I spoke to former Labour MP for Vauxhall, Kate Hoey, now Baroness Hoey of Lylehill and Rathlin (County Antrim, Northern Ireland), after sitting for 30 years as a Labour MP and spearheading Labour Leave during the referendum and the subsequent years until her retirement from the House of Commons in December 2019, she was made a life peer in 2020 and sits as an Independent peer.
What are your thoughts on the Northern Irish Protocol and the resulting debacle that has come from the actual protocol itself?
"I think we ended up with a Withdrawal Agreement that was certainly not perfect but, I think we need to remember back in those days how difficult the situation was in parliament and how even the most ardent Brexiteers of us were beginning to get worried that we might actually lose brexit so, I think in the end what we got was very disappointing as far as Northern Ireland is concerned but, I'm hopeful that still a lot can change in that Protocol.
The Protocol, I think, is very important that people overall understand what has happened which is because the EU wanted to protect its 'very precious Single Market' as it keeps referring to and because northern Ireland has a land border with the European Union, they used the argument that anything that was going from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland had the likelihood of not complying with EU Single Market regulations and of course they used the Good Friday Agreement to say that there could never, ever be any kind of trade border on the island of Ireland and that was backed up and pushed very strongly by the Irish Government, who used that whole question of the Good Friday Agreement to stop anything happening between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and at the time, I think a lot of people didn't really realise the implications of that, that it would actually mean.
Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, was going to be left in the Single Market and parts of the Customs Union, which meant, now that we've seen all these different things happen, which has made it difficult for all sorts of trading relationships between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and now, really, showing that Northern Ireland is separate. I've described it as being a second class citizen in the United Kingdom and I feel that people in Northern Ireland are now second class British Citizens so, the Protocol is going to have to be looked at because apart from the Constitutional aspects of feeling very left out, very abandoned, although there was 44pc who voted to leave, it wasn't the majority but, it was 44pc and they voted for a ballot paper that said very clearly; the United Kingdom will leave, it didn't say the United Kingdom will leave (and Northern Ireland will stay in the Single Market) but, apart from the constitutional aspect of us being driven further and further apart from Great Britain it's also ridiculous. You can't get things across from Great Britain to Northern Ireland easily, Amazon is not sending a lot of things; a classic example, I was ordering Winston Churchill's CD, of his speeches for a friend of mine, and when I went in and put the address in Northern Ireland, it just came up 'we don't deliver to Northern Ireland' and that's happening on a lot of things and then there's things like the pet passport. If I bring a dog from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, which many tourists do and many people who live in England but, have families in Northern Ireland, you're going to have to get a rabies certificate, a health certificate, there's never been rabies, we haven't had rabies for years in Great Britain or Northern Ireland and that's our own country.
It's little things like that, each day we find something new and I think it's pretty clear that it's going to have to be looked at, it's not sustainable."
What would your advice to the Government be on the Northern Irish Protocol, do you think it can be revised and looked at or do you think it needs to be scrapped altogether?
"Well, I don't think a little bit of tinkering will do much good. Clearly the end of March is another deadline where a lot more health certificates are meant to be coming in and I think what the Government has asked the EU to do immediately is to at least delay that for some months and to make some of the other arrangements that have been happening to put that off for six months or a year. Now that may get us over an initial hurdle but, longer term, it's not going to work, so ultimately, the Protocol has to be fundamentally changed and of course the way it can be fundamentally changed is to invoke Article 16, which is that bit that the EU suddenly decided they could invoke because they suddenly thought that all vaccinations were going to go into Great Britain from the Republic of Ireland via Northern Ireland.
There are other ways, it doesn't have to be Article 16, the government could decide to legislate. Remember we had something called the Internal Markets Bill, which a lot of the remainers jumped on as breaking international law but, it actually would have allowed in a situation where Northern Ireland was being affected economically, societally or environmentally, to be altered and the internal market bill would have given the government the power to do that and would've overridden it. I've been quite optimistic when I've heard the Prime Minister in the last couple of weeks, when pushed, repeatedly say that he is prepared to do something fundamental about the protocol but, I think it needs people in England, particularly, and members of the Conservative Party and Unionist Party, of course, let's not forget that it is the Conservative and Unionist Party, to really be making sure their own Members of Parliament understand it, because I think a lot of MP's, particularly those within the European Research Group are genuinely feeling almost angry at themselves because I think, this went through and people just seemed to think "oh well, it'll be alright" but, actually what it's been is to basically abandon Northern Ireland and leave them in the clutches of the European Union.
The problem is, if we carry on as this is, as the rest of the United Kingdom, starts to diverge from all the other aspects of European Union law, because we're more or less the same at the moment, when that changes. Northern Ireland will be driven even further away, and there will be more and more regulations that will not apply and therefore that will lead to more problems. Also, when the European Union itself decides that they want to change something, Northern Ireland is going to have to go along with it, and there's nobody in Northern Ireland either politician, member of the public or the United Kingdom Government having any say in it, so it is a travesty and it's not in anyway working. Also if you want to bring in the Good Friday Agreement, it's completely putting a horse and cart right through The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, which of course is the big issue that everyone went on for four years about that we couldn't possibly ever think of actually challenging. We had to protect the Belfast Agreement and ironically, what the EU did and what's been happening is that the Belfast Agreement, the East-West part of it, has been pretty well ripped up in terms of what should be happening.
When the EU invoked Article 16, did you think that weakened the integrity of the Northern Irish Protocol, which was already a weak clause in the agreement?
Well I think, as many people have used different metaphors, letting the cat out or whatever, it really did tear a hole in the Protocol because suddenly, after all this time of saying that we desperately needed this protocol to keep the Belfast Agreement safe and to protect it and to stop any hard border. No one's ever defined what a hard border is by the way, on the island of Ireland, and overnight, literally they said that they were going to get rid of it and they didn't even ask or tell the Irish Government beforehand. I think what's going to be very interesting in all of this is that the Irish Government have worked very closely with the European Union, over the last few of years, the EU has seen the Irish Government and the way that they can make things difficult in leaving, has worked to the Irish advantage in terms of those who would like to see Northern Ireland being brought closer to the Republic, now of course the EU have got what they want, they didn't want us to leave but, we're out. I think there will be a danger that the Irish Government will discover that they aren't as important as they thought they were and they could well be thrown under that colloquial bus when it suits the European Union.
Now admittedly, the European Union changed its mind very quickly but, I think that was a lesson to everyone that when it comes to it the European Union will do what's in their interest first and in their determination to keep the 27 countries working together. In a way it's been something that has quite useful what they did, even though it showed how ridiculous they were. The other thing about the border is that the Irish Government, because of the COVID situation, said they would be able to stop cars coming over the border from Northern Ireland to the Republic and ask them whether their journey is essential, and if they weren't, either send them back immediately or fining them 100€. So, suddenly this great, free border, that we must never, ever have a camera on, even though there's loads of cameras there already, (which Theresa May made such a thing about), suddenly it's okay to stop and hold up cars so if that can all be done, even for something as serious as COVID, then the idea that a few lorries couldn't pass over the border is just ridiculous and the other thing. There seems to be a very simple way of dealing with some of these problems if they really are terrified of things being smuggled in to the Republic of Ireland and so much of Northern Ireland's trade goes to Great Britain and not down to the Republic."
There have been some suggestions about a "smart border" using technology such as cameras and digital checks, do you think this would be a viable way forward, once we get beyond COVID?
"Yes, this is a political problem now, not a technical problem and it's a political problem because the Irish Government used it with the European Union, the border issue. We know that some of their senior people did actually say, "the penalty for the United Kingdom leaving the European Union will be, they will have to give up Northern Ireland". That was the kind of thing that was said a number of times, so they are not going to want to admit that this is actually causing, even people in their own part of the Republic, a problem because there's a lot of going back and forward. Many experts in customs gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Select Committee, some time ago and pointed out how these things could be worked, easily, to stop the problem with long delays, the kind of cross border, trusted trader schemes, there's all sorts of ways but, you need to have the will to make it work and want to make it work, and not want to see the whole issue as something that can be used for political reasons. So, I think if we can get the European Union to realise that too, that in the end, we've left, it isn't in their interest anymore, why is it to cause even more problems, and we will eventually get this changed but, it does need people to sit up and realise that it's been happening, why it's been happening and to speak out."
What do you think the Government should be doing now, to realise the benefits of Brexit and in your eyes what are the biggest benefits of Brexit?
"For me a lot of this was about getting back control of our own country, and not having to listen to 27 other countries and we've got that now, for most things. Apart from the Northern Ireland issue, I was slightly disappointed in the fishing deal but, again I think we can improve on that. I think what it needs is the Government to be very firm now with the European Union, to stand up to the European Union and I think that will happen, particularly once the trade agreement has been, finally, signed off by everyone. I would like to see the Government now look at Corporation Tax and look at VAT, especially once we get through this dire situation, VAT should be taken off all the construction industry so that we can go back to building things, and VAT has always been one of those taxes that just seem so unfair on poorer people. The trade deals that Liz Truss is going around and signing up to, I mean some of those we've had good relations with before but, all of that is going to make a difference and I think it's about image, the Government actually showing business, that the world doesn't end at the European Union level, that there is a big, big world out there, very keen to work with us. Particularly, I would like to see much, much more emphasis on the Commonwealth because all those countries in the Commonwealth have the same kind of standards on many of our issues and they all have language that binds us together and we could do much more there.
It's little things too, the fact that we could remove the VAT on sanitary wear which we couldn't do under the EU, that we could ban the export of live animals for slaughter, although I have to point out to all the animal rights people that, that isn't going to be able to happen in Northern Ireland because Northern Ireland is staying under EU rules. I said in a question in the House of Lords to Lord (Zac) Goldsmith, 'did he feel that animals in Northern Ireland deserve a lesser standard of welfare than animals in the rest of the United Kingdom?' which was my way of putting it. I think it is early days but, we've had some good results haven't we and given all the negativity of things that was going to happen when we voted to leave then, what was going to happen a year later then, what was going to happen after the transition was over. Now we're seeing that even the BBC had to put as its number one story about Nissan in Sunderland, you know all those things just make peoples' morale much, much higher and I think that's what the Government has to do, part of their job is to actually make people realise that it's not going to happen instantly overnight but, there's all sorts of little things that are going to make such a difference and we're in control of our own destiny now."
Do you have any comments to make about your journey towards Brexit, or during the campaign or anything about Northern Ireland?
"It's nice now because there were a few - it was very nice to go into the House of Lords and I'm very aware that I'm not elected there so we have to be very conscious about how we work and what we do and not try to stop the Government from doing things. There's quite a few of us now who's joined, Dan Hannan, Daniel Moylan and Claire Fox, a whole number of people who were strong Brexiteers, it's almost like a little club within the House of Lords because as you know and many will know that the House of Lords is full of very, very ardent Remainers! Many of whom had worked for the European Union, worked in the European Commission, and just could not bear the thought that we were leaving and still thought they could change it right up to the very end. It's very nice to have other people around, not that we're going around trumpeting the fact but, given all the abuse that many of us took, it is quite nice to be in a situation where we can actually remind people of how important that vote was in 2016 and how people really put their trust in the Government to get us to leave and how in the end, we left. But, it was a struggle and it was at times very, very worrying and I do have to pay tribute to really two people, Nigel Farage obviously who, without him early days we would never have got a referendum, David Cameron who gave it but, I think he gave it for the wrong reasons but, never mind, we got a referendum and then I don't we would have finally got out without the Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) and his determination to get us out. It's not quite like I would like it because I want Northern Ireland sorted but, we have achieved so much and it is down to the determination, bravery and the way that everybody out there who believed in leaving kept true to what they campaigned for and I'm just very proud of all those people and proud that now we can try and make it a really successful country and be proud of our country because I think all of us love our country first and foremost and that's what's important."