United Kingdom: Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:26 pm ar 14 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Dodds of Duncairn Lord Dodds of Duncairn DUP 12:26, 14 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bew. What he has just said about his political journey is a reflection of the complexities of Northern Ireland politics and indicates how far many people have travelled in their support for the union and their acceptance of the arrangements set out through the St Andrews agreement and, before that, the Belfast agreement, as has now been amended by the consensual approach of unionists and nationalists. I also join the noble Lord in paying tribute to the late Lord McAvoy, who I had pleasure of working with in the other place for many, many years. For obvious reasons, he did not speak very much in the Chamber, but he was the consummate politician. I remember he told me once that he was a fervent Celtic supporter, which of course did not go down so well in certain quarters in Northern Ireland. He said, “But I keep myself right—I have some shares in Rangers”. He knew how to operate very well in Northern Ireland

I also welcome the Minister to his place and look forward to hearing his maiden speech. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McInnes of Kilwinning, for initiating this debate and for the way in which he introduced it. We have had some very thoughtful contributions; I hope I do not spoil the atmosphere in any shape or form. I look forward to hearing from others today.

The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, spoke about what we have in common across the United Kingdom, and he is so right in that. There is a sense in which, when we travel to different parts of the United Kingdom, we feel at home in those parts, even though there are big differences in culture, attitudes, history and so on, but there is a commonality. That is why I am a believer in devolution, and always have been. When unionism had a big debate between integration and devolution, I and others in our party were strong devolutionists. We believed in having that difference reflected in a way that would allow people to have their own policies—laws, even, in certain areas—but also be bound together as part of one United Kingdom. I still believe that that is the way forward. I accept that people want to see devolution in Northern Ireland. Our point is that it should operate on a proper democratic basis that respects the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. I will maybe say a word or two about that before I conclude, as noble Lords would expect me to do.

I believe in devolution and, as has been said, that there is a difference between party-political support, in terms of unionism and nationalism, and the general support of the populace—in Northern Ireland in particular—for the union. The noble Lord, Lord McInnes, has dealt with that point. There are issues for political unionism parties in Northern Ireland in addressing that and moving it forward, and gaining more and more support at the polls.

I have no doubt that there is still a very strong majority in Northern Ireland for the United Kingdom. Some of the propaganda and arguments that are put forward are not based on reality. I see that at the St Patrick’s celebrations in the United States this week, Sinn Féin has once again taken out advertisements, as it does in St Patrick’s week, calling for an immediate border poll. Even Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, has debunked this and said that there is no support for it, and I am glad he has done so. But this is not the way forward; we have just restored devolution and if Sinn Féin is serious about what it says, what is it doing stirring this up in the United States? It is a completely wrong approach.

However, I will say, in terms of the Irish Republic—and the noble Lord, Lord Bew, touched on this—that there has to be respect for the basis on which we have a political settlement in Northern Ireland, and for the three-stranded approach. The internal affairs of Northern Ireland—that there is a north-south dimension and an east-west dimension—are a matter for the people of Northern Ireland, the parties and the United Kingdom Government. The UK Government need to be quite robust in defending that, and there have been recent signs of this over legacy, including the pushback against Dublin’s legal claim on the legacy legislation. This week in Washington, Leo Varadkar talked about reform of the Northern Ireland Stormont institutions, and when that should happen. With the greatest respect, that is deeply destabilising to the politics of Northern Ireland and should be robustly rebuked by the UK Government.

This debate has been very positive. In a previous speech a week or two ago in your Lordships’ House, I referenced the positivity of the union and its important advantages for the people of Northern Ireland, and our many massive contributions—for example, to the Armed Forces, and that of the Harland & Wolff shipyard to industry—to the progress of the United Kingdom and to our history. But it is important to say that there is a concern among unionists today about the Windsor Framework—the Northern Ireland protocol. There has been a consensus in unionism that it has been damaging and wrong. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said about where we are at in all of this, but there are those who are concerned that a United Kingdom should not have internal customs and trade borders within it.

The recent Command Paper contains a lot of things which in and of themselves are positive, such as the east-west council and InterTrade UK, but the reason they are there is to mitigate a fundamental problem. The Select Committee on which I have the honour to serve took evidence yesterday from Steve Baker, the Cabinet Office and NIO Minister, in which he said, “Oh no, don’t worry about the border in the Irish Sea because, if you compare it with other international borders across the world, it is not as bad as any of them—it is nothing like them”. But that is not the point; we should be comparing it with borders between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—between parts of the United Kingdom.

There is no other country that I can see which has a situation where it is divided in such a fundamental way, in terms of customs and trade, and in relation to the imposition of foreign laws by a foreign political entity in its interests, without the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland—whether they be unionist, nationalist or other—having the opportunity to make, develop and amend those laws, or even to say yes or no if there is a change in them. That has to be addressed in the long term; it is an unsustainable position. It would be remiss of us if, while talking about all the other issues in this debate, we did not highlight that point and say it is an issue that must be resolved in a satisfactory way which restores democracy and UK sovereignty to part of the United Kingdom.