United Kingdom: Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:16 pm ar 14 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench 12:16, 14 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, for introducing this debate in the style with which he has. Much of what I say—indeed, all of what I say—is operating emotionally at a similar level.

In the last few days we have lost Lord McAvoy. I want briefly to pay tribute to him. His life embodied one of the many complex trajectories characteristic of the union, in his sympathies and his background as a Labour politician in Scotland. I recall with pleasure one exchange. A few years ago Sinn Féin had issued a statement and the Labour Party—actually, the Labour Government—did not like it and he said to me, “We are very cross with Sinn Féin and now we are going to send a very low-level delegation to its party conference to indicate how cross we are”. I said, “Oh, really, Lord McAvoy?”, and he said, “Yes. Me!” We will miss him.

I remember writing in the Sunday Times in the immediate aftermath of Brexit in January 2019, when the mood at the paper in many articles—including, to a degree, my own—was to the effect that Brexit may have triumphed but might now well destroy the union. There is no question that, for example, in some of the polling at that time—indeed, I was commenting in an article on that issue—you could see the rise of support for Irish unity within Northern Ireland, and similar things were being said about Scotland. Both Northern Ireland and Scotland had, after all, voted to a very large degree against Brexit.

Things today are considerably more stable. The Royal Irish Academy polling from Dublin—the ARINS project—would seem to indicate a substantial long-term lead for the union in Northern Ireland. It is arguable that it is probably the best polling we have. Again, in Scotland, many people feel that the union has been strengthened—I will return to this—by the collapse of the leadership of the Scottish National Party.

There is a point here that is sometimes missed: the sheer complexity and misery of the debates on leaving the EU, in this House and the other place. Even the most enthusiastic supporters of Brexit acknowledge that there were difficulties that nobody anticipated, along with the miseries, the points of discussion, the anguish. There is no question about that. That ended a relationship of a few decades, but I think there is a public sense that, if you start to end a constitutional relationship that is far more detailed—lasting for 224 years in the case of Northern Ireland—the mess and anguish that will set in for the next few years will make the Brexit debate and its miseries look like a tea party. I really think that, in that strange way, the Brexit debate has not, in the end, weakened the union.

I want to make one point about the connection between Scottish nationalism and Ireland. This week, the leader of the Scottish nationalists came to London to speak at the LSE. Once again, he returned to what used to be very fashionable in Scottish nationalism: the greatness of the Irish example and what an independent Scotland could do. Up to 2007, this was called the Atlantic arc. Then Ireland went bust in 2008 and suddenly, everybody forgot the Atlantic arc and how wonderful that was. Now Ireland is again doing wonderfully well, with remarkable growth rates, so it has become permissible again for Scottish nationalism to flirt with the idea that Ireland shows it will be okay. This is regardless of the fact that the sort of economists Scottish nationalists tend to like on other issues—the big-name economists such as Krugman, Stiglitz and Piketty—are all critics of the Irish model of development, which they all regard, in a certain sense, as dubious. It is worth noting that the EU Tax Observatory’s Global Tax Evasion Report 2024, published in January, has a tone that would make any Scottish nationalist who studied it carefully realise that, whatever happens with respect to Ireland’s still extremely interesting tax policies—extremely complex and, in some people’s eyes, extremely dubious—there is absolutely no possibility that Scotland, as a new member of the EU, would be allowed to play the same game.

There is one other thing that ought to be stressed. We are proud in England that the PISA rates for educational performance have risen in the last few years, against the expected trend. So it is too with the Irish Republic. After the crash, it was told by the big American firms, “You think your education system is great? It’s not so great—you have to do better”. There was a clear, serious response to that on the part of the Irish Republic. Education is one of the mysteries of devolution: we assumed it would work well, but the performance of the devolved regions, particularly Wales and Scotland, is strikingly unimpressive. Again, if Scotland is paying attention to Ireland, the reality is that Ireland did, in one way, pull itself up by its own bootstraps.

I turn to the resolution and the very welcome return, in my view, of the functioning Good Friday institutions in Northern Ireland. After the major negotiating setbacks embodied in the 2017 joint report with the EU and the first draft of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, there has been a slow and steady struggle to get to the point we have finally got to and to take the poison of Brexit out of Northern Irish politics. This involved, among a number of things, insisting that the Good Friday agreement was based not on something called an Ireland economy but on the co-operation of two economies—north and south—and insisting that a harmonious east-west relationship between Belfast and London was important. Another crucial part of the international agreement is that the UK Government, being the sovereign Government, cannot leave a political community in a state of alienation.

These were the key points that lay at the heart of what has been, in one shape or another, five long years of negotiation to get these institutions up and running. People talked about Britain’s—or London’s—neglect of Northern Ireland, but this was a huge labour of patience and hard work. Even those in Northern Ireland who criticise it and believe it does not go far enough acknowledge that it was a serious attempt to deal with the problem, in so far as it could be dealt with.

There is no doubt in my mind that if, after continuing on the basis of the DUP leader having enunciated seven tests, he had then said, “No, we didn’t quite mean that; we meant something else more extensive”, it would have been disastrous for the union. He did not do that, to his credit; he said, “These are my seven tests, and we now have enough progress on those”, and he did not introduce a new agenda. There is no doubt that it would have been disastrous for the union if many Northern Ireland Catholics had continued to believe, not without reason, that the unionists had not accepted the outcome of an election result, which was under their rules, essentially, and not accepted the first Sinn Féin First Minister. It is very good that those poisons have been removed from the union, and it is now clear that it is possible to develop the politics of Northern Ireland along more progressive lines.

Finally, I find myself slightly surprised to be supporting this Motion, because I am certain that I am the only Member of your Lordships’ House who was once a member of Sinn Féin, then the Workers’ Party, and then the Democratic Left, which played a very important role in the Bruton Government in the mid-1990s and opened up contact with Belfast, which no previous Irish Government had done. I am proud of that connection and, in the aftermath of the death of John Bruton, I pay tribute to the work that he did. Without him, there would not, in my view, have been a successful negotiation of the Good Friday agreement, because trust was built up. But that has now evaporated. The trust that used to exist between leaders in Dublin and in Belfast has evaporated and needs to be radically reconstructed.

The recent referendum in Dublin, which was a startling defeat for the whole political class—the opposition as well as the governing parties—reveals that they do know even their own people. What is certain is that, if we are going to have Irish unity at any stage, it has to be based on a level of understanding between north and south. We are nowhere near that at this point. That is one reason why I am very happy to support the Motion.