Chris Heaton-Harris MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Exiting the European Union, appeared before the Committee for Exiting the European Union. I asked the Minister responsible for No Deal planning if he has conducted any research into the possible effects of No Deal on potential calls for reunification in Ireland, given possibility of an Irish Referendum under the Good Friday Agreement.
Stephen Kinnock: Thank you very much, Minister, for coming to see us this morning. Do you think that a no-deal Brexit makes the reunification of Ireland more or less likely?
Chris Heaton-Harris: No, I do not.
Stephen Kinnock: It has been reported that the Northern Ireland Secretary said at Cabinet yesterday that a so-called border poll on the reunification of Ireland was far more likely if the UK crashes out of the EU without a withdrawal agreement. Do you not agree with the Northern Ireland Secretary?
Chris Heaton-Harris: I was not at Cabinet to hear those words uttered. Thank you for elevating me into the Cabinet. I very much appreciate it.
Stephen Kinnock: I was saying it was widely reported and has not been denied.
Chris Heaton-Harris: Lots of things are widely reported. You will have to ask the Northern Ireland Secretary that.
Stephen Kinnock: Given the terms of the Good Friday agreement and that an Irish referendum can only be called by the Northern Ireland Secretary if there is evidence that a majority in Northern Ireland would support reunification, if we end up crashing out of the European Union without a deal, do you not think that Sinn Féin would immediately request a referendum in Northern Ireland?
Chris Heaton-Harris: First, I have not spoken to a Sinn Féin Member in this place since the general election in 2017. Secondly, that is a matter for those people responsible. I would just push back slightly. We would not be crashing out of the European Union without a deal on 29 March this year. A huge amount of preparation has gone on. I would much prefer to have a deal. If you and your parliamentary colleagues cannot bring yourselves to vote for the deal that is on the table, we will leave without a deal. A huge amount of preparation has gone into making that suboptimal outcome as comfortable as possible.
Stephen Kinnock: Your role is to assess all the risks and I am sure you see opportunities there as well so, for the sake of argument, let us call them risks and opportunities that relate to leaving the European Union without a deal. Do you agree that one of those is a risk to the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom that is represented by a no-deal outcome?
Chris Heaton-Harris: No.
Stephen Kinnock: You do not think that leaving the UK with a no-deal outcome entails any risk of the potential break-up of the United Kingdom.
Chris Heaton-Harris: No.
Stephen Kinnock: Can you explain why not? If you were drawing up a scale of 1 to 10, with no deal versus a deal versus other options, would you seriously argue that leaving with no deal would have no impact on the risk of a break-up of the United Kingdom and, specifically, the reunification of Ireland?
Chris Heaton-Harris: I genuinely believe the union is a very strong union and it would maintain its strength.
Stephen Kinnock: It is correct that, under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, it is possible to hold a referendum in Northern Ireland if the Northern Ireland Secretary has clear evidence that a majority in Northern Ireland would support reunification. Is that true, yes or no?
Chris Heaton-Harris: It has been ever since that agreement was signed.
Stephen Kinnock: Do you agree that leaving the European Union without a deal increases the likelihood of support for a referendum in Northern Ireland?
Chris Heaton-Harris: No.
Stephen Kinnock: Why not?
Chris Heaton-Harris: I just do not. It is a personal belief. I have not travelled to Northern Ireland for a number of months. It is a personal belief. I do not.
Stephen Kinnock: That is just a personal belief. In your role as the Minister responsible for assessing the risks that are associated with no deal, you have not conducted any deeper research into what most people would think is quite an important issue, the future of our union.
Chris Heaton-Harris: The future of our union is strong and I have every confidence in it being maintained.
Stephen Kinnock: Can you confirm that, in your role as the Minister responsible for assessing the risks around a no-deal outcome, no research, thinking or discussion has been done on the scenario whereby we leave the EU without a deal and the impact that has on the likelihood that a party such as Sinn Féin would immediately request a referendum in Northern Ireland? No work has been done on assessing that risk.
Chris Heaton-Harris: I confirm that I have not commissioned nor have I seen any work on that basis.
Stephen Kinnock: Do you think it is a responsible attitude of the Government not to be commissioning some work, thinking and assessing the political risks, on what most people would consider is an important issue, the future of our union?
Chris Heaton-Harris: I am sure that the Northern Ireland Secretary and the Northern Ireland Office consider all sorts of matters relating to that on an ongoing basis and have done ever since the Good Friday agreement was signed.
Stephen Kinnock: I recognise this was reported in the media, but it has not been denied. The Northern Ireland Secretary told the Cabinet yesterday that leaving the EU without a deal would significantly increase the chances of a so-called border poll in Northern Ireland. Do you not think that the Brexit Department and the Northern Ireland Office should co-ordinate and work closely together to assess the risk of a request to have a referendum in Northern Ireland, which in essence would have to be accepted by the Northern Ireland Secretary under the terms of the Good Friday agreement? Were you surprised to read the report of what she said?
Chris Heaton-Harris: Forgive me, Mr Kinnock, but I refuse to comment on leaks of that nature. You are more than welcome to ask the Northern Ireland Secretary herself.