THE House of Lords has voted for an amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that could force the Government to avoid a “hard” Irish border after Brexit.
On Wednesday, peers defeated the Government for the tenth time on the Bill, in an attempt to ensure that there are no “checks and controls” at the Irish border.
The amendment was put forward by Lord Patten, a former Conservative minister, and means that ministers must act in a way that is compatible with the Good Friday Agreement.
Lord Patten, Chancellor of the University of Oxford and a former Governor of Hong Kong, hit back at those who had accused the Lords of “playing with fire” by amending the EU Withdrawal Bill.
He said: “I’ll tell you what I think playing with fire is. It’s blundering into the politics of Northern Ireland with a policy which is sometimes clueless and sometimes delinquent — with a can of petrol and a box of matches in the other hand.
“It would be shameful and dishonourable if this House were to do anything that made that [violence in Northern Ireland] more likely. It would be a stain on our history.”
Lord Eames, the former Church of Ireland Primate, spoke of the importance of the border in every part of life in Northern Ireland.
He said: “Connection with the symbolism of the border touches on culture, politics, social media, and education. It covers the entire breadth of the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland.”
He told peers “I told you so” because of his previous warnings of how difficult a problem the Irish border would become in the Brexit debate.
He did not vote for the amendment, however.
He noted that the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has been in Northern Ireland this week and had said: “The EU will not allow the conversations to go on until there is sufficient movement by the United Kingdom on the question of the border.”
Lord Eames rejoined: “In any negotiation there has to be compromise and give and take. Did the chief negotiator mean that there will be a lot of give and take once we move on the border; or was he saying: ‘We will move if you move’?
“Was he going even deeper? Was he warning us that, ‘Unless certain requirements in the control and operation of our border are met according to our terms, we will not continue to help you to get Brexit’? This might be unimaginable to those who see the road to Brexit as paved with gold, but I suggest that there is a lot more to it.”
The Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, also voted against the amendment. Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a former Bishop of Oxford, voted for it. The amendment was carried by 67 votes.
In response to the vote, Jenny Chapman, the Shadow Brexit minister, said: “This vote sends a clear signal to the Government that they must urgently find a solution to the Northern Ireland border.
“Ill-conceived compromises and unrealistic technological solutions are simply not good enough.”
The defeat is the latest for the Government on the Withdrawal Bill. Earlier this week, peers, including the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, voted for an amendment that could allow Parliament to force ministers to reopen negotiations in a “no-deal” scenario.
Explaining his support for the amendment, Bishop Baines said: “I keep hearing in this debate the language of ‘telling the House of Commons what to do’.
“Call me ignorant, but I did not think that that was what we were doing. I thought the role of the House of Lords was to scrutinise, improve, and ask the Government to think again.”
On Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said that Theresa May had promised the Cabinet a “robust” response to the string of defeats the Government has suffered on the Withdrawal Bill when it returns to the House of Commons, The Guardian reported.
The Withdrawal Bill continues at report stage in the House of Lords.