United Kingdom: Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:45 pm ar 14 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Non-affiliated 12:45, 14 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, particularly since she mentioned “Strictly Come Dancing”—I thank her for that. I declare my registered interests as the chair of Together UK Foundation. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McInnes of Kilwinning, for bringing forward this debate, and congratulate him on the pronunciation of Aghadrumsee, which he has done very well. One of his colleagues has now taken to introducing me as the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of unpronounceable—which is fine.

I will talk about Aghadrumsee but, before I do, I also welcome the Minister to his place. No doubt he will reflect on his beautiful part of the United Kingdom when he speaks. I welcome him to this House as a fellow unionist and wish him well for his time on the Front Bench.

I come from what some people call the edge of the union. When I was appointed to this place, there was never any doubt as to which title I would take. Aghadrumsee is a townland near the Fermanagh-Monaghan border. In Irish it means field of the ridge of the sallows, but for me it was my whole world growing up. It was where I was baptised into the Anglican faith at our small church, St Mark’s. It was where I attended the little primary school, and where I attended children’s parties at the local Orange hall.

It is now 45 years since the IRA upset the tranquillity of my home when it came to murder my father at our home just a mile from Aghadrumsee. He was, you see, a legitimate target because he was a police officer serving in the local RUC station in Rosslea. He survived, despite the IRA’s best efforts, but as a result he was advised to move to a safer part of the country, and so we moved. This was the strategy of the IRA: to target the eyes and ears of the Brits in the area, and to move them out of the area to create a buffer zone along the border for their nefarious criminality.

My father was one of the lucky ones. He lived for another 32 years, dying at the age of 81, and is now buried at Aghadrumsee parish graveyard. My sister and her family live in our homestead. Many did not survive the sustained attack on the union, and I pay tribute to their service and dedication.

Despite its intent, the IRA did not succeed, and now the title of the little townland of Aghadrumsee—taken to honour my late father and to bring a little bit of south-east Fermanagh to Parliament—is seen on the annunciator and in the Hansard of the House of Lords. It is as much a part of the union as it ever was.

The IRA did not succeed in its terrorist campaign to take us out of the union but, despite this, republicans in Northern Ireland, and indeed in Scotland, now tell us that a united Ireland or an independent Scotland are inevitable, so we should get with the project. They even have a few useful fools, who should know better, helping them to make that claim. There is nothing inevitable about a united Ireland or an independent Scotland. Nationalists continually push this narrative, just as they claim that all the ills of society will be solved by independence. That is a comfortable belief for the followers of republicanism across the United Kingdom that allows each generation to think that with one last heave, or one last push, independence will happen. We in Northern Ireland have retained the United Kingdom against fierce opposition for more than 100 years, so the historicism or inevitability argument has not worked.

In fact, both the assertions—that all problems will be solved and that it is coming around the next corner—are nonsense, but they are allowed to gain traction. The narrative from media is that we should engage with the conversation because change is coming.

We should always push back against that narrative, and instead move to a narrative of why the United Kingdom is good for all its citizens. The opinion polls in Northern Ireland, which have been referenced, show strong support for the union, so do not be fooled by the pro-nationalist press trying to push their agenda of a united Ireland, or indeed of an independent Scotland.

Unionism for its part should not pretend to be simple but rather be multi-faceted and address many questions. Unionism, as the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, referenced rightly, is not narrow or reductionist but broad and diverse, and that is its strength. It is true that the challenges unionism faces will evolve with each generation. The benefits of the union likewise will show themselves in different ways over the years. During the pandemic, for example, we saw the strength of the union in a very practical way through the financial schemes and the rollout of the vaccinations. I was able to get my vaccination in Enniskillen at the same time as people in Devon and Cornwall. In Northern Ireland we also had the expertise and advice available to the devolved Administrations from the centre, which was vital in moving ahead.

The union and the United Kingdom is a rational political ideal, and as such the majority of people in Northern Ireland will, I believe, continue to support it—yes, for different reasons, but that is okay. Some are cultural and constitutional unionists, like myself; others are economic unionists; others, as the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, said, are just content with the status quo. As unionists, we need to understand that not everyone will vote for the union for the same reasons—the important thing is to get them to vote for the union.

For my part, I am hugely proud to be British. Our Britishness is about much more than the passport we hold. It cannot and should not be reduced to a name or a badge. It is about shared history going back generations and pride in having ended the slave trade, being the home of the Industrial Revolution, and founding the welfare state. It is about the institutions that, as the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, has said, we cherish and are the envy of others. Our allegiance to our shared institutions—whether cultural, through the historic ties that bind us, or in wider society—also gives us that sense of togetherness that is important for our emotional connection to the United Kingdom.

When I stepped down from politics in Northern Ireland, I set up the Together UK Foundation to set out the positive value of the four parts staying together and thriving together. That foundation continues to advocate for the holistic view of the United Kingdom. We have pride in our role for good in the world, something which is tangible—not just two world wars and the struggle against communism in the past but the battle for freedom and democracy today, particularly in Ukraine.

Our place in the world is important to us in the UK, but it is also, from a defence, security and intelligence point of view, important for countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—our allies in the Five Eyes intelligence community. If the United Kingdom was broken up by separatists, what would happen to our safety and security and that of the wider western alliance?

Recently, Policy Exchange published an excellent paper called Closing the Back Door; I commend it to your Lordships’ House. It shines a light on the strategic importance of Northern Ireland and its assets, particularly its ports, to the defence of the UK and indeed wider Europe. With Ireland as a neutral state, it is important that Northern Ireland is kept as a base for when threats occur, and that is the case made by the paper.

The union has allowed people from all parts to make a contribution in political, social and cultural life. I know that some people like to present Northern Ireland’s relationship to the rest of the UK as one of more “take” than “give”. Certainly, in an economic sense the UK has allowed the sharing of wealth and prosperity not just between people but across the country, and Northern Ireland has been a huge beneficiary of that. This pooling of resources across the UK is one of the great attractions, but it is not just about financial support, even though that is particularly important.

My belief in and support for the union does not depend on economic arguments, although it is overwhelmingly the case that we are better together. Northern Ireland’s businesses and people pay into the Exchequer like their counterparts in every part of the kingdom, but our contribution is not just about pounds and pence. It is much broader than that.

I fully support this Motion. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, for bringing it to the Floor today. Our safety, stability, security and success depend on the union. We must continue our work to safeguard it for future generations.