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 Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Llafur 10:15, 13 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, it has been a long night, but an important night. I hope there will be another debate in the not-too-distant future which will allow more Members of your Lordships’ House to take part on this important issue. The Opposition support the statutory instrument, as we support the deal done by the Government and the DUP. I add my own congratulations to the Minister personally, to his boss the Secretary of State and, of course, to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and others involved in the negotiations in the last months.

It is significant that this is probably the first major debate we have had on Northern Ireland that has not been about emergency legislation and giving powers to civil servants. It has not been about bringing down the Assembly because of what has happened over the last couple of years. It is very positive in that respect. We are talking about the restoration of those institutions of government in Northern Ireland, and the Executive and Assembly in particular. That is hugely significant. I take the point about the money—it is the Treasury again, I suspect—but we will have an opportunity to debate that in future weeks. It is great news for the people of Northern Ireland, whatever their background and community, that they now have democratic government restored. For that, all of us, I am sure, should be grateful.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, in an extremely interesting contribution to tonight’s debate talked about the Act of Union—which was a long time ago—and how that was not set in stone over the centuries. If you look back at it since 1801, particularly in the 20th century when there was the old Stormont Parliament, of course there were customs regulations. When I was an Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland, there were customs regulations on agriculture and horticulture coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. It is not new, and the idea that somehow or other Northern Ireland should not be different really is nonsense, because Scotland and Wales are different and Northern Ireland is different in all sorts of ways.

The issue is that it is different within the context of our leaving the European Union; of course I understand that. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and my noble friends Lord Hain and Lady Ritchie all mentioned the fact that Brexit caused it. Whatever our views on Brexit—and I was very much a remainer, and I am deeply disappointed that my country, Wales, did not vote to stay in the European Union—it was Brexit that caused this and there are two points about that I want to make.

The first one is that the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain. I agree that the law is quite clear: you leave as a whole, as the United Kingdom. But it is the only measurement we have of what the people of Northern Ireland thought about the whole idea of Brexit. The second one is that I and lots of politicians failed when those Brexit referendum debates were going on to actually deal with the issue of Northern Ireland and Ireland; we were all to blame for that. We did not realise—I certainly did not—that the turmoil that would result in Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland as a consequence of Brexit would lead to the protocol and to the Windsor Framework and to this.

It is quite clear why we were in this mess and why we still have a long way to go to assuage people in Northern Ireland on the unionist side that things can only get better. This deal is not perfect; deals never are. It is a comprise; all deals are compromises. The Good Friday agreement was a compromise; the St Andrews agreement was a compromise. If we are to look at that Good Friday agreement, which is quoted all the time in the Command Paper, the two big issues that come out are the principle of consent and parity of esteem. The unionist argument over the last couple of years has been on both those issues: that the consent across Northern Ireland was not there with regard to the arrangements on leaving the European Union and, as a consequence, the parity of esteem was not there.

However many statutory instruments this House or the other House agrees, the union is safe, not because of statutory instruments but because, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, of the people. The people of Northern Ireland by their consent will agree whether to remain in the United Kingdom. When I first came into the House of Commons a long time ago, the policy of the Labour Party was a united Ireland. When Tony Blair became the leader of the Opposition, he changed it and said you could not argue for that; you had to argue for what we agreed in the Good Friday agreement, which was the principle of consent. All this other stuff in the deal, in the statutory instruments, is nothing compared to that basic principle that it is safe so long as the people of Northern Ireland so agree. Even if they did agree to leave the United Kingdom, that would not be easy either but that is for us to consider another day; it is safe at the moment.

This deal—this restoration of the Assembly and the Executive—is about not just strand 1 but strands 2 and 3 as well. If you bring down the Assembly and the Executive, there are no north-south bodies. But strand 2 was an integral part of the Good Friday agreement, which would not have happened without it. The nationalist community had to be satisfied that it was being regarded with parity of esteem as much as the unionists—and strand 2 did that. I do not have many questions for the Minister, but I will ask this: what precisely will happen with regard to the North/South Ministerial Council and the north-south bodies as a consequence of the restoration of the institutions of strand 1?

I will make the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, powerfully made: in all this argument over the last two years, the nationalist point of view has inevitably taken second place because, to get this agreement, we had to get the unionist parties on side with the protocol. This has meant that there has been a gap in looking after the interests of that other community—and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, the increasing number of people in Northern Ireland who do not identify with either. That is not insignificant: if you look at the figures, there are 27 members of the Assembly from Sinn Féin, 25 from the DUP and 17 from the Alliance Party. That would have been impossible in the days when I was a Minister for Northern Ireland. It has changed dramatically, so we have to take that into account.

I make a plea that I think everybody here and in Northern Ireland would make: we do not want this to happen again. Sinn Féin brought the Assembly down for three years. The DUP walked out, and that meant that the Assembly went down for two years. That is five years altogether without a Government. There has to be a system, agreed by the parties in Northern Ireland, that will never let that happen again.