British ministers have a “shocking” misunderstanding of Northern Ireland’s unique post-Brexit circumstances, a joint session of four Westminster committees has announced.
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee joined with the Northern Ireland, Scottish and Welsh Affairs Committees to hear testimony on the union capacity of the government.
Minister Michael Gove and Sue Gray, who recently left the Northern Ireland civil service to take on a role in Whitehall as second permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office, appeared as witnesses on Thursday.
MEPs asked questions about how the Northern Ireland Protocol, designed to protect the peace process by avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, works.
The protocol angered trade unionists by effectively creating a barrier between Britain and Northern Ireland leaving the region bound by a series of EU customs and regulatory rules.
Mr Gove told committees he is working to ensure that every department in government understands how the protocol works and can communicate it to businesses.
Labor MP Karin Smyth said: ‘It was perhaps surprising that Lord Frost (the government adviser on Brexit) said last week that the government and ministers may not have understood the protocol that they had actually drafted.
âI agree with Lord Frost; the level of ignorance among many ministers speaking in the shipping box that the UK does not understand the very different situation of Northern Ireland has really been quite shocking.
“How can you help officials understand this complicated relationship when, with all due respect, UK ministers are really ignoring the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland.”
Mr Gove replied: ‘There has at times been a tendency to compartmentalize knowledge about the precise functioning of government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and there has been a tendency to outsource to the NIO (Northern Ireland Office). But there has been significant improvement throughout Whitehall.
âOne of the reasons I’m so happy that Sue (Gray) has been appointed is that she brings direct experience of working in the executive, leading the Northern Ireland Civil Service Finance Department. She is an experienced warrior from Whitehall. She is not afraid to speak the truth to power. “
DUP MP Ian Paisley asked how the protocol was consistent with efforts to strengthen the union of Northern Ireland and Britain.
He said: “How is the Northern Ireland Protocol going to strengthen the union when every trade unionist seems to think this is an absolutely utter and utter disaster for Northern Ireland?”
Mr. Gove said: âThis is a huge problem. The NI protocol contains significant challenges and David (Lord Frost) worked to address them, but it is also true, as a number of business organizations in Northern Ireland have pointed out, that a properly functioning protocol can provide advantages.
âIt’s important to face challenges, but also to keep an eye out for opportunities, and I think David was right in his approach of emphasizing to the EU that it has a responsibility to help make it happen. face.
âThere are people in the EU who tend to see the Good Friday Agreement only in terms of North / South relations and they did not appreciate both the balance in Northern Ireland and the importance East / West relations. “
Labor MP Geraint Davies asked if the changing circumstances brought about by Brexit increase the likelihood of a referendum on the unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic.
He said: âThe Good Friday deal has an ease, that if the mood in Northern Ireland is where they want a referendum on unification with Ireland, they should have one.
âSince in the event of reunification they would all be part of the single market and customs union, there may be a change of mood there. Is this something the government would consider allowing if the mood changed? “
Mr Gove replied: âThere are provisions under which a border poll could be organized, but it is not a question of mood, there are stricter tests than that.
âThe majority of people in Northern Ireland vote for parties that believe in the UK. While the coalition government in Dublin is keen to improve work across the island of Ireland, it is also very clear that now is not the time for any kind of border poll.
âFor my part, I am proud of the fact that the majority of people at NI want to stay in the UK. I think it’s fantastic that over the past 100 years we’ve benefited so much from Northern Ireland’s membership in our country.
âWe are so lucky that Northern Ireland is part of the UK. Of course the future of Northern Ireland belongs to the people of Northern Ireland but I just hope they will continue to be part of the UK because it is wonderful for us to work together. “