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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 9:15 pm ar 13 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Non-affiliated 9:15, 13 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I hope to change tack a little and bring a bit positivity to the debate. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, that I hope that Mr Foster has gone to somewhere other than a supermarket to get his flowers for tomorrow.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that I listened very carefully to what he had to say; it is not the first time that he has made his de jure and de facto point about joint authority. I was pleased to see that that issue is addressed in the Command Paper. It is said that there is no halfway house: we are either in the United Kingdom or we are not.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that it is important that people in Northern Ireland recognise the advantages of being in the United Kingdom. We need to focus on making that point more strongly, particularly because of his point about the so-called third community, which a lot of people speak about now. For me, that is the critical point—to say to people in Northern Ireland that you are much better off within the United Kingdom than leaving the United Kingdom.

Much has also been made of the DUP and Sinn Féin leaving the Executive and collapsing the institutions when I was First Minister. Of course, that was not the first time that the institutions collapsed. They collapsed in 2002, and for understandable reasons at the time as well, not coming back until 2007. This is not the first time that the institutions have collapsed. It is important that we find a sustainable way to keep the institutions going, but for that to happen, I go back to the issue of both communities. I know that it is not the issue that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, wants me to address, but it has always been the case that we need to bring everybody along with us. I hear what people are saying about Brexit and people have raised those issues, but the difficulty about the protocol is that it did damage to those east-west relations and therefore caused that rift which led to the issues that brought us to where we are today.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, referred to the 1998 Belfast agreement. The problem is that the agreement was ruptured by the protocol. That is why we ended up where we were. In passing, she also made references to reconciliation. We would all love to see genuine reconciliation in Northern Ireland, but I despair a little when I hear the now First Minister say that there was no alternative to murder and mayhem happening in Northern Ireland over a period. I regret that, and it is absolutely wrong that it was said in the way that it was said.

There is a lot of noise about the fact that one party, the DUP, was involved in negotiations and no one else. No one else took up the cudgel to deal with the issues that were there. Other people wanted rigorous implementation of the protocol. They did not want to step up and take on the issues that were so obvious to everybody in and outside Northern Ireland. I hear what has been said, but this all came about because there was a break with the fact that unionist people in Northern Ireland simply could not abide by what was there. If we want to see Stormont work, both communities must be involved. It is important that we recognise that.

Sometimes those of us from Northern Ireland who travel to this place will complain about our journey. I was thinking about that this morning as I was travelling over, in the context of this issue and the fact that we are discussing it tonight. I was thinking about the architect of our modern United Kingdom, namely Viscount Castlereagh. As Chief Secretary for Ireland, he ensured that the Act of Union was put in place and therefore since 1801 politicians been travelling to this place and the other place to advocate, first, for Ireland and, now, for Northern Ireland. It was a different journey to that which I undertook; I had a very nice journey this morning. Castlereagh is mentioned in the Command Paper. I very much welcome that because at long last, something that was promised in 2020, in New Decade, New Approach, is going to be delivered. It is important that we have a foundation to explore identity and history from an academic point of view and to honour Viscount Castlereagh’s legacy. I very much welcome that it is there.

I welcome the repudiation of this notion of an all-Ireland economy. I am grateful for the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, in relation to this. It did come about in that joint report, but it did not just appear. It came about because civil servants in Northern Ireland were tasked to look at cross-border co-operation. Cross-border co-operation happens for all the right reasons. Some of it is very sensible, but somehow that was conflated into an all-Ireland economy, and that is not the case.

I am glad that that is repudiated in this document, and that we are seeing a sensible way forward, because Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the United Kingdom constitutionally and politically, and important from an economic point of view in the UK internal market. We are in the UK internal market and we have access to the European single market. I have heard other areas saying: “We only wish that we could have that for our part of the United Kingdom”. I have heard people say as well: “Northern Ireland did not vote for Brexit”. That is right, but we are part of the United Kingdom, which did vote for Brexit. That is the point. Now we have the internal market of the United Kingdom but access to the single European market. Yes, there are difficulties associated with that, and we have to acknowledge them.

When I spoke about the Act of Union previously, the Minister pointed out to me that the Act of Union had changed. I think the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has referenced that as well tonight, not least in relation to partition. The noble Lord and I were talking about the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland at that time, which I was saying was a real shame. In any event, there is no doubt that the union of the United Kingdom has evolved over this past century. What unionists and those who really care about economics wanted to see was that internal market of the United Kingdom working properly. I am pleased that that has been addressed; I know there are difficulties and there are still challenges ahead in relation to that. I accept all the points that my noble friends have made, but, given that, can the Minister indicate when we might see the creation of the east-west council, which will then allow for InterTrade UK to be set up, and also the independent monitoring panel? Those bodies will have a key role going forward, looking at where the challenges are and dealing with those challenges. For me, those bodies are key to the future of what happens here and, indeed, what happens in Northern Ireland.

As is often the case, good work has been done; there have been gains, but, as we say in my part of the world, eaten bread is soon forgotten. We need to be constantly vigilant against those who seek to harm the United Kingdom for their own narrow ends, and therefore I look forward to those bodies being set up. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some clarity in relation to that.