The negotiating deadlock in the talks on Brexit has been branded a “car crash” by a former Northern Ireland secretary in the Lords.
Labour’s Lord Hain asked why anyone was surprised by Monday’s negotiating “car crash” in Brussels after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refused to accept proposals on a customs border.
“Unionists were quite legitimately always going to insist that they could not be put in a status distinct from the rest of the UK,” he said at question time.
To maintain the Irish border as open as it has been “alignment would be needed on trade, customs and regulation”.
The answer, Lord Hain suggested, was to apply that alignment across the UK “then the problem is solved”.
Brexit minister Lord Callanan told him: “We are leaving the customs union. We are leaving the single market and Northern Ireland will be leaving them with us.”
He said there was much agreement between the UK and the EU on proposals to address the “unique circumstances” of the border in the light of Brexit.
“We remain firmly committed to avoiding any physical infrastructure on the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.”
The Prime Minister’s crunch withdrawal talks with the EU in Brussels on Monday ended without agreement after the DUP refused to accept proposals which would have shifted Northern Ireland’s customs border to the Irish Sea, in order to maintain a soft border with the Republic of Ireland.
Independent crossbencher Lord Dykes said to laughter: “See how grateful the DUP are for the £1bn of taxpayers’ money to keep Mrs May in power without any real mandate.”
He warned Brexit was becoming a “total disaster” and the prime minister must “save our country’s future and the precious Anglo-Irish agreement”.
Lord Callanan said he did not agree and the government had to respect the referendum result.
Former Ulster Unionist leader, now Tory peer, Lord Trimble said a lot of the problems on Monday stemmed from people “leaking inaccurate accounts of what was in the government’s paper” and not making clear that proposals for some form of regulatory alignment were “heavily conditioned and of very limited application”.
If that information had been made public earlier in the day things would have gone “much more smoothly,” he suggested.
Lord Callanan said it would not be helpful to go into a “blow by blow account” of the negotiations.
“We are only half way through the negotiations,” he said. “At the moment it is an on-going delicate situation.”
Liberal Democrat Lord Wallace of Saltaire said he had always understood that if a country was not inside the customs union it could not have frictionless trade and asked what sort of “magical technological solution” could provide this.
Lord Callanan said the “unique circumstances” of Northern Ireland required “unique solutions” and this was recognised by the European Commission.
The model for the border with Ireland would not necessarily be a precedent for what happened elsewhere, he said.
Independent crossbencher and former UUP MP Lord Kilclooney said that as one living on the border he wanted ministers to know that most people in Northern Ireland welcomed the proposals for maintaining the common travel area and having no physical structures.
Later, responding to an urgent question in the Lords on the Brexit negotiations, Tory former Lords leader Lord Strathclyde said: “Can the minister confirm that the Government’s policy will not be to put the integrity of the United Kingdom at stake and will always support the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom to be treated the same?”
Lord Callanan agreed this was the case and added: “The whole of the UK voted to leave the European Union, the whole of the UK will leave the European Union.”
Conservative former Northern Ireland secretary Lord King of Bridgwater said the “sensible thing” was to press ahead with the negotiations on the future trading relationship between the UK and Brussels.
He argued the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic “was something that will emerge” out of an agreement on trade.
Lord Callanan said: “It’s important that we get these talks finished off so that we can get on to discuss the real substantive area, which is that of trade out of which will form an agreement on the Northern Irish border.”
DUP peer Lord Hay of Ballymore rejected any blame being levelled at his party and argued “the finger should be pointed at Dublin”.
He said: “We will reject any deal that would divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom and see Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom.”
Lord Callanan said: “We are determined to try and get a solution but it cannot be at the expense of breaking up the United Kingdom.”