Andrew Murrison is chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee
An office vista which takes in the sunlit Thames as tourists bustle around the surrounding landmarks is, Dr Andrew Murrison admits, among the best in parliament. The Tory MP quips that staying on the right side of the whips has its perks.
And it may feel like a deserved reward at a time when Murrison juggles chairing the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee with being the Prime Minister’s leading organiser of First World War centenary commemorations. Despite the heavy workload, Murrison, a former Navy medical officer, seems calm on the wander from the war memorial that stands atop the steps in Westminster Hall to Portcullis House.
Endurance and patience will no doubt be an increasingly important trait as the sticking point of keeping an open Northern Ireland border rumbles on.
The size of the challenge was summed up in a report by Murrison’s committee in March, which found “no evidence” that a frictionless, “invisible” Irish border will be possible after the UK leaves the single market and the customs union.
“Brexit’s success or otherwise hinges on the UK-Ireland border,” Murrison said at the time. “Everyone agrees that the border after Brexit must look and feel as it does today. However, we have heard no evidence to suggest that there is currently a technical solution that would avoid infrastructure at the border.”
As a Eurosceptic, and chair of a committee featuring prominent voices in the DUP as well as the vocal Labour Brexiteer Kate Hoey, is he worried about what such a finding could mean? “No, because I think the government will get it right and I’m confident that we will end up with a solution that ensures that the border continues to look pretty much as it looks today,” he replies with confidence.
“I don’t think that will involve drawing borders down the Irish Sea, that is completely out and I suspect that there will be a significant degree of regulatory and tariff alignment after we leave the EU.”
He argues that improving Britain’s “international, global position and our ability to interact not just with countries in Europe, but the rest of the world” is what Brexit is all about, and is something that will be “of benefit to Northern Ireland and the whole of the United Kingdom”.
It is clear however that Murrison’s optimism is tempered with caution. His committee awaits a response from ministers with interest and with the expressed wish for tangible solutions on the border issue.
His faith in the process is not so widely shared by the Irish government however, whom Murrison expresses sympathy with. The Irish Tánaiste [deputy prime minister] Simon Coveney has warned that if the UK has not proposed a solution to the frontier by June there will be “serious questions” about whether it will be possible for an overall Brexit agreement between the EU and UK by October. But Murrison says: “I’ve been involved with the Stormont House talks when I was a minister and remember full well that in negotiations you go up to the wire before a final position emerges, so I’m not too keen on artificially identifying timelines of that nature.
“I do agree that time is very, very short and certainly by the autumn we have to have an agreement thrashed out, otherwise it won’t give time for the various parliaments and assemblies throughout Europe to give the green light to whatever’s agreed in advance of Brexit.”
Yet despite his stated optimism for the post-Brexit future of Northern Ireland, Murrison accepts that there is “very little upside” from the UK’s EU departure for the Republic.“I entirely sympathise with the frustration expressed by Dublin in the matter of Brexit, completely understand it. And I think when we’re talking to ministers in Dublin we just need to understand that this is, from their perspective, not good news at all. They’re having to cope with some real challenges in relation to it.
“So, I just think we need to cut them a bit of slack if sometimes their frustration becomes apparent, which is does from time to time.”
Such warmth is not as readily offered to Brussels’ key figures, and Murrison says he was “not too happy” with the draft plans that would have forced a border down the Irish Sea, as he rallies around Theresa May’s position that no prime minister could accept such a proposal.
If Murrison’s committee wasn’t busy enough scrutinising the UK and Irish governments over their search for a solution to the border problem, they also face the added challenge of scrutinising the civil servants running Northern Ireland in the absence of a Stormont executive.
With Sinn Fein and the DUP unable to end the more than year-long stalemate, the Commons committee, Murrison says, has a duty to “interpret their role liberally” and to probe the Northern Ireland Office.
“That means not feeling too hidebound in where we go for the reason that of course the Stormont apparatus is in abeyance and people in Northern Ireland are therefore suffering from a democratic deficit. So, if the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee can in some small way plug that gap I think it should do so and I think that’s the feeling of the committee,” he adds.
Murrison picks out the example of the £1bn pledged to the DUP in exchange for backing Theresa May’s minority government, as a means of how they can scrutinise.
“I hope that that money will be used to advance reforms in things like health and education and I think under those circumstances it’s reasonable for my committee to look at that,” he explains.
Amid the absence of the Northern Ireland assembly, Murrison says the committee has taken on board the lack of nationalist representation at Westminster, after the SDLP lost its remaining MPs last June while Sinn Fein continue to abstain. “I think there is a real sense in the committee that we are not there as a partisan body and that we need to go the extra mile in ensuring that the views of all parts of society in Northern Ireland are properly reflected,” he continues. “I know that each and every one of the members of that committee feel that they have a duty as far as they possibly can to ensure that they reflect those wider views. Certainly, my committee has gone to considerable lengths to consult with civic society and you can be sure we will continue to do so under my chairmanship.”
Such a vow over the importance of cross-community representation comes 20 years following the historic 1998 Good Friday agreement, often cited as the glue which binds the current state of peace, and of which criticism is often risky.
Labour’s Barry Gardiner was scolded by his own frontbench recently after he called the agreement a “shibboleth”, while Murrison’s committee colleague Kate Hoey, a Northern Ireland-born Brexiteer, was branded “reckless” after she called for a “cold, rational look” at the accord.
Murrison stresses that while the landmark deal was of “vital importance”, it was never to be “immutable and unchangeable”. “It would be extraordinary if that were the case and at some point we’re going to have to come back and decide whether we need to revise parts of it, as indeed we did at St Andrews,” he said.
“It’s not the case that it is cast in stone, it was always subject to updating as circumstances change and I think that’s what Kate was driving at.”
He adds that its importance in the Brexit debate is also “overplayed by some” and indeed “the significance of the European Union in relation to the progress that has been made on the island of Ireland is being overplayed by some”.
“Brexit and the continuation of the Good Friday Agreement are perfectly compatible. There’s no reason why Brexit should conflict with the Good Friday Agreement at all,” he adds.
In a year of significant anniversaries, 2018 also marks 100 years since the end of the First World War. And Murrison speaks of the “enormous privilege” he felt on being appointed by David Cameron to prepare the execution of the national commemorations.
“This is the longest title ever invented for a politician – I’m ‘the Prime Minister’s special representative for the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War’, how’s that?” he says.
The commemoration of a period which represented so much loss at the hands of a divided Europe coincides with Brexit, but Murrison is keen to stress that Britain’s sense of European identity being diminished is wrong. “There are those who say the United Kingdom is less European because of Brexit and what I would say is, nobody can stand under the Menin Gate and look at all those names carved in stone and not have a sense of the United Kingdom being an intrinsic part of Europe.
“Britain always has been, is now, and always will be part of Europe and intimately involved in European affairs, in my view, in general in our history, very much for the better.”
Overlapping his responsibilities, Murrison notes that a shift of attitude in Ireland struck him on a recent visit, a marked change from the days where “service in the king’s uniform was regarded as a matter not to be spoken of”. “Right at the beginning of this centenary period I was told that I should be very, very careful about exploring the Irish dimension to the Great War, because it might cause old wounds to be exposed,” he says.
“That was a piece of advice that I ignored and I think the most satisfying element of the centenary that I’ve experienced is the transformative effect that commemoration of shared history can have on relations between communities and countries.
“Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in the island of Ireland, where people within the space of 100 years now feel comfortable talking about events that perhaps their parents would have been reluctant to talk about. I think that’s been hugely beneficial.”