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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 10:30 pm ar 13 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 10:30, 13 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I thank all those who contributed to this brief debate. I will endeavour not to keep us much beyond midnight. I jest—but, in all seriousness, if there is one thing that I think we can all agree on, it is that this debate has demonstrated once again the importance of Northern Ireland to all of us who have contributed, no matter where we stand on the deal, the Command Paper or these statutory instruments. We all care immensely and passionately about Northern Ireland and its future, and that is shared right across this Chamber. I am particularly grateful for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and for their general support for the regulations. I am grateful for their kind words about me personally—that is very much appreciated. I am in a position to give the noble Baroness the assurances she sought from me.

The noble Lord, Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, mentioned strand 2 of the agreement. He is absolutely right that it is a three-stranded agreement in which all parts are interlocking and interdependent on each other. We look forward to an early meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, and I look forward to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland taking up their seats once again when the British-Irish Council next meets to carry out its important work. The restoration of strand 1—the Assembly and the Executive—which I think most of us in this House support, makes possible the proper functioning of the agreement once again in all its dimensions. I say that conscious that a number of noble Lords present were instrumental in the reaching of that agreement back in April 1998.

I also commend what I thought was an outstanding and typically learned contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Bew. I also commend many of the wise words of the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee, and I very much welcome the tone of the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, from the DUP Benches. I very much welcome the fact that the DUP has decided, under the leadership of Jeffrey Donaldson, to go back into the Executive. It is a matter of record that we did not think it was the right move to pull out of the Executive. For the record, we did not agree with Sinn Féin coming out of the Executive between 2017 and 2020.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and my noble friend Lord Empey that bringing down the institutions in order to get one’s way is not the right way forward—we probably need to look at how, again agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, we can make the institutions more robust and resilient in future, although that is necessarily a conversation that would have to take place with Northern Ireland’s political parties. I agree also with the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Murphy, and my noble friend Lord Empey about the importance of a functioning Assembly for the strength of the union. To me and others, it seems that devolved power-sharing is the surest foundation for the governance of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

I put something on the record, for the avoidance of any doubt, and state once again that the Government are steadfastly committed to upholding the Belfast agreement in all its parts—all three strands—including the undertaking to deliver for everyone in Northern Ireland, no matter their community background or their political aspirations. We are committed to governing in the interests of the entire community in Northern Ireland: I hope that reassures the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and others who raised the point about impartiality and parity of esteem, that we are committed to governing in the interests of the whole community. The UK Government recognise and respect the legitimacy of different constitutional ambitions for the people of Northern Ireland, although our clear preference, and mine personally, is very strongly for the union. I should add that nothing in the agreement prevents the United Kingdom Government having a view about the future of the United Kingdom.

The agreement is also explicit that any change to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would require the consent of a majority of its people. At present, our view is that there is no evidence to suggest that a majority of people in Northern Ireland wish to separate from the United Kingdom. The restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive is an enormous achievement by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and others. It is right that we now give the Executive sufficient space to focus on delivering for the people of Northern Ireland without, if I may say so, other constitutional distractions. I agree also with what the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee, said about joint authority: that is clearly not something that this Government would countenance—either de facto or de jure, I say in response to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. The agreement is very clear that there are two constitutional outcomes for Northern Ireland: one is to remain part of the United Kingdom; the other is to be part of a united Ireland. Our preference is strongly for the United Kingdom, but of course we abide totally by the principle of consent which is in the 1998 agreement.

It has been a very long debate and a number of Members on the Benches behind me set out their opposition to the Command Paper in terms that are well known—and indeed the position, if I can say it gently, of some other members of their party in this respect. At this stage, if I were to answer every question that I have been asked this evening, we would be here beyond midnight. Therefore, if noble Lords will be so kind, I will take away the very detailed and technical questions that were asked of me and commit to writing in detail, with full answers to each of the points raised.

I place on record the Government’s view that this legislation ensures that Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the United Kingdom is put beyond any shadow of a doubt. The presumption of automatic alignment with EU goods law is ended; Northern Ireland’s access to the UK internal market is safeguarded; treaties that might create barriers within the UK’s own internal market are prohibited; Bills that are put before this House that impact trade with Northern Ireland will be rigorously screened; the operation of a consent vote in the Assembly is enshrined; and action by public authorities consistent with protecting the UK internal market is ensured.

As a number of noble Lords made clear, the important point that we should not lose sight of is that these regulations help to deliver a power-sharing devolved Government in Northern Ireland, serving all parts of the community with parity of esteem. As I said earlier, a functioning Northern Ireland Executive working with the UK Government is the surest foundation for Northern Ireland’s stability and its future as part of our United Kingdom. The Government believe that the new Executive provide fantastic new opportunities for Northern Ireland to take advantage of its place within our internal market and of its privileged access to the EU single market. It is already a fantastic place for business and investment, but it could become even more so as a result of the arrangements we have in place. I heard that at first hand when speaking with a number of businesses and potential investors in Boston and New York last year, on foot of the Northern Ireland Investment Summit that took place in Belfast and Hillsborough in September.

I am conscious of time. I promise to write in great detail to noble Lords. In conclusion, Northern Ireland has enormous potential. It is our view that Northern Ireland’s potential can be realised, and that Northern Ireland can move forward as a place where politics now starts to work, where the economy grows and where society is more united and strong. As my noble friend Lord Empey said, the imperative for any unionist now has to be to make Northern Ireland a place where more people want the union than oppose it.

On that note, it is with the greatest confidence in the future for Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom that I beg to move.

Motion agreed.