of communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland.