HC Deb 14 December 1965 vol 722 cc1094-7
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

As the House will know, we have been having discussions with the Government of the Irish Republic over the past few months about the possibility of establishing a Free Trade Area between our two countries. I am glad to say that these negotiations have now been concluded successfully, and I am signing with Mr. Lemass this evening the Agreement establishing a Free Trade Area. I am arranging for a copy of the Agreement, and related documents, to be placed in the Library, and for its publication in a White Paper in the next day or so. I am sure that hon. Members will share my pleasure at this significant and satisfactory development in our relations with the Republic of Ireland.

Mr. Heath

The whole House will like to welcome an Agreement of this kind, but the Prime Minister will acknowledge that his statement tells us very little other than that agreement has been reached. Can he tell us a little more about the scope of the Agreement? Can he tell us how it affects other trade agreements with Commonwealth countries and with the E.F.T.A. countries? Will it require legislation so that we shall have an opportunity to discuss it? May I join with him in expressing the hope that the Agreement will enable relations between Ulster and Eire to become even closer as a result of the initiative taken by the Prime Minister of Ulster and the Prime Minister of Eire?

The Prime Minister

I share the right hon. Gentleman's views about relations between Ulster and the Republic; and also his tribute to the initiative taken last year. The House will wish to study the Agreement—it is rather long and I would not take up too much of the time of the House—but it does include a reduction of our tariffs on industrial goods by ten annual instalments of 10 per cent. The Agreement concerns certain agricultural questions, including store cattle and carcase meat, and about trade both ways for agriculture and fishery products. There is a special section on cotton textiles, certain aspects of the butter quota, and so on.

The Agreement enters into force on 1st July next year. I think that legislation will be required for certain parts of it, which will give the House a chance, at any rate, to debate some of the subjects in it. We have had E.F.T.A. and Commonwealth interests very closely in mind throughout the negotiations, and nothing we have done in any way weakens our relations with E.F.T.A. The right hon. Gentleman will, of course, be aware of the statement made in the Irish Parliament by Mr. Lemass and others about their intentions in regard to that aspect.

Mr. Hector Hughes

As the matter is of such great international importance, will my right hon. Friend go a step further than placing a copy of the Agreement in the Library by issuing the Agreement as a White Paper?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I said that we would publish the Agreement in full in the White Paper.

Mr. Godber

Will the. Prime Minister tell us a little more about the agricultural side of the Agreement? In particular, what effect will it have on guaranteed prices and on store cattle coming to this country? Will it increase this trade, as this is an important matter for the home market? What is the benefit to the carcase meat trade?

The Prime Minister

I would prefer the right hon. Gentleman to study the White Paper with all its details. I can assure him that while the Agreement involves concessions in respect of agriculture—as it must in any Anglo-Irish free trade area—my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has been very much in the centre of these negotiations, and I can certainly say that the Agreement will not in any way harm or prejudice the position of our own farmers and the plans announced for their future.

Mr. Duffy

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will give the greatest satisfaction to many of his hon. Friends—one cannot presume to speak for all hon. Members on both sides of the House—and that it will be the fervent wish of many of us that his announcement will be merely the prelude to even closer relationships between Ireland and England?

Captain Orr

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Agreement's general aim of liberalisation of trade with the Irish Republic will be warmly welcomed, particularly in industrial circles in Northern Ireland, but that we shall want very carefully to study the agricultural details? Can he say to what extent the implementation of the Agreement will require legislation, delegated or otherwise, in this House?

The Prime Minister

I understand, of course, that the hon. and gallant Member will want to study the Agreement, and I know that he will understand that it cannot be a one-sided agreement—with all the concessions on one side. These things have to be balanced. But I can tell him that we have had the interests—I do not know about the industrial interests, but the general interests—of Northern Ireland very much in mind. We have been in the closest touch throughout the discussions. The Agreement will require both delegated legislation and a Bill to give effect to at any rate parts of it.

Mr. Mikardo

Is the Prime Minister aware that one factor that has for a long time inhibited trade between this country and the Republic of Ireland is the extraordinarily high sea freight charges across the Irish Channel, which I think are probably almost the highest charges per ton mile of any in the world? Will he follow up this good step by asking his right hon. Friend to look at the possibility of reducing these freight charges?

The Prime Minister

I think that this problem—which, as we know, very much affects the economic development of Northern Ireland—is very much in the minds of both the Governments signatory to the Agreement. Of course, one favourable development in recent years has been the very significant increase in roll-on-roll-off cargoes, and this has done something to mitigate the pretty high sea freights to which my hon. Friend draws attention.

Mr. George Y. Mackie

Is the Prime Minister aware that Liberals welcome this step towards free trade across the Irish Channel and hope that, intoxicated by his success in this direction, the right hon. Gentleman will now transfer his efforts to the English Channel and do something about the far greater area of free trade available there?

The Prime Minister

One thing at a time. As the whole House knows, previous attempts very bravely undertaken by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition to get a free trade area between ourselves and Europe were not successful, but no one has ever thought that that was his responsibility or fault. So we will have to see what prospects arise.