Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 8:30 pm ar 13 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench 8:30, 13 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I rise, first, to make clear my strong support for these two statutory instruments. I say one thing straightaway: there was no possibility of a settlement to the difficulties created by Brexit that did not involve an element of compromise. I have heard the phrase “the people of Northern Ireland” used several times tonight, as if there were one people of Northern Ireland. There are in fact two peoples in Northern Ireland; that is very brutally the case. The latest agreement reflects the compromise, and I will come back to why that is so.

Equally, I have heard a lot of talk about business opinions. The truth is that the great bulk of business in Northern Ireland is solidly in favour of the Windsor Framework; again, I think it is worth recording that. But the most important thing of all is to record the fact that there are two communities.

I have heard a lot tonight about how the Good Friday agreement has been in some way flouted. I want to say something quite important about this. The international agreement places certain responsibilities on the hand of the sovereign Government. Where a situation of alienation arises in one community or the other, the sovereign Government—in this case, obviously, the United Kingdom Government—have a responsibility to deliver: to act in a way that ends that alienation, if at all possible. That is what the international agreement means.

I have heard aggrieved nationalists protest about the unionist content of the Command Paper. I did not hear that when, for example, the Irish languages Act went through this House. That was clearly designed to deal with the alienation of one section of the community, which wanted that Act. I am not aware, rightly or wrongly, that there was any enthusiasm for it in the unionist community.

This is another version of a similar attempt by the Government to fulfil their functions, which were given to them in an international agreement. It is as simple as that. There was no other way of restoring Stormont had the Government not faced up to the fact that every unionist public representative was against the protocol as it then existed. That includes the Ulster Unionist Party as well as the DUP. There was no other way of restoring Stormont but by the route that has been chosen. I am slightly surprised tonight to hear people say, “I’m glad Stormont’s come back but I don’t like the way it was done”. Let us be clear: there was no way of doing it other than the way that the Government chose—none whatever. Everything else is just pie in the sky. There was only one way of doing it, and this Command Paper is part of that way.

Perhaps I could put that in some context. This Command Paper, which is basically unionist in tone, is number five in a series of key documents. The first was the joint report of December 2017, then came the withdrawal agreement that the May Government agreed, which did not in the end get through Parliament, then the withdrawal agreement that the Johnson Government did agree, and finally we have the Command Paper Safeguarding the Union. It is the fifth item on the bookshelf.

The crucial thing to understand is that the joint report of 2017, because of the weakness of the then UK Government, was a huge victory for the Irish Government—so much so that senior Irish officials regarded it as having gone too far. In particular, there is the commitment to the island economy. The island economy may be said to exist in agri-food; otherwise, it does not exist in substance. There are two economies on the island of Ireland. This was a flouting of the Good Friday agreement.

I can remember the days of 1997 and 1998. I am looking at the noble Lords, Lord Rogan and Lord Empey, who may remember this. The Irish Government never talked in those discussions about an island economy. The Irish Government, let alone the British Government, talked about two economies on the island of Ireland. That was the basis of the agreement reached in 1998. It did not stop those people who insist that the Good Friday agreement was about an island economy—the TUV said 25 years ago, “This is an island economy; political unification is just about to come”. Exactly the same thing is being said 25 years later, with equally little evidence, about the Windsor Framework. It is just a repetition of a tired old trope.

The Safeguarding the Union paper reflects the hard reality that the European dimension of the British economy and the all-Ireland dimension of the Northern Irish economy are limited; 20% in total, probably something of that order, of the Northern Irish workforce will have to think about European law in these firms. Most of these are extremely enthusiastic to embrace it because it is important to their export concerns. Having said that, the bulk of the economy in Northern Ireland, with its large state sector and so on, is locked into the rest of the United Kingdom. These are just brutal facts; no amount of rhetoric will change it. But it was very dangerous for the UK Government to agree in 2017 that they would foster an island economy.

Five years on, we have now moved to a very different place. The withdrawal agreement that Theresa May brought to this House makes absolutely no reference to the existence of a Northern Irish Assembly. It does matter what the people of Northern Ireland think—both sections of them. It matters what they think about these events and they should not be imposed. There should be a mechanism for consent. The 2019 withdrawal agreement opened the door to a mechanism of consent, and later that year the Assembly would have that vote on the mechanism of consent. I do not accept the idea that it is only the views of one community that matter in this respect. The views of both communities matter. For all its faults, the 2019 withdrawal agreement had a role for the Assembly and moved away from the idea that you can just impose willy-nilly on the people of Northern Ireland these arrangements without any mechanism of democratic consent.

That is the context. Yes, there is a unionist tone to Safeguarding the Union, but it has to be seen as an answer to a progress of four other documents. It is the fifth document in a process to sort this out. It is a point of rebalancing these arrangements and it was the only way to achieve the return of devolution in Northern Ireland, which we all recognise is a good—although some of us do not seem willing to accept the means by which it was done.

I want to say a word about how this debate is progressing in Northern Ireland today. I accept completely that there is an argument, as the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, eloquently raised, about European law. However, the seven tests of the DUP, put to the people of Northern Ireland in June 2021, do not make European law the central issue—or any type of issue. It is just indisputable. It is only two little words; they are not there. The people of Northern Ireland were asked to vote on this matter; they were not asked explicitly to vote on the question against, “I will not live with any form of European law”. They simply were never asked this. The seven tests are absolutely explicit about the issues. There will be an argument about how well they have been met, and the current DUP leadership argues in substance that there has been substantial progress in meeting the seven tests.

What has happened is that there has been an interaction in the way that I have talked about between the Good Friday agreement and the Act of Union, properly understood. Again, those who argued on the Act of Union had apparently just never read it. If they had, they would have warned their supporters that it includes tariffs and an Irish Sea border far stronger than anything that is included here. It was intended to be temporary but operated for 79 years. They would have told their supporters that there were customs borders between Britain and Northern Ireland for most of the life of the union, unless they wanted to frighten them and say, “This is the most frightening thing in the world”. It is fairly clear that those who made an enormous storm about the Act of Union were unaware of its full contents and the provision that it makes—for example, taxes on Bibles crossing the Irish Sea.

That is now over and Northern Ireland has moved on, but we have to understand that there is a serious attempt in the Command Paper, which is a very detailed historical exegesis, to deliver on the part of the Act of Union that is living. The people of Northern Ireland should be treated fairly in these matters, and it is a serious attempt to expand that part of the Act of Union in so far as that is possible. I assure the House that compromise is unavoidable on these issues.

I have one final point about the achievement embodied in these statutory instruments and the re-establishment of the Assembly. The Conservative Party is in the position where it supports the union willy-nilly; it has no conditions on that. That is not the Labour Party position in recent times. Since Tony Blair’s famous speech at Balmoral, which I and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, remember, the position of the Labour Party is that it supports the union, so it is not neutral on that, but only on the basis of a working power-sharing devolved north-south set of arrangements. That is the classic position of the Labour Party as I understand it, and I do not hear any sign that it has changed. As a result of this agreement, the instability that might have flowed from the possible election of a Labour Government will not flow because we now have power-sharing devolution. The possible tensions between a London Government and Northern Irish unionism will not be there. That is a very significant point but so far, in all the recent debates, it is not a point that I have heard made on behalf of the deal that has been done.