Northern Ireland

– in the House of Commons am 5:29 pm ar 26 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 5:29, 26 Chwefror 2024

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty welcoming the return of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, re-affirming the importance of upholding the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998 in all its strands, acknowledging the foundational importance of the Acts of Union 1800, including the economic provisions under Article 6 of those Acts, and recognising that, consistent with section 23(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, executive power in Northern Ireland shall continue to be vested in His Majesty, and that joint authority is not provided for in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998 in respect of the UK and Irish Governments.

I say to the House, and particularly to the shadow Secretary of State, Hilary Benn, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would have wanted to be here to move the motion, but he is travelling as he returns from a regional Cabinet meeting, and he sends his apologies.

We have now seen the return of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland following the publication of the “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper last month. I believe that I speak for the whole House in welcoming those extremely positive developments, as Northern Ireland had been without a devolved Government for two years. I take this opportunity to congratulate the First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, and, if I may, especially the Deputy First Minister, Emma Little-Pengelly, who, of course, we all know from her time in this House. I wish them both every success. If I may say so, I think the whole nation, which has been paying attention, will be astonished by the brilliance with which they are working together despite their differences on the constitutional question; I, for one, am absolutely delighted.

We have already seen what can be done when the political parties are back in government, working together to deliver for those who elect them. Aided by the £3.3 billion funding package from the UK Government, the Executive have already decided to allocated over £685 million to allow conversations to commence between employers and trade unions. The UK Government’s significant, fair and generous spending settlement will also allow the Northern Ireland Executive to stabilise public services, better manage public finances, increase opportunities for improved infrastructure and investment, and pave the way for the transformation of public services.

I very much look forward to working with the new First Minister, Deputy First Minister and all their ministerial colleagues to deliver those shared objectives, and I eagerly await the Executive’s sustainability plan for Northern Ireland’s finances, including proposals for revenue raising, following the Secretary of State’s discussions with the political parties on those issues at Hillsborough Castle before Christmas.

I move this Humble Address to welcome the return of devolution and further honour the Government’s commitment in the Command Paper to provide a mechanism for Parliament to affirm its commitment to the Acts of Union, and to outline that there is no basis in the Belfast agreement for joint authority arrangements with the Government of Ireland. The UK Government’s commitment to the Belfast agreement, in its totality and all its facets, is resolute and unfaltering.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

This Humble Address reads like a love letter to the DUP—I just caution the DUP not to get too comfortable, because I am not sure that it will be a forever love. A couple of weeks ago, the Secretary of State said in this House that we needed the majority “consent of both” the Unionist community and the nationalist community to achieve constitutional change in Ireland. I wrote to him after that asking him to correct the record, because, of course, we only need a simple majority to see constitutional change in Ireland. He wrote back to me correcting what he had said, but he has not corrected the record in this House. Will the Minister take this opportunity to do so, please?

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I will correct the record: all that is required is a simple majority, just as the hon. Gentleman says. I am sure that we all regret the confusion that has arisen. I will later in my speech address specifically some of the points that he has raised, but I will return them in due course if he will allow me.

The restoration of the strand 1 institutions is welcome news. I am hopeful that we will soon also see the North South Ministerial Council and other strand 2 implementation bodies returned to full operation, alongside the meetings of the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference that are already scheduled to take place in the coming months and which I have attended in the past. That three-stranded approach—that delicate and careful balance—honours the spirit and letter of the agreement, providing a fitting tribute to those brave men and women who, some 26 years ago, helped to deliver the agreement that is the bedrock of so much peace, stability and progress in Northern Ireland.

This Humble Address also rightly acknowledges the foundational importance of the Acts of Union 1800, including the economic provisions under article 6 of those Acts. The Government are clear that the new arrangements committed to in the Command Paper, including the UK internal market system, ensure the smooth flow of trade across the UK. As the House knows, we have already legislated to those ends.

The final part of this Humble Address relates to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. As Unionists, it is important that this Government emphasise how much Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom is valued and respected, both in law and in practice. Nevertheless, our appreciation of Northern Ireland within the UK is set in the context of respecting the core principles and relationships at the heart of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. At the heart of that agreement is the principle of consent. That means that Northern Ireland will remain an integral part of the United Kingdom, with the Acts of Union and the economic rights under article 6 properly respected and protected in law and with the sovereignty of Parliament undiminished, ruling out joint authority between London and Dublin, which we will not countenance.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Ceidwadwyr, Wokingham

When I last asked him in the House, the Secretary of State assured us that this House can now legislate for VAT in Northern Ireland, which was a very welcome assurance. Can the Minister explain how far the EU can go in legislating for Northern Ireland if we in the Unionist community are not very happy with that?

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I refer my right hon. Friend to the table on page 4 of the Command Paper, which answers his question somewhat more broadly. That table compares Northern Ireland to Ireland as an illustrative member state and Norway as a European economic area state, and goes through the ways in which the status of Northern Ireland, EU membership and EEA membership differ. Anyone looking at that table can see that Northern Ireland is in a completely different place.

When it comes to the specific issue of the extent to which Northern Ireland can be legislated for by the EU, I refer my right hon. Friend to the democratic consent mechanism for the overall arrangement—the first vote on which will take place later in the year—and also to the Stormont brake, to which we could return but which we have covered in previous debates. I have known my right hon. Friend very well for a number of years; I have followed his thoughts on this issue since some years before I was a Member, and I am reluctant to give him a very specific answer on the issue of VAT. I know he will have followed the details, and the last thing I want to do is give him an incorrect answer.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Ceidwadwyr, Wokingham

No, I have had an answer on that.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

If my right hon. Friend will agree, I would like to have a meeting with him, because I am very clear that the scope of law that can apply in Northern Ireland is that which is necessary to ensure the smooth flow of goods.

I have said before at this Dispatch Box that we were always going to have special arrangements for Northern Ireland. When I resigned from the then Government in 2018, the issue that I forced among our colleagues in the European Research Group was that of Northern Ireland. We wrote a paper that said that there would need to be alternative administrative and technical arrangements so that there could be an open border with the Republic of Ireland. We understood that there would be special arrangements. There was never going to be an open border with no arrangements to deal with it, and there was never going to be a hard border; it was always going to be necessary to do something unique and special in Northern Ireland.

As I have also said at this Dispatch Box, had this country gone forward with one united voice in accepting the referendum result, and had this country enjoyed the good quality of relations with Ireland and the EU that we enjoy today, we might have done better than leaving in place some EU law in Northern Ireland. I wish we had, but after all we have been through and the eight years it has taken to do it, I think that this settlement taken overall—the Windsor framework plus the Command Paper, including the Humble Address we are debating today—represents the moment to bank what I regard as a win and move forward constructively in the best interests of all the people of the UK, but also the people of the Republic of Ireland.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Ceidwadwyr, Wokingham

Let me reassure the Minister that the Secretary of State gave me a very clear assurance in this House that we can legislate for VAT for Northern Ireland —so I am not quite sure why he was querying that.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The Secretary of State has made that clear, but I have some nervousness when talking to my right hon. Friend because of the extent and difficulty of the walk he and I have had together; I know how powerfully he feels about these issues. I am very clear that the EU can only legislate in relation to the goods law that remains in place and we have had the very clear assurance on VAT, but if he has any further doubts or concerns about this, I would appreciate the opportunity to sit down with him, go through it in great detail and answer all his questions, even if he is not 100% satisfied. As I have said—I think now for the fifth or sixth time—I know that leaving in place some EU law in Northern Ireland is a hard compromise for Unionists and Eurosceptics. It is a hard compromise for me, as I know it is a hard compromise for him. Nevertheless, eight years on, we have delivered what I would regard as alternative arrangements in Northern Ireland—something we were once told was magical thinking and worthy of unicorns.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Westminster Leader

Does the Minister of State join me in welcoming the fact that we currently have the first applicability motion being brought before the Assembly? It is a change to the previous arrangements and enables the Assembly to vote on whether a change to an EU law can apply in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, under the auspices of the Assembly’s newly established Democratic Scrutiny Committee, the Assembly will be able to block the application of new EU law and refer it to the UK Government for further consideration, and that ultimately the UK Government can veto that law being applied in Northern Ireland. While imperfect, these arrangements represent very substantial progress from where we were, which was an automatic pipeline of EU law, with no opportunity for scrutiny, and no opportunity to block or veto such a law. We are certainly in a better place than we were before these new arrangements.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I am most grateful to the right hon. Member. Of course I welcome these arrangements. I was very pleased to give instruction to my officials that the Assembly should be notified. Beyond that, on the particular measure, I do not wish to go any further at all, because I am absolutely determined that this should be a matter for the Assembly, with the UK Government stepping back and leaving it to the democratic consent of MLAs.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I will give way once more, but I think I should then make a little more progress.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

The Minister does not want to be in a position where he is the gift that keeps on giving to certain people. I would like clarity on this issue of VAT, because it was cleared up from the Dispatch Box before that the EU would have no say on VAT matters. A Minister of the Crown should be able to say, from the Dispatch Box, that the EU has no impact and no say whatsoever on the issue of VAT. I come to this very directly on behalf of a constituent who has already written to me. In the last two weeks, he has received notification that, before he can purchase machinery, he has to provide an EORI—economic operators registration and identification —number, which is a Republic of Ireland VAT mechanism. He does not trade in the Republic of Ireland and he has nothing to do with the Republic of Ireland, yet he has been asked by our authorities to provide an EORI before he purchases equipment in the United Kingdom for trade within the United Kingdom. This has to be cleared up, and it has to be cleared up pretty fast.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The assurance was given on VAT, and I stand by that assurance. Before this moment, I was not aware of the particular circumstances that the hon. Member has just shared with me. I encourage him either to write to me or to come to see me—perhaps to do both—and let us get to the bottom of it. One thing I am sure of is that we want to get through all these tricky issues as smoothly, transparently and effectively as possible in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland, because it really is time to move on, get public services reformed, get the Government there on to a sustainable basis and allow people to get on with life as usual.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I must give way to the hon. Member once more, but then I think I will finish.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

The point is actually in the Humble Address—and the Government seem to be going out of their way both in the Command Paper and the Humble Address to make the point—that, in the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998, there is no provision for joint authority. Of course, we all know—those of us who have been around long enough—that many things have changed since then, not least at St Andrews. But, that aside, would the Minister confirm to this House that there is also no provision in the Good Friday agreement or the 1998 Act for direct rule from London?

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Strand 1 is of course a matter for the United Kingdom, and while Northern Ireland is within the United Kingdom, everyone would expect us to make Northern Ireland work within the UK. Although there is no provision for direct rule, I gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that we went to some lengths, and at some cost, not to return to direct rule at this time. We have allowed events to evolve as they have precisely because we did not wish to return to direct rule. We are extremely grateful that there is a returned Executive in Northern Ireland, but we have a responsibility to all citizens of Northern Ireland to ensure that they are governed effectively. That is why we have put in place the arrangements that we made, and I for one am grateful that we did not have to go any further.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Oh my word: we are going to have a general debate on the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

I am grateful to the Minister. His remark about ensuring that this works for all our citizens has sparked me to life. Will he set out the Government’s approach to reform of the institutions? As he knows, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee produced a comprehensive report on the issue, which to date the Government have simply said that they “note”. There is still a risk that the institutions will collapse, and the same reasons that allowed them to collapse in the past are still there. Hopefully they will not collapse, but that is the danger. Will he assure us that he and his colleagues will work closely with the Irish Government and the parties in Northern Ireland to ensure a proper examination of the rules on the institutions, to ensure that we do not end up in the same mess that we have had twice over the past seven years?

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I am most grateful—although after this I will plunge further into my speech, because I want to conclude it. Our position is very clear that any change must come from the parties in Northern Ireland. That is not to say we are uninterested—I have personally been through an exercise of considering all the possible reforms that there could be. At the end of that lengthy exercise, I concluded that no plan for reform of the institutions and their operation would work if it was driven by yours truly. It is essential that this conversation comes from the parties in Northern Ireland. I do not doubt that we will wish to note and take interest in such a conversation, but it is for the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, who are well represented on the opposition Benches, to move such a conversation forward. That is not something that the UK Government will be driving forward. It is vital that the new Executive now have the space to get on with governing Northern Ireland and doing what is very much needed.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I said that I was going to press on, but my colleague is the first Conservative Member to intervene on this theme, so I will give way.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Ceidwadwyr, Gloucester

I am grateful to the Minister. Colum Eastwood earlier described the statement as a “love letter to the DUP”, but I saw it more as a love letter to Northern Ireland, and the huge opportunities that can be seized from realising what he and his colleagues, working with all parties in Northern Ireland, have managed to pull together. Does he agree that an interesting statistic about Northern Ireland this year is the huge increase in the number of businesses registered there? I think it is up by 60% in the last year alone. Surely that is a great sign of the confidence that people and businesses now have in the opportunities in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I certainly agree about the extraordinary opportunity before Northern Ireland.

The Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 are explicit that any change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would require the consent of a simple majority of its people. The UK Government are absolutely clear that there is no basis to suggest that at present a majority of people in Northern Ireland wish to separate from the UK. Our position is therefore straightforward: Northern Ireland has a bright and prosperous future within the Union, for as long as the people of Northern Ireland wish it. That position does not diminish the right of others to pursue through democratic and peaceful means their aspiration for other outcomes.

We all remain committed to building and strengthening the three sets of relationships at the heart of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The restoration of the political institutions at Stormont will enable critical relationships across and between communities in Northern Ireland to be strengthened, with vital work on building reconciliation to be taken forward in the months and years ahead. There are new opportunities to strengthen co-operation in the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland from outside the EU. This co-operation does not threaten Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, but it can help to build economic prosperity and deliver vital investment in infrastructure. As a UK Government, we also recognise the need to invest in east-west relationships, not only within the United Kingdom, as with the new UK East-West Council, but through the other institutions, such as the British-Irish Council and the intergovernmental conference.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I am heartened to hear what the Minister has said about the importance of the east-west connections. Sometimes there is not enough emphasis on those, so I am keen to hear what the Minister will do to ensure that those happen with a much more concrete attitude, as well as what he will do on Ulster Scots and the culture. It is not only east-west in the UK that is important, but east-west to the USA. Those are some of the things I feel we should be doing.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I know we will hear from my hon. Friend many times on these issues, and he has a great deal to contribute. I will see to it, particularly with this new role I have jointly with the Cabinet Office, that the Command Paper is vigorously implemented with all the strength I can muster to get it done at a speed that suits him and me. I will update the House in due course as we make progress. I certainly want the whole House and all the people of Northern Ireland to know what we are doing and when we are doing it, and to see that we are making progress with vigour. I certainly commit to doing that. I have had this joint role with the Windsor framework taskforce for a week, and I have made some progress, but I hope he will understand that I am not ready today to commit to a timeline to all the institutions being up and running. We certainly will proceed with vigour.

Our exit from the EU should not mean that co-operation and friendship are diminished. Rather, it compels us all to work harder to invest in and strengthen all the relationships that are important to the peoples within these islands and across Europe. Our independent status should in no way diminish our friendship. I commend this Humble Address to the House.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 5:51, 26 Chwefror 2024

Whether this Humble Address is or is not a love letter to anyone, I will leave for others to debate, but it certainly can be described as a coda to the recent restoration of the institutions in Northern Ireland. As we have heard from the Minister, it addresses a number of matters that I shall briefly touch upon, but may I make it clear at the beginning that the Opposition will be supporting it?

This is our first opportunity as a House to welcome the return of devolved government, and I wish to acknowledge the leadership of Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson in recognising that, for the sake of Northern Ireland and its people, the DUP needed to return to government, and in arguing the case for that course of action so persuasively. The Secretary of State and I have both had the pleasure of meeting the new First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I must say that I agree with the Minister of State, Mr Baker, that they have made a positive start and have set the tone for what we all hope will be a constructive and productive Administration. I join him in wishing both of them, together with the other members of the Executive and indeed the whole Assembly, every success in their responsibilities, because their task—our task, collectively—is to ensure that this restoration endures. Let us be frank, however. I hope people will also recognise that never again should Northern Ireland find itself without its Assembly and its devolved Government.

It is also right that we reaffirm our support for the Good Friday agreement in all its strands and dimensions. It is important for us to do so, because the agreement made possible the considerable progress we have seen in Northern Ireland, including the establishment of power sharing. That reaffirming is also needed because there was a perception that some of the language in the recent Command Paper was not wholly in keeping with the spirit of shared commitment.

I will raise one section of the Command Paper that I found genuinely puzzling, which is what it said about the all-island economy and the Government’s commitment to remove the legal duties to have regard to the all-island economy in section 10(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. That section of the withdrawal Act actually refers to having

“due regard to the joint report from the negotiators of the EU and the United Kingdom Government on progress during phase 1 of negotiations under Article 50” on the United Kingdom’s orderly withdrawal from the EU. The report runs to 15 pages, but there appears, as far as I can see, to be only one reference in it to the all-island economy, in the last two lines of paragraph 49.

In responding, can the Minister explain what the effect would be of repealing section 10(1)(b) of the 2018 Act, given that it refers to the whole of the joint report, and not just to the reference in paragraph 49 to the all-island economy? Does that mean Ministers would no longer have to have regard to anything at all in the joint report —surely that cannot be the case—or are the Government saying that they wish to remove the reference to the all-island economy in paragraph 49? In that case, given that it was a joint report agreed between the United Kingdom and the European Union, have Ministers told the EU of their intentions? To follow up, when might we see the legislation and the new statutory guidance?

No one is in any doubt that Northern Ireland does far more trade with the UK internal market than it does with Ireland, and that will continue to be the case, but it is also evident that trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic has increased since we left the European Union. That tells us that the all-island economy is both a fact and greatly to the benefit of businesses and people in Northern Ireland, whether that is milk from Northern Ireland going south to be processed, or Coca-Cola produced in the firm’s flagship plant in Lisburn being sold all over Ireland and beyond, or Guinness coming north from Dublin.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

The right hon. Gentleman has rightly identified one of the impacts of the Windsor framework and the Northern Ireland protocol: namely, that trade is now being diverted to the Irish Republic, as firms in Northern Ireland find it more difficult to link with their supply chains in GB and are forced to look at supplies from the Irish Republic. Some of the people who are now purchasing from the Republic tell me that those supplies are more expensive and of lower quality.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The first point I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that the three examples I have just given have nothing at all to do with the Northern Ireland protocol or the Windsor framework; they were all pre-existing facts of the all-island economy, which those businesses welcomed because it is about the ability to trade, find markets, sell their goods and make a return. Secondly, he returns, understandably, to the essential problem that the protocol and the Windsor framework have been trying to address, and it is the point that the Minister made openly in his speech, which is that once we left the EU, there was an issue about the border. One way or another, a way had to be found to ensure that goods moving across that non-existent border complied with the rules of the single market. The current Government under a previous Prime Minister made a choice as to how it was going to be done. I strongly support the Windsor framework, precisely because it is an important step forward in trying to make that trade, as the Minister referred to, as easy as possible for businesses. I make that point because many businesses do not really understand why the phrase “all-island economy” should provoke such strong feelings, especially when there has recently been a warm welcome to the allocations from the shared island fund for cross-community projects that will strengthen the all-island economy, including the much-needed improvement to the A5, a more regular train service between Belfast and Dublin, the Narrow Water bridge connecting the counties of Down and Meath, and a contribution to the building of Casement Park so that, in four years, we can all celebrate Northern Ireland helping to host the European football championship. I make that point because many businesses do not really understand why the phrase “all-island economy” should provoke such strong feelings, especially when there has recently been a warm welcome to the allocations from the shared island fund for cross-community projects that will strengthen the all-island economy, including the much-needed improvement to the A5, a more regular train service between Belfast and Dublin, the Narrow Water bridge connecting the counties of Down and Meath, and a contribution to the building of Casement Park so that, in four years, we can all celebrate Northern Ireland helping to host the European football championship.

Nevertheless, we warmly endorse the renewed commitment to the Good Friday agreement contained in the Humble Address, which of course was the then Government’s extraordinary achievement with all the parties involved in the negotiation almost 26 years ago. It is only right that we should remind ourselves as a country of the peace that it has created and of the obligations we took on when we signed it. That includes, as the Minister said, recognition that the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland alone, and that with our co-guarantor, the Irish Government, we have a shared interest in continuing to promote peace, prosperity and progress north and south.

On the next section, when I read the Humble Address I wondered in passing when the Acts of Union 1800 were last referred to in a motion tabled by the Government. In the light of recent events, I felt that I should familiarise myself with the original Acts, although they have, of course, been considerably amended since. The Act of Union (Ireland) 1800 is short by modern standards—they knew how to say things much more briefly than we seem to manage these days—and contains a number of interesting provisions, including the application of tariffs and excise on certain categories of goods moving between Great Britain and Ireland. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley raised that point with me when we debated the matter recently.

Now, I do not think anyone wants to restore tariffs and excise on certain categories of goods moving, and I do not think anyone wants to restore section 21 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which required that movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland be treated as imports and exports for the purposes of forms to be used and the information to be furnished. As we were told, customs officers were instructed to conduct physical inspections of ships with daily sailings twice weekly. How many people even recall that, in 1947, the Stormont Parliament introduced a requirement that workers from Great Britain would need a work permit to go and work in Northern Ireland?

Those are not just interesting historical facts. As the Command Paper’s informative annex pointed out—congratulations to the civil servants who did the research and drafted that—the Acts of Union have not been a guarantor at all times of free and unfettered movements of goods and people over the centuries. Instead, they have framed a slightly more complex relationship than is sometimes suggested.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Westminster Leader

The shadow Secretary of State is absolutely right. That is why, in our seven tests, we talked about fulfilling the Acts of Union, while others—those who had not bothered to read the original Acts of Union, who did not know what they were talking about, who seek to rewrite history and who declare themselves as the champions of Unionism but do not know their facts—talked about restoring something, which would mean customs checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and tariffs on goods manufactured in Northern Ireland being sold in Great Britain. That is the kind of nonsense that our detractors daily pump out. They should check their facts, know their history and understand what they are talking about.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we have just had a wonderful example of the persuasive power of his argument? Whoever we are, and whatever view we hold, getting the facts right is really quite basic to doing our job in this place. That is why it is important—especially in the context of Northern Ireland—to get those facts right.

I turn to the last part of the Humble Address, which is simply talking about facts. It states the fact that this House retains the right to legislate in respect of Northern Ireland, and it is simply a fact that the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 do not provide for joint authority with the Irish Government over what happens inside Northern Ireland. That is also acknowledged by the Irish Government. But, at the same time—I welcome what the Minister said—we must do all we can to foster and strengthen the shared institutions established under strand 3 of the Good Friday agreement, not least because we have made most progress on this difficult matter when we have had a close working relationship with the Irish Government.

In conclusion, returning to the first section of the Humble Address, may I simply say that I look forward to working with all—and I mean all—Members of the House and of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and also with the Executive, as together we turn our minds to the task in hand, which is now simply to build a brighter and a better future for the people of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business) 6:05, 26 Chwefror 2024

I have almost lost count of the number of times I have taken to my feet in this Chamber to say that Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally. At last, we can now say that will be the case. No doubt, in terms of the agreement—the settlement that has been reached—there will be imperfections, compromises and asymmetries, and elements that are not for the self-appointed purists. However, there is certainly enough there for the pragmatists to allow for the progress that needs to be made.

Over the course of my time speaking for the Scottish National party on Northern Irish issues, I have had the great pleasure of serving as a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. Understandably, much bandwidth in that organisation has been taken up with Brexit and its aftermath, the resulting fallout—and indeed many of the occasional fallings out that have resulted. However, when my committee met in Edinburgh last week, there was a definite change in the tone of conversations outside the formal business. I hope I am not putting words in any Members’ mouths by saying that there was a pleasure, a realism, certainly an optimism, and definitely a realism about recent developments, but the key thing was that nobody was any longer asking about when might Stormont return; rather, it was what would now be done by Stormont to improve the lot of people in Northern Ireland now that it had returned.

Within the agreement, one of the areas that leaps out—I hope that, in time, Ministers will expand on their vision for it—is the East-West Council to deal with matters of business, education and culture across that east-west axis. Even from the perspective of a hard-bitten Scottish nationalist much like myself, that opens up a great deal of useful space potentially to share and develop all that we have in common, all that we continue to have in common, and all that we will have in common and which will endure regardless of wherever our respective constitutional journeys happen to conclude in future.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Part of the engagement that the hon. Gentleman and I have had together was on his visit to my constituency of Strangford, where he had the opportunity to look at joint matters that we could agree on, such as fishing issues including visas for fishermen, and cultural issues. We took him to meet many community groups and other organisations as well. Does he agree that one of the important things for him and I was that, although we have different opinions on the constitution, we can agree on many things?

Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Yes, when we put the constitution to one side, there are indeed many issues that can be agreed on or worked on together. That is why I find that the space that that council might offer quite compelling. It is certainly something of great interest. Now that politics in Northern Ireland has indeed moved on, it is perhaps time for me to hop once again on the Loganair flight from Aberdeen and perhaps renew some acquaintances.

In the many words we heard throughout the Brexit debate on where Northern Ireland found itself snagged, we often heard a rather boilerplate expression about a “precious Union”. That struck my ears. Those words were easy—perhaps too easy at times—for many in this place to pay lip service to without actually following through on them in practice. Sometimes it is easy to say things, but it is much harder to reflect. It seemed to us that the desire for a particular form of Brexit—favoured only by a small minority hiding behind a small majority in one part of the Union—was given primacy and priority, and was allowed to prevail over the clear wishes of other constituent parts of the Union. For many, however they voted in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, that reopened that debate and encouraged them to reappraise the position that they might have taken at that time.

I can certainly understand why the Humble Address before us is worded in this manner. The key word that the Minister has, in effect, conceded was implied but left unspoken was consent, where it applies to the executive power being vested in His Majesty. That is interesting to me for a number of reasons. Union by consent is how many of us in Scotland understand our position in the Union to work. But unlike Northern Ireland, we have nothing similar in statute to the wording of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, explaining what happens if a majority of those voting in Scotland were to express a wish to cease to be part of the UK. I would contend that in all parts of the Union there should be a way to demonstrate how consent has been withdrawn by the people, if it is being withdrawn. Following the events of the last few days, just like this Parliament, maintaining that consent will be judged by how the institution of the Union treats its minorities and is seen to act with integrity in all that it does.

In conclusion, we on the SNP Benches wish the people of Northern Ireland and their institutions well. We look forward to seeing their politicians and those institutions playing a full role in those bodies, be they north, south, east or west, and to seeing the Good Friday agreement move forward in all its strands, as we always hoped it would, to allow a peaceful, prosperous Northern Ireland to continue to come to terms with its past and be at ease in building its shared future, whatever its people decide that future ought to look like.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Westminster Leader 6:11, 26 Chwefror 2024

I thank the Minister of State for leading this debate today and for his words. I also thank the Shadow Secretary of State, Hilary Benn. It is good to hear that common approach to recognising the settled will of the people of Northern Ireland, which is that we should remain part of the United Kingdom. That does not prevent others from pursuing their aspirations by peaceful and democratic means.

This Parliament is reflecting the settled will of the people of Northern Ireland. It is the first time in almost 27 years in this House that I have heard great clarity spoken about the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland and their desire to value Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and, for as long as it is the will of the people of Northern Ireland, about binding our Union together more strongly so that it delivers for everyone. That is what we are in the business of doing, and it is delivering for all the people of Northern Ireland.

I welcome the motion before us this evening and its reaffirmation of the constitutional basis for Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom, whether that be the Acts of Union or the Northern Ireland Act 1998, enshrining within it the principle of consent, which was long fought for by Unionists in Northern Ireland but was undermined by the Northern Ireland protocol. It is important for people in Northern Ireland to hear that reasserted and reaffirmed, and to understand that this is the position not only of the Government of the United Kingdom, but of His Majesty’s loyal Opposition. It is important to preserve those core principles at the heart of the Belfast agreement. It was frustrating for us when the European Union claimed that the protocol was designed to safeguard the Belfast or Good Friday agreement and the political institutions when, in fact, it had the opposite effect because it did not have the support or consent of the Unionist community.

I welcome the return of devolution in Northern Ireland. I am a committed devolutionist. I believe that a properly functioning devolved Government, delivering for all our people, will cement Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom because people will be comfortable living, working and raising their family in the place that we call home.

I believe that the decision to foist the protocol on Northern Ireland, which had been rejected by every single Unionist Member of the Legislative Assembly, was a mistake. I am glad that we have gone a long way towards correcting the harm done by the protocol to Northern Ireland and to the very delicate political balances at the heart of how Northern Ireland operates, underpinning once again the principles—such as consent—which ensure that Northern Ireland moves forward on the basis of a cross-community consensus. That is how power sharing operates. That is how devolution can deliver for people in Northern Ireland.

The lesson from Northern Ireland over the past 25 years is the need for that consensus from both Unionists and nationalists at every major juncture. This is a universal lesson in any divided society. In 2019 in this House, the former Member for North Belfast, now the noble Lord Dodds, stood in this House and warned us that to proceed with the deal with only the support of one side would be a short-term fix and would undermine devolution in the long term. He was right. That is why it is important that we all commit ourselves today never to do this again, and always to do what we can to underpin and strengthen the need for that cross-community consensus in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland will move forward only when we move forward together. Leaving one side behind only stores up problems for the future.

Many believed that we would not succeed in renegotiating the protocol. At times we were warned—not least by the Irish Government and others—that that would simply not happen. I am pleased that, thanks to the decisive action taken by my party, we got to a point where the EU came back to the negotiating table and progress was made. We have built upon that progress through the measures that have been set forward in the Command Paper “Safeguarding the Union”. Our objective was to remove the border in the UK internal market—those unnecessary checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and remaining within the United Kingdom. There was no need for the checks and the customs procedures that were imposed under the protocol because those goods were not leaving the United Kingdom. They did not present a risk to the European Union and its single market.

The desire and the objective of removing those internal barriers to trade within the United Kingdom internal market was also a desire to ensure that we continued to have our privileged access to the EU single market. The shadow Secretary of State was right to say that our biggest market is Great Britain. We sell £12 billion worth of goods each year, manufactured in Northern Ireland, to Great Britain. We sell £8 billion a year to the European Union. It is an important market for us. It is an important market for businesses in my constituency and in all the constituencies of my right hon. and hon. Friends. Maintaining access to that market is, therefore, important, but we were always clear that it should not be on the basis of restricting access to our biggest market, the rest of the United Kingdom.

I welcome the legislation that was introduced and has now been passed by both Houses of Parliament to strengthen our unfettered access to the market in Great Britain, and to safeguard our supply chains from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, ensuring that where goods stay within the UK internal market, they flow freely. We look forward to the further measures and legislation under the Command Paper proposals to deliver on the Government’s commitments to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market.

I will not go into the detail, as we have rehearsed well what the Command Paper proposes, but I recognise that concerns remain within Unionist ranks about how it will operate in practice. There is more work to be done. I acknowledge that and we acknowledge that as a party. We will continue to work together with the Government to ensure that where more work is needed, it is taken forward and completed. That includes on areas such as veterinary medicines, in which my hon. Friend Ian Paisley has taken a particular interest. He will be involved in working with the Government to take forward a piece of work to ensure Northern Ireland’s access to veterinary medicines is protected for the future.

There is more work to be done on the so-called red lane, which deals with goods travelling in transit from Great Britain via Northern Ireland into the European Union, or goods that are deemed at risk, for example intermediate goods used in manufacturing where the product is sold to the European Union. We need to ensure that goods travelling into the red lane are only those required for the purpose of satisfying the requirements and standards that the EU sets for entry to its single market. There is more work to be done on that. The Minister will work with us—he has already committed to do that.

We welcome the fact that already, as a result of the recent agreement reached between the UK Government and the European Union, Northern Ireland will benefit from free trade agreements that the UK enters into with other countries, so that goods entering the UK and travelling into Northern Ireland will not have to go through the red lane, and will not be subject to checks and customs procedures. That represents over 12,500 tonnes of goods moving across the Irish sea; some 4 million goods movements that have been removed from the red lane and going into the UK internal market system. That is the kind of progress we can make and will continue to make to address the outstanding issues.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

The right hon. Gentleman knows how much I value his work and the leadership he has shown. On changes at EU level, the announcement by Maroš Šefčovič in the Joint Committee about goods at risk demonstrates the point he makes so well. This is not just some internal reorganisation; it has international ramifications. That really should demonstrate to businesses in Northern Ireland that this is a serious change that will benefit them. As he says, we can work through the problems and work out some of the other glitches to get them resolved as well. I commend him on that point.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Westminster Leader

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for his comments. I believe the challenges we faced as a result of the measures imposed under the protocol are now being properly and adequately addressed. For example, many goods made to British standards in Great Britain were banned from our supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland. That is no longer the case. British goods made to British standards are now available on our supermarket shelves. There is more work to be done and more progress to be made in that respect. This is ongoing work that we will build on.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

My right hon. Friend is talking about specific cases in relation to goods. Will he confirm that the intention behind the legislation is for the Government to make a positive case to companies that have stopped selling to Northern Ireland for whatever reason—whether green lanes or red lanes—to re-engage and trade with Northern Ireland again?

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Westminster Leader

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I was coming on to but is worth mentioning now. Not only does the Command Paper set out the practical and legal changes that will occur to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market, but the establishment of the UK East-West Council will also help to bind Northern Ireland more closely to the rest of the United Kingdom. I welcome the comments by the SNP spokesperson, Richard Thomson, who takes a keen interest in Northern Ireland. In fairness to him he recognises, notwithstanding his aspirations in relation to Scotland’s future, that there is real value in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England working more closely together, whether on trade, sharing our experiences on education, or sharing the richness of our heritage and our culture. Those things are important. The new UK East-West Council will ensure a more joined-up approach, so that there is more working together and more co-operation across the whole United Kingdom.

On the specific point my hon. Friend Jim Shannon makes, the establishment of the new Intertrade UK body will ensure that a proactive approach is taken in instances where businesses in Great Britain have decided that making their goods available to customers in Northern Ireland is not worth the hassle. Those businesses will be approached. Intertrade UK will seek to understand why they are no longer doing business in Northern Ireland, and assist them to restore their trading arrangements with consumers and customers in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Ceidwadwyr, Witham

The Essex constituency that I represent has a vast horticultural industry that has been prevented from sending its products—seeds and all the other goods that people in Northern Ireland would love to purchase—to Northern Ireland. This is a new opportunity for those businesses. I praise the Department for its engagement with Kings Seeds, based in Kelvedon in my constituency. We have to work through many of the practical issues that have put up barriers. People to people, we can facilitate trade flows that benefit everyone.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Westminster Leader

I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention and for her ongoing interest in Northern Ireland, which is always great to see. She is right. Intertrade UK will cover not just issues related to the availability of goods in Northern Ireland, but trade across the UK, between Scotland and England, England and Wales, and so on. It is designed, in the new environment we find ourselves in, to encourage greater trade within the United Kingdom. We have a market in the United Kingdom in the region of 60 million people. It is the second-biggest market in Europe and we should be selling more of our own goods to our own people. The purpose of Intertrade UK is to encourage those enhanced, stronger trading links across all of the United Kingdom. Of course, the Union is not just a political union; it is an economic union. It was the economic union in particular that was harmed by the protocol. The new measures are designed to restore those trading relationships to a more healthy place.

In welcoming the restoration of the devolved institutions, it is important to recognise that one key difficulty with the protocol was the lack of democratic input for the political institutions in Northern Ireland. Laws were being applied automatically to Northern Ireland—new laws and changes to the law—on which Northern Ireland had no say whatever. We welcome the establishment of the Democratic Scrutiny Committee in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which will now have the function to scrutinise laws that are coming forward. It will have the power to stop those laws applying, as I said earlier. The UK Government ultimately have the power of veto if laws are deemed to be harmful to Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and its internal market. That is all progress.

I note that some who were critical of the new arrangements and said that the new Democratic Scrutiny Committee was powerless now complain that they are unable to obtain membership of it. Furthermore, I note that some of our detractors now talk about the risk of what they call “trivergence” whereby if the Assembly, exercising its power, vetoes a new law being applied to Northern Ireland, all of a sudden that might create a problem in so far as Northern Ireland will have different law from the EU and, potentially, different law from Great Britain. But in the new arrangements put in place as a result of the Command Paper, Northern Ireland goods will be available for sale in Great Britain regardless of the circumstances. There is a goods guarantee built into the legislation that this House has approved, which means that Northern Ireland goods, in all circumstances, can be sold in Great Britain. However, I note that those who said the new arrangements would be ineffective now complain that they will be so effective that they might be counterproductive when it comes to Northern Ireland’s interests. Which is it? Either they are effective or they are not. We believe that they can be effective, and we are prepared to test the new mechanisms to ensure that they protect the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland.

Let me make a few general points. We welcome the commitments that the UK Government have given about Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, including those given from the Dispatch Box this evening, but I also note that we hear much talk about border polls, and much talk, particularly from Sinn Féin, about the need for such a poll. It is worth recalling the history of Sinn Féin’s approach to border polls. As long ago as 2011, Gerry Adams told us that by 2016, Northern Ireland would leave the United Kingdom. We are almost 10 years on from 2016, and we are still in the UK. By August 2021, Gerry had changed 2016 to 2024; well, 2024 has arrived, and we are still in the UK. In May 2022, Mary Lou McDonald called for a border poll by 2027, but then she changed that to 2030, and just this month Michelle O’Neill shifted the Sinn Féin goalposts once again to call for a border poll by 2034. But they recognise the reality—that it is the settled will of the people of Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom—and all this talk of divisive border polls is designed simply to reassure the Sinn Féin base.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

On our constitutional future, does my right hon. Friend agree that in the changed Northern Ireland that now exists, there are many of us who are proud of our British nationality and will never yield on that, while others are proud of their Irishness? Also, many do not share either constitutional identity. Only membership of the United Kingdom allows people to cherish all three.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Westminster Leader

I thank my hon. Friend for making that powerful point. The beauty of Northern Ireland today is that each of us has the right to identify ourselves in whatever way we deem appropriate, but it is evident that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland continue to accept that the settled will of the people is to remain in the United Kingdom, and that should be respected by everyone, regardless of how they identify themselves. It is clear to me, however, that Unionists, myself included, have a job to do in continuing to persuade people that the Union is best for all. This debate is welcome, but neither Parliament nor the courts will ultimately decide Northern Ireland’s future. It is the people of Northern Ireland who will decide our future in the United Kingdom, and our job as Unionists is to continue to persuade the majority that they are better off in the United Kingdom.

Let me say this, with great respect, to my colleagues, not on these Benches but out there in wider Unionism, many of them detractors of us in the DUP—those who attack my party and the stand that we are taking, because we recognise that building a prosperous Northern Ireland that works for everyone is the key to securing the Union for the future. Let me say to those who are a minority in Unionism, but who still live in the days of the 1970s when Unionism had an inbuilt majority, that Northern Ireland is changing. Its demographics are changing. We need only look at the results of recent polling to see that.

Unionism has to recognise that among younger people, support for the Union is not as strong as it is among more senior citizens in Northern Ireland. Our task is to persuade our young people, the next generation, that the Union works for them The way we did it in 1970 is not the way we will do it now in 2024, or in 2030, or in 2034. It is a prosperous Northern Ireland—a Northern Ireland that delivers jobs for our young people, and ensures that they have the best education and the best start in life—that will deliver support for the Union. That is fundamentally and vitally important.

The signs are good in that regard. Today Northern Ireland has less unemployment than any other region in the United Kingdom outside London, which is an impressive indicator of the extent to which it has moved forward from the days when unemployment was beyond 12% and we had the highest unemployment in the United Kingdom. That is what making Northern Ireland work looks like. Making Northern Ireland work looks like delivering jobs for our young people, driving down unemployment, improving our economy, creating jobs and attracting investment, and the new arrangements that we are introducing give us an opportunity to do that even better in the future.

Those are the arguments that will secure the Union for the future, and Unionism needs to do better. We can be proud of a Northern Ireland that is delivering in terms of its manufacturing industry. One in three aircraft seats in every aircraft across the world is manufactured in Northern Ireland. Every Airbus wing includes components manufactured in the constituency of my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson. We have a world-class creative industry, as is clear from the number of new films being produced in Northern Ireland. We have a talented workforce, and the costs of establishing a business in Northern Ireland are 40% lower than those elsewhere. We have unfettered access to the UK internal market, and we have privileged access to the EU single market.

I therefore believe that there is a bright future for Northern Ireland, one in which our economy grows—and as it grows, support for the Union will grow, because who wants to disrupt what is successful? Who wants to move away from what makes Northern Ireland work for all its people? I stand here today with optimism for Northern Ireland, the place that I call home and am proud to come from. Its people have so much potential, and we have an opportunity now to demonstrate potential for all our people.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

May I reinforce what my right hon. Friend has just said? In the constituency of North Down, which is next to mine and is covered by Ards and North Down Borough Council, there have been 160 business start-ups in the last year. That is an indication of how good our people are, given the opportunity.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Westminster Leader

My hon. Friend has made a powerful point. I want to see that prosperity spread across Northern Ireland—to the constituency of Colum Eastwood, to West Tyrone, to Mid Ulster, to Fermanagh and South Tyrone, to Newry and Armagh, and to South Down—so that Northern Ireland works for everyone.

Another significant point is that 2023 was the first year in my lifetime when no one was recorded as having been murdered in a troubles-related crime. Progress is not just measured in jobs; it is measured in lives—in the lives of our young people who do not today run the risk of being murdered because of their political aspiration or their political perspective. That, too, is a mark of the progress we have made, but we do not take our peace for granted. Cementing the peace also means building prosperity, because a Northern Ireland that works for everyone is a Northern Ireland that will succeed and prosper.

As a confident Unionist, I am very much at home working on matters of mutual concern with our friends and neighbours across the United Kingdom. I am willing to go on co-operating with our neighbours on the island that we share, our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland. I simply ask of them that they too respect the settled will of the people of Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and recognise that our co-operation is about working together, so we both an benefit from the prosperity that I believe can come. As a Unionist by conviction, I want to see Northern Ireland playing its full part in the economic life and the economic success of this United Kingdom. I believe in this United Kingdom, and I believe that Northern Ireland has a bright place and a bright future in the Union.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down 6:40, 26 Chwefror 2024

I apologise for my voice being a bit croaky; I might have to give up slightly earlier than planned. We will see how it goes.

I want to stress that a lot of people in Northern Ireland, including members of my party, have shown enormous patience and pragmatism, especially over the past two years, during which the Assembly has not met. I recognise the efforts made by Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson to get his party back into institutions, but we have to recognise that enormous damage was done during the two-year suspension, as it was whenever Sinn Féin took the institutions down previously. We have a lot of work to do to undo the damage that has been done, as well as build for the future. Hopefully, we can find consensus tonight on the importance of Northern Ireland having a prosperous future.

I do not want to linger on this point, but Brexit is the original sin behind the problems that Northern Ireland has had over the past seven or eight years. We have had the common theme of trying to find various mechanisms through which we can address the particular challenges posed in Northern Ireland, and of putting in place special arrangements. I hope that the Windsor framework, albeit with modifications in its implementation, can provide a degree of stability, but there is a wider point to be made about the future: the closer the UK and the European Union are aligned with each other, the less the impact of difference will be across the Irish Sea, whether we are talking about any residual checks that take place or tensions that arise about standards and regulation. Although I hope that we are closing this phase of the Brexit wars, particularly as applied to Northern Ireland, we still need to address how the UK and the European Union can find a better working relationship over the coming years. I say that while maintaining my own and my party’s aspiration that one day we will return to the European Union—and, perhaps even before that, the single market and the customs union.

As for our approach to what has happened, we have given the DUP and the Government a considerable amount of space, and recognised that there were issues that they had to work through to get to this point. Equally, we have to recognise that we have had a one-sided political negotiation in Northern Ireland, which is at odds with practice over the 25 years since the Good Friday agreement and, indeed, before that. We were pragmatic in that regard, provided we saw a situation that would not damage the Good Friday agreement, that no damage would be done to Northern Ireland’s dual-market access to both the UK and wider EU markets, and that the parties were kept informed. On all three of those tests, there are some issues that we need to air, which arise from the Command Paper.

We have been careful not to destabilise the restoration of the Good Friday institutions earlier this month, and tonight is perhaps a better opportunity to articulate some of the relevant points, rather than our rocking the boat at an earlier stage. In many respects, the Command Paper has no legal effect, and we are careful not to get too wound up about it. For some, it could be characterised as a glorified press release, but there are measures in it that may cause us all concern, and their implementation will be critical. Aspects of the language are one-sided and loaded, which perhaps points to wider issues of mindset that pose some concerns. Let me give the House a few examples.

Like the shadow Secretary of State, Hilary Benn, I am concerned about the marginalisation of the duty to have due regard to the all-island economy in legislation. Removing those words from law does not, in itself, erase the reality of an all-island economy, but there is the danger of a change of mindset leading to missed opportunities. I would be very wary of a situation whereby we falsely set the UK economy against the all-island economy; the two can operate in perfect harmony and complement each other. Of course, the all-island economy is different from the UK economy, because there are separate jurisdictions in the all-island economy. Obviously, there are differences around tax, regulation and governance—just to give a few examples. However, Northern Ireland is in a situation where sales and supply chains operate on both an east-west and a north-south basis, and the all-island economy exists as a concept above and beyond Northern Ireland’s access to the EU single market.

A clear example of that is the existence of InterTradeIreland, which the Command Paper mirrors with the creation of Intertrade UK. Another is the fact that we have the single electricity market on the island, which has been one of the great success stories of north-south co-operation. That was not even envisaged in the Good Friday agreement, but happened afterwards through sheer pragmatism and the recognition of reality, including by DUP Economy Ministers at the time. We also have the reality of agrifood movements; we have some highly intricate arrangements on the island in that regard. If we end up in a situation where we do not give due regard to the all-island economy, we may end up missing opportunities to drive Northern Ireland’s prosperity, because we have to be open to all economic opportunities that come our way, irrespective of their characteristics. That is a particular danger in relation to the Stormont brake, which I will come to in a moment.

I recognise that European Union law is an issue of contention for many people in this House. For me, it is not remotely threatening whatsoever. I want to actively embrace it, because it is key to Northern Ireland’s access to the EU single market. We should not be running away from EU law, which is there to safeguard labour rights, consumer protection, environmental protection and other related areas. Companies want to have certainty on those issues for the environment in which they are operating, and those that export in particular want to have the ability to operate to the standards of their largest export markets in any event—so this is not a matter that the business community is raising concerns about.

I appreciate that in the long run, the Stormont brake may not actually change that much about Northern Ireland’s adherence to EU law. If, however, we find ourselves in a situation whereby there is either a delay or some other form of uncertainty in the applicability of updated EU law in Northern Ireland, it may create an issue for some inward investors into Northern Ireland, who rely on certainty about regulations, particularly in highly regulated areas—for example, pharmaceuticals. If we want to fully capitalise on our dual market access, we need to be very careful not to hollow that out from within by playing political games around the Stormont brake. We will reserve judgment to see how that works in practice but, on paper, it causes us some considerable concerns at this stage.

Going forward, it is important that we see a change of gear from the Government in how they engage with all the political parties in Northern Ireland, and that they try to address some of the friction that has built up with the Irish Government in recent months. I appreciate that there are two sides to every argument, but those issues need to be overcome if we are to make the most of this new beginning for Northern Ireland.

A greater level of transparency and co-operation with all the political parties will be crucial for the implementation of any measures that arise from the Command Paper. In that regard, not every item mentioned in the Command Paper directly relates to the seven tests that the DUP set out in its reasons for not being part of the Executive. We have seen some mission creep in some of the commitments that have been made. We have touched on a broad spectrum of issues in Northern Ireland on which there has not been proper engagement with all the political parties, but the Government are under a duty to ensure proper fairness in that regard.

Regarding some of the constitutional stuff that has been mentioned, I too am happy to put on record that I do not believe that joint authority is part of the Good Friday agreement. It is a choice between Northern Ireland being a part of a single UK or part of a single united Ireland. Within those structures we can come up with different arrangements, including a federal Ireland or devolution within the context of the UK, but those are the two choices available. That does not mean that the Irish Government are not a partner in the peace process. Indeed, they need to be an active participant in some aspects of the discussions relating to Northern Ireland. There are also issues in relation to the East-West Council and how that is going to be reconciled with the British-Irish Council. That is an institution under the Good Friday agreement, whereas the East-West Council is not. How will that be reconciled? The Government need to clarify some of these points.

The point has been made that if people want to secure the Union—that may well be the intention of a majority of people in Northern Ireland at present—the best way of doing so is to ensure that Northern Ireland works. That mean having functioning and effective political institutions. It also means equality within Northern Ireland and respect for all traditions. At the moment the jury is out in that regard. Over the past six or seven years, Brexit has resulted in a major reassessment of people’s identities and potential aspirations, and while opinion polls are pointing in a clear direction at present, I think people would be overly complacent not to read beneath the surface and see the degree of concern about the things have happened in recent times and the reactions to them.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

The hon. Member has spoken for over 10 minutes and he has raised concern after concern about the content of the “Safeguarding the Union” document, but not once has he reflected on the concerns of Unionists about the encroachment on our place within this United Kingdom as a result of what he was asking to be rigorously implemented. I am hoping that at some stage there will be space for that in this debate. Does he recognise that the wrong choice over the last number of years was to dismiss and demean the concerns raised by his neighbours and that if he and his colleagues had not done that, there might have been a more rational, sensible and pragmatic recognition of the problems and of the collective desire to address them? The only reason that the product of what we are debating this evening was not agreed collectively was that for too many years he and his colleagues dismissed those of us who raised legitimate concerns.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

I am grateful to the Member for his intervention because it has allowed me to have a good drink to ease my throat. He raises some interesting questions which will allow me to clarify those points. I was not going to rake over old coals too much this evening but he invites me to do so.

Let me be clear: my party has always taken a pragmatic approach to special arrangements within Northern Ireland. We recognised, whenever Brexit was imposed on a society that already works through sharing and interdependence, that that situation was going to have to be carefully managed. I did not want to see any checks introduced anywhere on these islands as a consequence of that, but that was always going to be a reality in the context of a hard Brexit. Hopefully the current hard Brexit can be softened over time, which will help in that respect. In so far as those checks can be minimised, I am all for that. Our party has never stood in the way of that particular outcome.

Gavin Robinson made reference to the phrase “rigorous implementation”, although we have now heard about the vigorous implementation of the Command Paper from Jim Shannon. That phrase relates to a letter that was signed by four parties in September 2021 in the context of attempts by the UK Government to unilaterally breach international law. Our position all along has been that modifications to the protocol, right through to what we have today in the Windsor framework, need to be negotiated, where appropriate, between the UK Government and the European Union as the signatories to the new arrangements, and that they have to be legal.

In that context our position has always been consistent. We are a party of law. We are committed to implementing the law where we are required to implement the law, but where the law can be changed through proper process, we are all for that. What we were always against—and remain against—is unilateral action that puts Northern Ireland in a worse position because it undermines trust. The big game changer was when we had a change of Government in the autumn of 2022. All of a sudden the European Union and the UK Government started talking to each other and things started moving really quickly.

I would say that the result that we have today could have been found much earlier if we had had a lot more trust in the process between the European Union and the UK Government—and I certainly did not justify or require the Assembly to be down for two years, causing chaos in Northern Ireland’s public services and a huge number of missed opportunities. My party has always been clear that we want to see things such as the red and green lanes introduced, which was achieved through the Windsor framework. We have also consistently proposed a veterinary agreement, which I would remind the hon. Member for Belfast East that his party initially opposed whenever we put it forward.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

Questions were asked in the Northern Ireland Assembly and DUP Ministers said they were opposed, including the former leader of the DUP. I am happy to give way to the Member again so I can have another drink.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

The hon. Member should have another sip from that cup, although I am not sure it is working. What we did oppose was the understanding that all veterinary medicines would be available in Northern Ireland through an EU prism—an EU regime. What we have proposed—and what continues to be a part of this Command Paper with the Government’s indication that they will publish unilateral action come the springtime should agreement not be reached—is a recognition of mutual standards: mutual recognition. The hon. Member should recognise the statutory instruments that this House and the other place passed three weeks ago on a goods guarantee and mutual recognition—two things that I believe he and his colleagues might have described as unicorns.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

The Member is conflating a veterinary agreement with the issue of veterinary medicines. There is an issue with veterinary medicines that needs to be properly addressed, but the issue of a wider veterinary agreement was something that the DUP opposed—a wider sanitary and phytosanitary agreement between the UK and the European Union that would free up bureaucracy relating to the movement of agrifood products. That would obviously have a direct benefit in terms of the Irish sea, but it is fundamentally in the interests of the whole UK agrifood sector to address some of the bureaucracy that is increasingly coming to the fore and causing frustration for many businesses. Indeed, perhaps at some point we will have a discussion around the “not for EU” labelling issue, which is also causing major concerns for businesses across the UK but is being driven by this particular process.

I appreciate that the Member and his party are keen to have this narrative about “We have achieved this and we have achieved that”, and I am not to trying to burst their bubble too much, but the reality is that there will still be a degree of checks across the Irish sea. Whether they are done on a risk basis or whether we have a red channel for that, the reality is that there will have to be some management of that Irish sea interface, including the registration of the businesses involved. Those are all products of the fact that we have a hard Brexit, and that we have to manage those tensions. I am delighted that we have got them down as far as we have but, equally, we need to be frank and honest that there are certain parameters beyond which people cannot go.

I was not necessarily planning to have as big a row with the DUP as has unfolded tonight, but I have some comments for the Government on the way forward. We are getting a clear narrative that the Government are committed to making Northern Ireland work. We all share that commitment, and we want to see prosperity.

I have three points for the Government, and hopefully the DUP will agree with some of what I say. First, revenue raising was clearly meant to be part of the wider transformation plan required for the Executive to pay off what was packaged as their debt. Of course, that debt would not have arisen if we had a proper fiscal flow. I freely acknowledge that the Executive will have to address revenue raising, but there is a danger that they will rush to address revenue raising in the coming months while they are still trying to find their feet and address wider financial issues, which could cause difficulties within the Executive. Of course, we should address revenue raising, but let us not rush headlong into it. A figure of £113 million is not insignificant, but it is a drop in the ocean compared with a £14 billion-plus revenue budget. There are much bigger decisions to be made on health and education reform, which the Executive need to be encouraged to address, rather than clashing over £113 million.

Secondly, Casement Park is an important issue for the Euros in 2028, but it is a wider, totemic issue for a section of the community in Northern Ireland. I will not go into exactly what the UK Government have to do, but they are a player. Commitments have been made on their support for this overall project. The clock is clearly ticking, so there is a degree of urgency. The issue is now being escalated as a potential political confrontation point, which may pose problems to the restored Executive. With all the caveats about value for money that the Government have to consider, they should be clear, as soon as possible, about what they can do so that the project can move ahead.

Thirdly, the repackaged Fresh Start money is above and beyond the £3.3 billion package for the restored Executive. That fund was already part of the transformation fund for shared and, in particular, integrated education. We now have a situation in which 10 schools, at different levels of development, for integrated education—which, to be fair, the Government have embraced over many years—are now placed in jeopardy. To me, that is not only a step back from integration and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, but it is at odds with the objective of transformation. I urge the Government to reconsider how the Executive handle the £150 million of repurposed Fresh Start funding. Again, the Government agreed the package during a previous political crisis in Northern Ireland.

I have spoken for far longer than I anticipated. I recognise that Northern Ireland is in a much better place with a restored Executive and a restored Assembly, and I recognise that a lot of good work has been done to address a number of critical issues, but there are still bumps on the road ahead. My central appeal is that the Government work more closely with all the political parties to ensure that what they have set out is implemented fairly and transparently, and to ensure that all concerns and input are fully taken into account.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit) 7:04, 26 Chwefror 2024

I think many people in North Down, a Unionist constituency, will be wondering what kind of representative they have. Stephen Farry was probably a good proxy for a Sinn Féin representative in his disregard for Unionists’ concerns about the protocol and in his unwillingness to apologise for the fact that he and his party wanted the Government to double down on the protocol, despite the damage it was causing. His party said during the negotiations that they had negotiated a wonderful package. There is still underfunding because of how the funding formula is applied in Northern Ireland, yet the only plea he made for additional funding this evening was to pay for Casement Park. The Gaelic Athletic Association has said that it will not give one penny more to that stadium. The GAA expects the UK Government to divvy up for its state-of-the-art stadium.

The Humble Address tells His Majesty of this Parliament’s commitments in respect of a number of issues. Significantly, it has been brought forward because of the way in which successive Prime Ministers from the Conservative and Unionist party have betrayed Northern Ireland by choosing to side with the EU, and not to annoy the EU, even if that means weakening the Union of the United Kingdom. The sad reality is that these reassuring words, which Colum Eastwood described as a “love letter” to Unionists—when we look at it, we will see that it is not such a love letter—are essential because of the trust that has been broken by a Government who were quite happy to hand Northern Ireland over to the European Union as a vassal state, to use the term of the former Prime Minister who was responsible for some of the damage done.

A number of issues are addressed in the Humble Address, and the first is to affirm the importance of upholding all the strands of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Why is that necessary? The reason, of course, is because this Government acted at the behest of the European Union, which required that the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom be weakened, with any attempt to address that situation being thwarted by changing the voting arrangements in the Assembly.

We already knew that Northern Ireland was not all that important to this Government, because the whole principle of consent to change Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom was simply ignored. The damage has been done, and there has been no attempt to undo that damage. The Belfast agreement made it clear that any change—any change—to Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom could happen only with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. That change took place when the UK Government agreed that the EU would have the ability, in 300 areas of law, to make laws for Northern Ireland, and that Northern Ireland’s representatives would have no say in the making of those laws.

In fact, the only country on the island of Ireland that would have a say is the Republic of Ireland, because of its membership of the EU. The EU and the Irish Republic would have the ability to make laws in relation to Northern Ireland in 300 areas of law and Northern Ireland politicians elected to the Assembly would have no say. The hon. Member for North Down might be happy that his party members are elected to an Assembly and have no say on a raft of areas of law.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

We are relaxed about EU law, but the thing we were certainly not relaxed about was not having an Assembly whatsoever for the past two years. Anyone who wants to talk about democratic deficits needs to refocus away from the technicalities of EU law and on the fact that no one was in charge of health, education and the economy for the past two years and on the damage that has been done. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will show some humility and recognise his role and that of his party in the chaos that has been forced upon Northern Ireland in the past two years, when they have taken their time negotiating this new arrangement with the Government.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

Is the hon. Gentleman’s stance not amazing? He talks about the democratic deficit that existed for two years while the Assembly was not operating, but he is happy to have a democratic deficit that will last for decades as a result of the arrangement in place now. So he cannot now get concerned about the inability of politicians in Northern Ireland to do something. We had the two years of Stormont not operating because the principle on which it was bound to operate—that there had to be consent and the views of nationalists and Unionists had to be taken into consideration—had been simply wiped aside; it could not have worked anyway because the very foundation of the Belfast agreement had been removed.

I have to ask the Minister: how can the Government affirm the Belfast agreement when we have in place today arrangements that came about only because one of the central principles of the agreement had been removed? Of course, this is about looking at not just the past, but the future. The Assembly will have a decision to make and it will have a vote at the end of this year on the arrangements that are in place. That vote will be very controversial, because it looks both back and forward. First, were the arrangements put in place acceptable? Far more importantly, will the arrangements going forward be acceptable? The vote will not simply be about EU law, because in four years’ time nobody who is taking part in this vote will even know about the EU laws; this vote will be about whether the Assembly is going to continue having the Republic of Ireland and the EU making laws that are unknown and that we will have no say in formulating in the future. There can be no more controversial vote than that, yet the Belfast agreement says that a vote of that nature should not be made on a majority basis.

Since 1972, votes and issues that were controversial could not be made on a majority basis in Northern Ireland. Yet here is one of the most controversial votes that the Northern Ireland Assembly will be involved in, and the Government, at the behest or demand of the Irish Republic and the EU, set aside the requirement for cross-community support in that vote. So the Minister is today proposing a motion that affirms

“the importance of upholding the Belfast…Agreement”,

knowing full well that he has agreed to and defended, and will continue to put in place, arrangements that undermine the very principle of consent for a most controversial issue, on which a vote will take place at the end of this year. So when we address His Majesty and say that we are affirming the Belfast agreement, we have to look at the way we have dispensed with its central provision in the past and the way we are going to remove the ability to use the consent principle in the future on one of the most controversial issues.

Secondly, the Humble Address acknowledges

“the foundational importance of the Acts of Union”.

I find it strange that it acknowledges not just the Acts of Union but their “foundational importance”, because in the court case taken against the Northern Ireland protocol, the Government’s lawyers said that when the House voted for the withdrawal agreement, we had implied the disapplication of article VI of the Act of Union. The courts ruled that article VI, which contains the foundational economic rights, had been suspended, and they have not been unsuspended. Why were they suspended? It was because, as a result of the EU being given the say to make laws in respect of Northern Ireland, there had to be some impediments to trade between GB and Northern Ireland.

The shadow spokesman talked about how even under the Act of Union there were impediments to trade, and he is right. However, there is one fundamental difference: those impediments were put in place and were decided upon by Administrations within the UK, because they saw that an advantage was created. The difference now is that the Act of Union and its foundational economic rights have been suspended because the EU demands that that is the case. Now, as Northern Ireland is part of the single market, the EU requires certain restrictions and checks to be put in place. A further irony is that those restrictions in place, even with the new arrangements, are far more intrusive and far more difficult hurdles to overcome when it comes to trade between GB and Northern Ireland than they would be for trade between France and GB or Germany and GB. That is what has put so many people off trading with Northern Ireland. The Government are now going to say to them all that they should come back to the Northern Ireland market—the shadow spokesman talked about the way in which trade had been diverted—but that is a conscious decision that firms have made because of the difficulties in bringing goods into Northern Ireland from GB.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

On the issues about which the right hon. Gentleman complains, it pains me to say it but they were put in place because the House of Commons voted to pass the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. It is not correct to say that they are enforced upon Northern Ireland by the EU of its own volition; they were arrangements that the House decided should be put in place because the people of the UK had voted to leave the European Union. That, too, is a fact.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

That vote was made in this House on two grounds. First, the EU made its terms clear and we had a spineless Government that were prepared to bow to it, saying that if those arrangements were not put in place, there would be no deal. Weighing up the impact that might have on the rest of the United Kingdom and the impact it would have on Northern Ireland, the Government decided that Northern Ireland would be the sacrificial lamb. Secondly, we were told at that time, as was this House and businesses in Northern Ireland, “Don’t worry,” and were promised, “You’ll get some bits of paper but just tear them up, or give the Prime Minister a ring and he’ll make sure you don’t have to worry about them.” I accept that the decision was made by this House, but it was made on that basis, and the fact is it still had a detrimental impact on Northern Ireland.

Changes have been made by the Windsor framework, the Northern Ireland protocol and the “Safeguarding the Union” document, but the economic foundational importance of the Act of Union is still being undermined. We are told that 20% of goods still have to go through a red lane. Most of those goods go to manufacturing businesses or distributors in Northern Ireland, in many cases because they are parts of products that will eventually be sold. The businesses will still be subject to checks because the product has not been made—it is only parts coming in—and because of the eventual destination of the products, even though most businesses can say, “Look, we sell in Northern Ireland, outside EU or to GB”.

I spoke to a businessman this morning who informed me that the situation is going to get worse. The paperwork for the last order he got for goods coming through the red lane took six hours. When people are working on very thin margins, that additional work makes them question whether to invest further in Northern Ireland or to jump over the border to the Irish Republic, so the red lane requirements have a huge economic impact.

Even the UK internal market requirements are at the gift of the EU, because the EU still has control of trade that comes from GB into Northern Ireland through regulations 2023/1231 and 2023/1128. If the EU deems at any stage that the arrangements for the internal market lane do not meet its requirements, the ultimate say as to what happens to those movements of trade will remain with the EU and it can go back to the default position with 100% checks. I note that those two regulations have not been removed by the EU as a result of “Safeguarding the Union”. The EU still holds that control, which is worrying for businesses in Northern Ireland. The Humble Address is all about telling His Majesty that the foundational importance of the Act of Union will be respected and is being respected by the Government, but that is just not true.

My final point is about the part of the Humble Address that says that

“executive power in Northern Ireland shall continue to be vested in His Majesty, and that joint authority is not provided for in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998 in respect of the UK and Irish Governments.”

There is no definition of “joint authority”. In the past, Ministers have stood at the Dispatch Box and told us there has been no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as a result of the protocol and the Windsor framework, and Northern Ireland was still fully part of the United Kingdom. Words can mean whatever they want, it seems, when the Government find themselves challenged by the agreement they have made with the EU.

I trust that the Government will not accede to some of the demands that have been made. In his intervention, the hon. Member for North Down said that he wanted a review of the Belfast agreement. That would open all kinds of doors. If he had his way, the review would be based on a majority view of what should happen in the future. The removal of the consent principle and the majority vote in the Assembly is what he and his friends in Sinn Féin and the SDLP are aiming for now. Unionists are now a minority, so majoritarianism is no longer a problem.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Ceidwadwyr, Aberconwy

I have listened with great interest to many of the points made. I am particularly taken by the attention the hon. Gentleman has given to the foundational importance of constitutional matters, which exercises many hon. Members on the Government Benches. Does he agree that it seems incongruous that changes to constitutional law—not primary legislation, but constitutional law—were made in this Chamber through the use of statutory instruments? We had to seek an extension to secure 180 minutes of debate on those measures. Does he agree with many Conservative Members that matters of constitutional law should be treated with proper respect and subjected to proper debate and scrutiny by this House before they are changed?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. When we agreed to the withdrawal agreement and legislation, the Act of Union was changed without Ministers even mentioning that that was happening. They used that defence in court later on. A couple of weeks ago, when we discussed protecting Northern Ireland-GB trade and protecting against the threat of a further wedge being driven between Northern Ireland and GB as a result of changes in the law made in this place, we got 90 minutes to discuss those changes and not a great deal of time to scrutinise them. At the end of the debate the Minister had about three minutes to sum up, which did not give him time to answer any of the questions that had been asked.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

I agree with my hon. Friend that that is not right. The Government did not make the argument after the fact that article 6 had been impliedly repealed or subsequently found by the court to be temporarily suspended—I raised the question in the House of the Minister before the legislation passed and they had not a clue what was being asked of them. The notion that this Parliament chose to proceed along a path that was encroaching on article 6 is not right because it was asked and it was answered negatively by Ministers at the time. We scrutinised. We raised the constitutional importance of the actions they were taking. It was the Government who denied that was the case.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification. In all the discussions he has used his knowledge of the issues. If we have a Government who simply ignored the points that he made, either because they did not know or did not want others to know, that makes it even more disgraceful. That is why when we have a Humble Address, it is right that we scrutinise, ask questions and raise issues about what exactly is meant by the promises made to His Majesty and the people of Northern Ireland. Sadly, I do not believe that what has been said or the promises that have already been made address the issues. If we are going to address the issue of keeping Northern Ireland firmly within the United Kingdom, the Windsor framework has to go and the principle of consent has to be restored. The people of Northern Ireland and elected representatives in Northern Ireland must have the ability to make the laws that they are elected to make.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee

Order. As Members know, we had two significant statements after departmental questions, and it is likely that this debate will go for another hour. A significant number of people put their name down for the general debate on farming that was to follow. That will now be rescheduled, and Members will be told in the usual manner when that debate will take place.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 7:30, 26 Chwefror 2024

Stephen Farry says that a glorified press release is in front of us tonight. Colum Eastwood, who is no longer in his place, said that a love letter to the Democratic Unionist party has been penned. They say that is all it is, yet they still protest. They protest if Unionists get as much as a nod and a wink. They still object to it. It should not have been done, they say. Unionists should get nothing out of this place. That is the import of their comments. Or perhaps the hon. Members for North Down and for Foyle protest too much. Perhaps the real issue is that they do not like anything done that gives Unionism a nod or a wink, an advantage, or recognition of our rights. Their objections are perhaps strongest to the latter.

Points have been raised this evening about the future of Casement Park. I was not going to mention it, but as it has been put on the agenda, I think I will. Most people listened with consternation this morning to the words of Jarlath Burns, the leader of the Gaelic Athletic Association, who said, “Not a penny more will come from the GAA for Casement Park”—not even on grounds of inflation. It is £15 million or nothing from the GAA. That has to be a significant body blow to the future of Casement Park. The Northern Ireland Executive may indicate that they will give an inflation-related piece of money—significant money—to that project. The Government of Dublin may indicate that they will give multiples of millions to that project. Yet the GAA will not even give the project an inflation-linked amount. That suggests to me that perhaps the GAA does not want Casement Park to go ahead, and that it is looking for someone or for some group to blame. [Interruption.] I hear the giggles and fits coming from the SNP Benches, but of course it is very easy to spend other people’s money. This project now looks as if it will be short by about £100 million.

Tonight, I have heard that we should really be able to wipe out the “not insignificant”—I think that was the comment—£113 million in Executive funding that has been asked for, yet the big ask is: “We’d better have this money made available for Casement Park,” no matter what the amount is. That is amazing. Not only do we have a demand for this money, but it is almost as if the point being made is, “If you don’t give us that money, there will be a crisis.” That seems to be the way that the comment was framed to the House this evening. Most people will reflect very sombrely on the comments made by Jarlath Burns, and by others inside and outside this House who have made it clear that the money must be made available or else. But things can no longer work that way. Difficult decisions need to be made, and I suspect that the decisions that will be made very soon about Casement Park will be incredibly difficult. The way the parties respond to those difficult decisions will be the measure of those parties.

The Minister was taken down a rabbit hole tonight by the hon. Member for Foyle, who, again, is no longer in his place. Perhaps he has decided to go back to Foyle, given the terrible issue at Seagate and the loss of 300 jobs. I hope that he is working hard to get those jobs back, because they are very significant. Perhaps Mr Kennedy, the envoy, will turn up with a cheque book and the trillions of pounds that he said were available for Northern Ireland—it would be amazing if he did. Perhaps that money from America will arrive and those jobs, which are very important to the area, will be saved.

To return to my point, the Minister was taken down a rabbit hole and was asked to confirm whether, in line with the terms of the Belfast agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998, there would be a simple majority vote for the future of Northern Ireland, but of course that is not in the Act. It talks about a majority vote; it does not define what that majority is—if it is a majority of the people, or a majority of the people who vote. In fact, I believe that the definition has been left open purposefully, so that Parliament will have a say on the terms and conditions. The Minister, referring to previous referendums in this country, has already conceded that a small majority is not the way to make major constitutional change in this nation. If he believes that, he will certainly believe that for the outworkings of the Belfast agreement. He shares the position of the late Seamus Mallon, one of the negotiators of the Belfast agreement, who made it clear that there had to be a “clear majority”, in his words, for a change to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. We should avoid going down these rabbit holes; we need to recognise the importance of what this House is debating tonight, and why we are debating it.

The objective of every Unionist is to undo the damage done by the great betrayal made by the Government of a former Prime Minister when they agreed the protocol on Northern Ireland. That was done against the advice of the Unionists. Unionists on these Benches, myself included, met the then Prime Minister and implored him not to go down the road of a protocol. He said that things would all be sorted out. He came to County Antrim and told farmers not to worry, “because all this can be shredded.” He told them that we can ignore it, and that we can throw the bits of paper in the bin. Of course, as it transpired, the Prime Minister’s betrayal of Northern Ireland has left us still debating this issue two years later. Untold damage has been done to the psychological view of where those in the Union are, as a people. Responsibility for the economic position of the kingdom lies four-square at that Government’s feet, and it is important that they undo that damage.

I agree with the leader of our party that, after much diligence, we have before us a work in progress. Yes, much more must be done. Today’s Humble Address must be seen in the context of more needing to be done, but the fact is that whenever we give a hint that we want more progress and more stability, we cannot even have that. That seems to be the cry from the nationalists. Nationalism has to grow up and recognise that it cannot go on baiting and pushing at Unionism, because that is wrong.

Until the laws promised by this strengthening of the Union are operational in Northern Ireland, problems will remain for Northern Ireland trade. That is why I urge the Government to hurry up, and get on with implementing the changes that they have said are coming; otherwise more divergence is threatened. We must avoid divergence. It remains a threat and an ever-present danger to the Union, which is why the sooner the Government legislate and move on these issues, the better. Unionists have a history that means that we always have to remain vigilant.

As this is a work in progress, and as the Government, in previous utterances from the Dispatch Box, have conceded that more legislation is to follow, it would be worth while for them to state that again from the Dispatch Box this evening. They cannot expect one party in Northern Ireland to do all the heavy lifting. Will the Government therefore spell out when further actions will be put on the calendar? When will we see those further actions? In conversations with my party colleagues and party leader, we have already discussed the necessity of implementing what has been promised, and the need to make more progress. It is okay us talking about it, but the Government have to take action.

Our constituents already feel the vice-like pinch of the protocol and the framework on their businesses, as my right hon. Friend Sammy Wilson outlined. I intend to put on the record some examples that really perplex me and should have been resolved by the Government, and which underline the ongoing damage to our UK single market trade—our largest market by far.

My party leader, my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson, and I have challenged senior civil servants in Northern Ireland over why the frictions continue when this place has spelled out that they ought to have been removed. Northern Ireland businesses are right to be impatient. We demand progress. We cannot live on the promise that a change is coming—the promise of jam tomorrow. We and this House demand actions now.

We urge the Government not to lose the momentum for change, and I therefore ask the following questions. When will the veterinary medicines working group be established, and when will it commence work? That is an urgent priority for our single largest sector. When will the plant working group be established? Priti Patel raised that urgent matter. When will InterTradeIreland be established? What date is pencilled in and calendared for that important body to start operations?

What instructions have been given to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs of Northern Ireland to progress the changes for goods flowing from GB to Northern Ireland? I ask because I know of several companies in my constituency and elsewhere in Northern Ireland that are being held back by these frictions. A constituent with a very small businesses that orders plants from an English wholesaler came to my office this week and said that she has been told, “Go elsewhere. Try somewhere else. Don’t buy from the United Kingdom.” As her MP, I volunteered to bring that stock—those samples and seeds—over in my hand luggage if she so requires, and dear help the official who tries to stop me.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My hon. Friend talks about bringing material over himself. Can he imagine the incredulity of citizens of Northern Ireland who hear about the situation? They will say, “What possible risk could that pose to the EU internal market?”.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My hon. Friend makes his point well; there is zero risk to the European single market. In the same way, there is zero risk with veterinary medicines—the Secretary of State knows that well, because I have discussed the matter with him—because we are talking about the same medicine as before. Europe does not want the medicines changed—shock, horror. It just wants the label changed, but for that to happen, it is demanding that the pharmaceutical companies rescale and re-examine what is in every product, which would costs millions of pounds, and would not be worth it for the companies. It is the same with biscuits. The leader of my party today met a company that has been required to do certain labelling. The EU is not trying to change the content or recipe of the biscuits; it is trying to change the label, because the single market might be damaged by the wrong label. That is how “bent bananas”, “squared cucumbers”, this argument is. We should have left that behind long ago.

The owner of a haulage business in my constituency has had the number of checks on his consignments go from nine per month in August last year to—wait for it—27 in the last two weeks of this month, and we are still moving towards the last couple of days of February. That is the record for the number of checks he has undergone since the protocol was put in place. Once again, will the Government look at this over-zealous Department, DAERA, which looks like it will not undo what this House said has is to be undone, as was outlined in a previous debate?

I mentioned a constituent who is trying to buy scanners for a service sector industry. He has always bought the scanners from GB, and he has been told that he must have an economic operators registration and identification number. That number means that VAT is paid in the Republic of Ireland, but my constituent does not trade in the Republic of Ireland. He is being denied the ability to buy equipment from GB because some official here is saying, “No, you must have an EROI number, and you must put GB in front of it.” That does not exist, and it is appalling that he has been put in that position.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I cannot wait for my closing speech so I can say to the hon. Gentleman, “Please, give us all these examples in full detail in writing.” I will be very pleased indeed to have my officials go through them with a fine-toothed comb and see what can be done in absolutely every case. As has been said time and again, work will continue to be done to improve matters. I am yearning for the full detail so that we can work on it.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I like the Minister’s enthusiasm, but may I say that I am ahead of him? The leader of my party and I have already met officials and discussed these issues with them. We have put them to the Cabinet Office, which I understand is the proper channel. I hope the Cabinet Office includes the Minister so he can get his teeth into these matters and deliver for me, my party leader and my colleagues on the issues that perplex us so much.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The hon. Gentleman may have missed it, but last Monday was my first day as a joint Cabinet Office and Northern Ireland Office Minister, precisely so I can assist officials with some ministerial work.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Minister, I congratulate you on your promotion, but I commiserate with you because you will be dealing more and more with me and my colleagues. We will test you to the nth degree—

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is not testing me.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I apologise for my enthusiasm, Madam Deputy Speaker; we will test the Minister to the nth degree.

I want to make a point about whiskey, not because the hour is late but because it is an important point. A point was made about tariffs, and a certain whiskey company in my constituency was mentioned—I think it probably dreads being mentioned, because it just wants to get on with trade. Any tariffs of the sort that came into effect in 1801, imposed on Bushmills whiskey by the Acts of Union, were actually removed at a very important historical juncture for this nation. They were removed in 1879 during—guess what?—the great home rule debates, in order to calm things down. Maybe, just maybe, we need to learn that lesson from history, and remove these borders and the problems that have been put in place, in order to calm things down. If we learn that lesson from history, that whiskey company in my constituency—the premier whiskey constituency and whiskey company in the whole British Isles—will continue to do exceptionally well.

I should say for the record that not a single additional tariff has been placed on whiskey throughout the whole period of the protocol, so there is nothing to be removed. The history is incredibly interesting. Tariffs on Irish whiskey were brought in in the 1600s because it was the most successful product made on the entire island of Ireland. Then there was the introduction of what was called the whiskey tax, which became known as the Parliament tax of 1661. Only companies that paid the tax were registered, so the 1,200 whiskey distilleries across Ireland suddenly became 40. I am not saying the others ceased to exist; they just did the Irish thing of not paying their tax. That was a very important distinction.

Of course, the tax on Irish whiskey was brought in to protect the Scottish market. The fledgling whisky market developed about 40 or 50 years after the Irish whiskey market in the early 1400s. In order to protect the Scottish whisky market, the Parliament here decided to engage in protectionism of its Scottish market. I am glad that that was removed—it ought to have been—allowing the Northern Irish whiskey trade to continue to flourish, particularly given that it is a much better product and is spelled correctly.

I look forward to the Minister’s responses to the several questions that I have asked. I urge him to deliver action, not just big words.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Before I bring in the next speaker, I should say that I want to ensure that the Minister has at least 10 minutes to wind up. If the remaining speakers kept to about 10 minutes each, that would do the trick. I call Carla Lockhart.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann 7:50, 26 Chwefror 2024

In my approach to the Humble Address, I hope it is in order, by way of introduction, to comment on the “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper. It has been a very wide-ranging debate, so I assume that that is appropriate.

I acknowledge those within my party who have worked hard to improve the unacceptable situation that we found ourselves in. I welcome provisions including, among other things, the monitoring committee, the East-West Council, the new provisions on rest-of-world products, and the UK Government’s commitment to stand by Northern Ireland in the absence of a resolution on veterinary medicines. The DUP has unfortunately had to take steps, for which it is often criticised, to address the far-reaching implications of the protocol. We have often been blamed for many of the problems that have flowed from that unforgivable move on the part of our Government back when the iniquitous protocol was implemented. I welcome the improvements but, as has been said, there remains much work to be done. I, along with colleagues on the DUP Bench, am all too aware of the work that lies ahead.

I, too, take this opportunity to raise issues of which the Secretary of State will be very aware, including horse movements from GB to Northern Ireland and vice-versa, rare breeds and plants, and so on. All those issues have been raised with me in my role as agriculture spokesperson. I look forward to the engagement that has been promised and to getting results on those issues.

Part of the answer lies in the text of the Humble Address, which tells us that the economic provisions provided by article 6 of the Acts of Union are of “foundational importance”. That is absolutely correct. In the 21st century, being part of the same country means being part of the same internal market, which means that goods can flow freely within it without encountering border control posts, demanding customs, and SPS paperwork and checks that increase costs and can make the difference between whether a domestic economic venture is viable or has to fall by the wayside. Having the right to border-free access within the internal market of the country of which we are a part is certainly, from the vantage point of today, a basic right of economic citizenship.

The really odd thing about today is that although we are gathered here to affirm that article 6 and the rights that it confers are not only important but are, in the words of the Humble Address, of “foundational importance”, on 8 February 2023, paragraph 68 of the Supreme Court judgment ruled that they are in part suspended. We cannot withdraw, even temporarily, anything that is foundational without inviting the structure that it supports to topple, or ensuring that it does so. Part of the partial suspension of the economics provisions under article 6 results in Northern Ireland being cut off from the rest of the UK through a customs border that has to be crossed, whether it is approached through the red lane or the internal market system.

The alternative border experience for customs that constitutes the UK internal market system is actually defined by the Commission delegated regulation EU 2023/1128, which my right hon. Friend Sammy Wilson referred to earlier. The formal EU description of that regulation is:

“amending Delegated Regulation (EU) 2015/2446 to provide for simplified customs formalities for trusted traders and for sending parcels into Northern Ireland from another part of the United Kingdom”.

The provisions thus simplify customs formalities, but do not remove them. Rather than removing those movements from the remit of the EU customs code, they have the effect of amending how the EU customs code deals with them.

It is quite extraordinary that the UK Government agree that movements of goods within the United Kingdom should be subject to a border imposed by 27 other states that regulate movements from one part of our country to another through their customs code, regardless of how demanding or undemanding that code is.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting that point. Many goods ordered online and delivered from a GB company make their way into Northern Ireland after being shipped into Dublin at night, so the members of the public who order them have to pay customs to the Republic of Ireland for goods that are to be used within the United Kingdom. That is another area that has not yet been addressed and needs serious consideration.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann

I thank my hon. Friend for making that valid point. The Minister will, in his new role, be extremely busy in dealing with the many remaining issues.

Some might say, “Well, if the EU sought to change the customs code to increase the demands on trusted traders, we could refuse to accept the change.” That goes to the heart of the matter. If we were prepared to refuse such a change from the EU under those circumstances, why would we accept them under the current circumstances, through arrangements that involve the partial disenfranchisement of 1.9 million UK citizens who can no longer stand for election to make all the laws to which they are subject and, under the brake, must instead make do with the right to stand for election to try to stop laws already made for us by a foreign Parliament?

The truth, as was pointed out in the other place, is that the Windsor framework is an invalid treaty. There are rules about what makes a treaty valid or invalid, and one of the most basic is respect for the territorial integrity of states, which involves states renouncing claims to make the laws of other states. The Windsor framework involves 27 states refusing to recognise the territorial integrity of the UK, seeking to divide our country in two, and then claiming the right to make some of the laws for part of our country. In that context, the UK Government should declare the treaty void, and, acting on the determination set out in this Humble Address, declare that article 6 is of foundational importance, and look for the earliest opportunity for Parliament to un-suspend—and thus fully restore— article 6, so that the people of Northern Ireland are not alienated, however temporarily, from any aspect of this provision, which is, as the Humble Address rightly acknowledges, of “foundational importance”.

Many in Northern Ireland have welcomed the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and its ability to deal with health, education and infrastructure. I, for one, will raise many of those issues with our colleagues in the Assembly. I trust that we will see much change in those issues, which have a daily impact. However, we must not paper over the cracks. There remains much work to do. This has been a sensible debate that has allowed many issues to be raised constructively. I look forward to engaging with the Minister on many of these matters.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 7:58, 26 Chwefror 2024

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I thank all those who have made significant contributions. As a Northern Ireland MP, I am delighted that the position that Northern Ireland is in has been made clear in this House.

Let me make a quick comment about Casement Park—I cannot let it pass by without commenting. As I mentioned to the Secretary of State last week at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the cost is now some £225 million. I understand that about £70 million or £75 million was originally allocated. I suggest that, rather than pursuing a white elephant, for which those who should be making bigger contributions are not doing so, it would be better to disburse that original £70 million across the whole of Northern Ireland, to ensure that all clubs, in whatever sport, get the benefits. That decision will be made by the Assembly, not in this place; I understand that, but we have to look at the bigger picture as well. David Jeffrey had a very interesting article in the newspaper last Saturday in which he suggested that what was before us at Casement Park could not work, because the benefits for all the people would only happen if the funding was disbursed in the way I have described. When it comes to Casement Park, big decisions are being made, and if the GAA is not prepared to go beyond its €17 million or thereabouts, I think it is time that the GAA catches itself on and realises that everybody else would get the benefit. That is what I would like to see.

From the point of view of the party I represent, there was no alternative to bringing down a devolved Administration in order to push for necessary changes to the Northern Ireland protocol. We did so with a heavy heart, because we believe in devolution. We did so because we felt a huge step was necessary to bring attention to the economic and constitutional damage that was being wrought on Northern Ireland due to the punishing intentions of the EU. We did so knowing that there were many who did not grasp the rationale, and many would refuse to attempt to grasp that rationale. We did it despite the calls of many others who said that the deal was done and could not be altered. We did it, and we proved them wrong. Our leader and deputy leader, my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson and my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson, did that very directly, and we see the benefits of that—there are negatives, yes, but there are benefits too. Let us focus on those benefits.

The deal could be altered, and it was. The EU could come to terms with the changes, and they did. Our Government could achieve more than the Windsor framework, and they did. Those three things have happened. Let me be entirely clear: the work is not yet achieved. This House will be the place to make those changes. Our leader and other Members who have spoken have said that we will be making changes, and I look forward to working alongside the Secretary of State and Minister of State for Northern Ireland to ensure that the changes that we collectively wish to see can be made, right here in this place. My colleagues in the Assembly will be working to ensure that there are no restrictions to trade within this United Kingdom and that our businesses can operate—that we can receive Amazon deliveries and get our veterinary medication through the committee that is going to be set up for that purpose. My hon. Friend Ian Paisley will be actively involved in that.

Turning to our trees and seeds, I understand that 11 of those products have already been agreed. A further 21 are in the pipeline to be agreed, and others will follow, so things are happening. There has also been a very significant reduction in the number of products that will be in the green lane. At the minute, it is 20%; I understand that by September of this year, that figure will drop to 5%, so there are constructive and positive ways forward. I will give the example of a company in Newtownards. The day that our party executive accepted that we would go with the deal, a gentleman who has two shops—one in Ards, one in Bangor—and employs 12 people told me that a company in Manchester supplied him with 300 products for which he had to do over 200 pieces of paperwork. That meant almost 6,000 paper transactions. On the day that our party agreed and the Bill went through here in Westminster, all of that paperwork disappeared, and he can now bring in 300 products without the paperwork. Another person contacted me about pet food: they were told that in three weeks’ time, which is now a week away, all of that pet food will be able to come in. Those are examples of how the deal is working, so let us look at the positives.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Westminster Leader

Will my hon. Friend join me in also welcoming the communication that both the Secretary of State and myself have received from a very prominent nursery selling plants, trees and shrubs in Northern Ireland? That nursery was at the forefront of the campaign to have the issues and problems recognised, and since our agreement—since the publication of the Command Paper—it is seeing real improvements in its access to plants, shrubs and trees. Its supply chains have already improved, even before the new measures have been fully implemented.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank my right hon. Friend for that point. He is absolutely right: without mentioning them in the House, we all know who that person is and what their company is. They have a number of nurseries, and other nurseries, including those in my constituency of Strangford, will also feel the benefits. We have to look at those positives.

In this House, the voice of Northern Ireland will not be silent when it comes to trying to find a way forward to improve things yet again, and to get more for the people of Northern Ireland from all communities. We need to achieve more in terms of economic drive, an entirely new funding mechanism, and numerous other interventions. At the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee last week, the Secretary of State very helpfully referred to the review of the Barnett consequential and a better way of doing that, so that all the people of Northern Ireland can access those moneys.

Those are the facts of the case. Today’s Humble Address does not deal with them, but with an issue that is equally important to many people in Northern Ireland: our constitutional position. For many months, some in the Irish Government and, indeed, on these Benches who tried to browbeat us with the threat of joint authority from Dublin. Newspaper headlines screamed that steps were being taken to ensure that decisions concerning Northern Ireland were made in co-ordination with the Irish Government, all stirring up a people who have never felt more unwelcome within our own nation and, indeed, began to feel unwanted within this Union—if you listen to the hype.

Today’s motion is not to inform our King of anything that he does not know. He understands the constitutional position as well as his mother, Queen Elizabeth the faithful, did as a Queen who served her God and her people so well. The reason for today’s motion is to make clear to those who have felt a disconnect from the Government that there can be no joint authority and no movement without consent. It is really important that we make that clear. Of course, we hear the ramblings of a determined Sinn Féin—the same absentee MPs who do not turn up here, who do not take any decisions or get involved in any Select Committees to discuss ways forward—that a united Ireland is on the horizon. That may be the case, but it will not be because the people of this nation do not want us; it will be because the people of Northern Ireland have decided. That is where the consent principle lies.

This Humble Address underlines the position of this Government—a position that many have questioned. As the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said to me recently, a rebuilding of trust is needed among the Unionist people, and this is merely one step in that journey. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State and Secretary of State have committed to that principle of building trust.

I have heard many people talking about how their identity was not wrapped in a flag. It is entirely their right to say so, yet within that statement is a disparaging inference that our identity is so fragile. I know that Members have heard this before, but I seek to remind people of what has been whitewashed and sought to be rewritten: people from every community faced horrific grief and pain. We lived a life of checking under cars, of seeing blue lights and frantically trying to think of where your family were when you heard news on TV that a bomb had gone off or something else had happened. We lived a life of heading to church and having men stationed at the doors to protect the congregation after Sunday services—of children seeing gunmen indiscriminately spraying a building, reloading and spraying their bullets once again, killing and wounding as people sought to pray. We lived a life of going to get meat from the butchers on a Saturday afternoon and having a bomb go off, or having dinner at a local restaurant where you could be set alight by napalm. Those are the lives that we from Northern Ireland all lived.

These things are important, because we are trying to find a new future and a new way forward. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley referred to a future that involves all of the community. The past year was the first year in which someone was not killed by terrorists—I had not realised that until my right hon. Friend said it, but that is an indication of where we are going. Our identity is not fragile, but our history is, and what kept many of us going through that time was the knowledge that we would not bow to the terrorists: we would not cower before their demands, and we would stay standing. We have done that, and today we are doing so again in this Chamber—collectively, and from all political parties.

As someone who has lost loved ones to the troubles, as many of us on this side of the House have—we all know these cases—the constitutional issue is not about the colour of a passport, but about whether the shedding of blood and the grief of a mother was of worth or was in vain. For me, that is the key issue as I try to build a future for my children and grandchildren, and for everybody else’s children and grandchildren, whatever side of the community they come from. That is the future I want to see, and I believe it is the future my people want to see. It is about whether standing against evil is honoured by this place, or forgotten by this place.

That is why today’s Humble Address is so important: it reminds the Unionist people who feel so down-trodden, unwanted and forgotten that this Union has not forsaken them, and that the Government of this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are prepared to stand against the tide of unification by stealth and uphold the principle of consent. For that reason, I and my party very much welcome the Humble Address. It is the right thing to do, and it is what we want. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 8:09, 26 Chwefror 2024

With the leave of the House, I rise to close the debate on this Humble Address, and I am very grateful to everyone who has participated in it.

This is a Unionist Government, and we are steadfast in our belief that the best future for Northern Ireland will always be as an integral part of a strong and prosperous United Kingdom, even as we respect the legitimate rights of others to pursue another outcome. We are the most successful political and economic Union in the world, something with which a majority of Members of this House would agree. This debate has reiterated the unwavering support for the Union across the House. We have reaffirmed the importance of upholding the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its strands. We have acknowledged the foundational importance of the Acts of Union 1800, including the economic provisions under article 6—much as I listened to the words of some Members opposite—and we have recognised that joint authority is not provided for in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in respect of the UK and Irish Governments.

I am most grateful to the shadow Secretary of State, Hilary Benn, for his speech. We are united in congratulating Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson, and we are absolutely united in wishing the First Minister and Deputy First Minister every success in their endeavours. It has been said several times by the shadow Secretary of State and others, but “never again”, and I think we are all united in our hope that never again will Northern Ireland go without an Executive.

The shadow Secretary of State mentioned the all-island economy, which is a matter that has particular sensitivity for DUP Members, and made reference to the joint report. He asked about the effect of repealing the relevant section. As he knows, the joint report and its provisions predated our departure from the EU. Now that we have left the EU, the withdrawal agreement makes provision in fulfilment of many of those matters. The joint report to which the shadow Secretary of State referred has been superseded by the withdrawal agreement and by the trade and co-operation agreement. Of course, I know I have not taught him anything he did not know already. At the moment, we are of course in regular dialogue with the EU, and as far as we are aware, the EU is satisfied with the way we are proceeding. What I would say to him is that, at the moment, I have no reason to believe there will be any significant consequences of the repeal of that section.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am very grateful to the Minister for that explanation, and of course I am aware that the joint report predated the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, but if it was in effect rendered redundant by that Act, why did that Act make specific provision to have regard to the joint report?

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Elements were relevant at the time, as the Secretary of State has just mentioned to me, but, alas, I was not the relevant Minister at the time. I did the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, not the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. However, if I am advised otherwise by officials after this debate, I shall certainly write to the shadow Secretary of State and place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House. I am not expecting to be advised that there would be significant consequences, but I shall certainly take advice.

I particularly appreciated the shadow Secretary of State’s exegesis of the Acts of Union. I am not a great historian, and I appreciated his running through those things. We are of course all absolutely united in our desire for a better future for Northern Ireland.

Richard Thomson welcomed the compromise and the pragmatism of everyone involved. I do not think I will tease him, as he has teased me, on that particular point. He made a very thoughtful speech about people’s ability to indicate their consent or otherwise to membership of a particular state, and he raises some important matters that I will not have time to go into.

I particularly appreciated, of course, the leader of the DUP’s speech. I think this is a very good day for Unionism. Speaking as an English MP, even though I have been choosing to go to Northern Island since 2013, it is very easy as an English MP to neglect the Union. What we have seen through this process is that the whole Government and the whole House have come far more deeply to appreciate the need to nurture the Union. I think today is a good day for the Union, and I think the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends have done a service to the whole Union by highlighting these issues and forcing us all to confront the need to nurture the Union, even if, as I think it is fair to say, it is not one of the most prominent issues in English constituencies. I certainly pay tribute to him and his DUP colleagues for what they have achieved.

As the right hon. Gentleman made a point about the red lane, and the need to improve further and move more goods out of it, which I am absolutely all for doing, I think it is worth reminding everyone of who voted for the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. I believe everyone in the DUP voted for the Bill.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

There are nods of assent. The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill established the principle that there should be a red lane, and we do need to remember that the red lane is therefore legitimate. It is something that we should all have expected. On the issues that have been invented, I think we have enough practical problems in this life without inventing additional ones.

I want to turn to the remarks of Stephen Farry, because he said that Brexit is the original sin. I am going to accept the temptation that he put before me to respond on this point. Occasionally, we get the opportunity to comment on matters of historical sin, and I hope the House will forgive me if I say that to me the original sin was proceeding with the Maastricht treaty and all it meant without getting consent. It was compounded by the mortal sin of proceeding with the Lisbon treaty positively against the expressed wishes of a number of populations. That is what brought me into politics—positively establishing the European constitution by another name against the expressed wishes of populations in referenda.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about Brexit being the original sin. Although I am tempted to say that I am an unapologetic Unionist, a waggish official reminded me earlier, “But, Minister, you’ve made a number of apologies”—apologies notably in relation to Ireland, but I do not mind sharing with the House and the public that, during the early days of my appointment to this role, I said to a number of stakeholder groups in Northern Ireland, particularly in the area of Derry/Londonderry, “Yes, I am sorry that you have been put to as much trouble as you have through this withdrawal process.” I have great sympathy with what he says, but if we can step back a little, out of this whole process, there is a lesson for those who wish to make great constitutional changes, and that is to take the public with them at all times, but I am certainly not perfect in that regard. I for one, however, wish to put all that behind us and to move forward.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the all-Ireland economy and talked about the need for east-west and north-south to operate in harmony, and I am of one mind with him. I am absolutely all for free trade and removing all barriers to free trade wherever that can be done consistently with democratic consent.

Casement Park came up a couple of times, and we need to see a proper business case with a full statement of the costs involved. Clearly, there has been inflation in the costs, and we need to see what the full bill would be.

Revenue raising was part of the financial settlement tabled in December. The Government’s primary objective is to support stability and fiscal sustainability through a restored Executive who have the tools to deliver better outcomes for the people of Northern Ireland in an affordable way. That is why a condition of this package—specifically, the quantum of debt to be written off—will be agreed on a proportionate basis to locally raised revenue generated from the implementation of the Executive’s fiscal sustainability plan.

Sammy Wilson made a very interesting speech. I do not doubt that we have arrived where we are by a circuitous route, but here we are, and I think this is a happy day for Unionism overall. As the right hon. Gentleman the leader of the DUP said, we have a great opportunity to go forward now and make Northern Ireland work for all the people and to persuade them, in the context of those changing demographics, that they would be well placed to continue to choose to remain within the United Kingdom.

Ian Paisley set me a number of questions, and I do not wish to further return to the rabbit hole he mentioned on border polls. I think I will just refer to my opening remarks, which were crafted to avoid any kind of ambiguity. He asked: when will we see action? We have seen action: we have legislated twice already, we are here for this Humble Address and we will continue to take action.

On the veterinary medicines working group, I will undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman before the week is out on the progress in establishing it, and I will place that letter in the Library so that others can see it, because I know it is a subject of the first importance, particularly to him. I shall write to him to set out our progress towards establishing that working group. I gave officials very clear instructions that we were to proceed with great haste, as swiftly as possible, to the establishment of that group and the horticulture working group. The horticulture working group is already established, and we will have further communication to do on that point.

Intertrade is dependent on the East-West Council, and we will need to work through those issues, including across Government. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that for east-west work to be effective we must properly engage, particularly with our colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and with the other devolved Administrations. Let us get this thing right. That means it will take just a little time, and I hope he can bear with me. As I said in my opening remarks, I am determined to proceed as swiftly as possible and to keep the House informed, including on the point about the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. The hon. Gentleman has already undertaken to give me the examples he mentioned, and I look forward to processing those. His history is better than mine. He referred to the Home Rule debate in 1879, and let us hope that we continue to do better than they did. They took 78 years to resolve some of those matters. We have already made swifter progress, and I am proud of it.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the Minister for that. Of course, the Home Rule debates were brought to a cataclysmic end—we see on the walls of this Chamber the testament to that end and to the great war of 1914.

Has the Minister made any progress on farm machinery? That was promised during the last legislative process that we went through. Can he confirm tonight that there has been a breakthrough on the sale of eggs? People might think this is cracking, but it is not. It is important, because 80% of all eggs hatched in Northern Ireland are sold on the mainland.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

It is eggs-cellent. If that was not the case, and if there was a problem due to veterinary medicines, or salmonella, that matter of sales would be brought to an immediate end. Will the Minister confirm that there has been a derogation this evening for Northern Ireland with regard to the sale of eggs across the United Kingdom? [Interruption.]

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I do not have any “breaking” news to share with the hon. Gentleman tonight—but I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for that joke, which people will recognise as being characteristic of him.

I have slightly exceeded the time that I intended to take. I listened carefully to the speech from Carla Lockhart, and I have considerable sympathy with the points she makes. I think I accepted in my opening remarks that this is a hard compromise for Unionists and Eurosceptics, but I remain convinced and resolute that we have taken forward measures that respect the legitimate interests of Unionism in Northern Ireland and across the whole UK, and that move matters forward.

Jim Shannon, as always, made a great speech. My right hon. Friend John Redwood caused me in his challenge to doubt myself on the issue of VAT, so I want to affirm the position. The position on VAT is clear: the framework secured legally binding changes so that Northern Ireland benefits from the same VAT and alcohol taxes as in the rest of the UK. Those have been used to introduce reliefs on energy saving materials, to apply alcohol duty reforms UK wide, and to ensure that draught relief applies for beer sold in all UK pubs. Those benefits are being felt now in Northern Ireland and across the UK.

The hon. Member for North Antrim raised EORIs and I will be glad to return to that issue. My right hon. Friend Priti Patel mentioned plant trade, and I am pleased that, like her, businesses have welcomed measures in the Command Paper. Earlier this month my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State received a letter from prominent Northern Ireland horticultural businesses stating that, thankfully, with the restauration of the Executive they are already experiencing positive feedback from their suppliers in Great Britain, who are “optimistic” about trading with them without any challenges.

Let me be expressly clear once again: Northern Ireland’s position is based on consent. The task for those of us who want the Union to prosper is to consider how we broaden support for Northern Ireland’s constitutional position in a world that is very different from the one in which the agreement was reached in 1998. No one could really add to the speech made with great skill by my right hon. Friend the leader of the Democratic Unionist party. Central to that approach has to be to make Northern Ireland work and flourish, and to do so for everyone, regardless of their community background or political aspirations, which we absolutely respect. The Government will continue to work to deliver the suite of commitments made under the “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper, and continue to work with the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly Members to improve the lives of people living in Northern Ireland. Once again, I commend the Humble Address to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That an Humble Address be presented to His Majesty welcoming the return of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, re-affirming the importance of upholding the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998 in all its strands, acknowledging the foundational importance of the Acts of Union 1800, including the economic provisions under Article 6 of those Acts, and recognising that, consistent with section 23(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, executive power in Northern Ireland shall continue to be vested in His Majesty, and that joint authority is not provided for in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998 in respect of the UK and Irish Governments.