MPs have won a concession from the government over the future of the Northern Irish border, ensuring there will be no physical “checks and controls” after Brexit.
In a dramatic day of votes on Theresa May’s flagship Brexit bill, a bid to give teeth to the prime minister’s promise of “no physical infrastructure” on the border was waved through successfully without a vote.
The Northern Ireland border has proved to be a major stumbling block in Brexit talks, amid warnings that checkpoints and cameras could lead to a return to violence.
The prime minister has previously said she could never allow a hard border on the island of Ireland, but it has proved a tricky balancing act as her DUP allies will not accept any form of customs arrangement that would set Northern Ireland apart from the rest of the UK.
The Lords amendment, tabled by former Tory chairman Chris Patten, compels the government to act in a way that is compatible with the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the Troubles.
It would forbid infrastructure or checks that “did not exist before exit day and are not subject to an agreement” between Westminster and Dublin, such as border posts and customs checks.
Cabinet secretary David Lidington said the government agreed with the “spirit” of the amendment, which is effectively “a statement of government policy” and said ministers would allow it to pass with a few tweaks to the legal language.
Speaking in the Lords last month, Lord Patten said: “Two of the first murders in the Troubles were of customs officers…It would be shameful if we did anything to make that more likely – it would be a stain on our history.”
Taking aim at Brexiteers who accuse the Lords of playing with fire over Brexit, he said: “I’ll tell you what playing with fire is – blundering into Northern Ireland with a policy which is clueless and deluded with a can of petrol and a box of matches in the other hand.”
Welcoming the move, a Labour spokesperson told The Independent: “Labour has repeatedly emphasised that Brexit cannot lead to a hard border in Northern Ireland or any disruption to the North-South cooperation guaranteed by the Good Friday Agreement.
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“The amendment passed in the Lords and accepted today by the government states that there can be no physical infrastructure introduced between Northern Ireland and the Republic following exit day, and that nothing in the act can diminish full North-South cooperation.”
Earlier, the government managed to head off a major defeat on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill by offering a last-minute concession to Tory rebels that would give parliament a bigger say on the final deal.