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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 10:15 pm ar 13 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Suttie Baroness Suttie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 10:15, 13 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, I will try to inject a little positivity into what has been a very long and unfortunately rather negative debate, although I understand the many comments and justifiable criticisms made by the noble Lords opposite. Given the hour, I shall also endeavour to be brief.

I start by greatly welcoming that the institutions in Northern Ireland are once again up and running. That is an achievement and it needs to be celebrated. From these Benches I commend the political leadership and courage, and the ability to see the bigger picture, that have taken us to this point—not least the personal drive and commitment shown by the Minister himself. It is still early days, but I believe there are grounds for optimism that this time the Assembly will continue to sit.

The people of Northern Ireland are entitled to expect a period of stability, so that the many health, educational and economic crises can begin to be addressed. Before I turn to the details of the regulations I would like to recall, as other noble Lords have done, that we are facing all these highly complex issues, and the equally complex set of proposals and solutions in front of us, because of Brexit. I felt that the noble Lords, Lord Bew and Lord Hain, made that case extremely powerfully in tonight’s debate.

A colleague was reminding me just the other day of the excellent report on Brexit and the island of Ireland that the EU Select Committee of your Lordships’ House published way back in December 2016. That report so accurately anticipated so many of the issues that we are still trying to tackle, nearly eight years on from the EU referendum.

I would also like to commend the excellent job done by the Northern Ireland protocol committee, now the Windsor Framework committee, of this House. Several noble Lords referred to it and several are indeed members of it. It has done so much to scrutinise the realities being faced by Northern Ireland on these issues. No matter which of the latest solutions we are debating, I have always felt that it is the elected politicians in Northern Ireland who are best placed to find pragmatic solutions. They are also in the best position to resolve any continuing barriers.

This evening, so much of the focus has been on the understandable concerns about unfettered access and trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, but perhaps too little is made—at least in this Chamber this evening—of the potential opportunities offered by joint access to the EU market.

In that regard, it is important that the Stormont brake is considered only as an instrument of last resort. It is important that the recently restored Northern Ireland institutions have a strong dialogue with Brussels and are in a position to flag potential issues as soon as possible. Can the Minister say whether he has had conversations with the Executive to investigate mechanisms for ensuring that effective dialogue takes place with the EU at an early stage in the process? It is extremely important that maximum attention is given to particular concerns facing Northern Ireland businesses at an early stage of the decision-making process in the EU.

Turning to the regulations themselves, the excellent short report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee on these regulations—as quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie—states:

“Given the complexity of the interaction of two regulatory systems in NI, we note the importance of the forthcoming guidance to provide clarity to businesses and other stakeholders on how the new arrangements should be applied in practice”.

When does the Minister expect that this additional guidance will be published? Can he give continued reassurance about ongoing consultation with both the Executive and Northern Ireland businesses to ensure that this guidance is as effective and user friendly as possible?

As the noble Lord, Lord Hay, said in his very powerful speech, the devil will be in the detail on how these new mechanisms will work in practice. In a similar vein, can the Minister say when he expects further details and guidance to be published on how the new independent monitoring panel, InterTrade UK and the new east-west council will operate in practice? As other noble Lords have asked, how will they work with existing institutions?

It is also very important that other parts of the UK understand these new bodies and regulations and understand how they will work. This is particularly true for the business community and the rest of the UK Civil Service. Does the Minister anticipate a communications plan to ensure that the details set out in the Command Paper, as well as the future guidance, is widely understood by relevant stakeholders across the wider UK?

In conclusion, I believe there is every reason to be optimistic, despite the many speeches this evening. But we need to learn from the lessons of the recent past. We need to see a return to trust and inclusiveness in Northern Ireland politics.