It is always a pleasure to follow Tim Farron. Although I perhaps did not agree with everything that he said today, we do agree on many other things. Indeed, I think that it is perhaps the first time that I have followed three Liberal Democrat speakers. I am not sure whether that gives them a numerical advantage, but one DUP man is equal to three Liberal Democrats—I say that in jest; we are not in any way against each other.
I have listened very closely to the speeches both last night and this afternoon. I must say that the case presented by the Prime Minister outlines what our fears were with the withdrawal Bill, which is the same withdrawal Bill that we voted against on three occasions when it was brought forward by the former Prime Minister. In January this year, we also voted against the withdrawal agreement because we felt at that time that it put us at a disadvantage. What makes this different is the position we now find ourselves in. The Prime Minister has brought forward a Bill that gives protection to Northern Ireland in a way that we would like to see. With that thrust and protection in the Bill for Northern Ireland, there is something that we agree in our party we can support, and we look forward to that. The exception is clause 47, to which we are bringing forward an amendment tomorrow that we feel would strengthen our position again. Hopefully the Prime Minister, Ministers, the Government and others will feel that that is the right way to go.
I am without doubt a proud Brexiteer. That is not a secret—it is well known. As a Unionist, I love this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I love my Scottish colleagues and they know that. I love my Plaid Cymru friends and I try to work with most people in this Chamber. They might have a different political viewpoint about the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but I will tell the House one thing: they are genuine people and I respect their point of view, even though I, in many cases, do not agree with it. I am simply someone who has experienced, in my nation—in Northern Ireland—the difference between intent and reality. This Bill has been brought forward to give help to the devolved Administrations as they look at trade, and I am very pleased to see that.
I am reminded of a devolved Administration today that I was a Member of for some 12 years, as long as my hon. Friend Ian Paisley was—the Northern Ireland Assembly. As a Unionist, I forewarned that the make-up of Stormont would lead to one party being able to bring the institution down. I listened as I was told that it would not happen as it was in the best interests of Northern Ireland to continue to work together. I sat in my office and watched the country being left adrift for almost three years, with this place reluctant to take over and upset the premise of devolution in everything other than the imposition of abortion against the will of the Assembly and the general public. But the Assembly is now up and running, and we want it to succeed. I want it understood in the internal market Bill that we can have an input, a contribution and a say from the Northern Ireland Assembly.
When my party and I warned that the good faith aspect of the withdrawal agreement was not enough security against what we were surrendering—the sovereignty of the UK over Northern Ireland—I did so not only as an anxious person, but as an experienced person, who has seen the process, and I understand why this Bill, without any changes, with the exception of clause 47, has been brought forward in a way that we can support: because it makes us stronger within the United Kingdom. I am pleased to see that.
Europe is doing what I knew it would always do, what it has historically done—ride roughshod over good intent to achieve its goal. There was an outcry when it was felt by my right hon. Friend Ian Blackford, the leader of the Scottish National party, that there would be a possible rise in food prices, with supermarket shelves lying empty, in the event of a no deal. And yet Europe has blatantly threatened that all goods may be considered at risk and that the rest of the United Kingdom may not be considered a third nation, meaning that the shelves in my constituency could be empty or that there could be price rises, whereas a trip over the Irish sea to my right hon. Friend’s constituency will see nothing of the same. Is that acceptable? In terms of the internal market Bill and the Trade Bill, as they have been put forward, are families in my constituency richer than those in the constituencies of others? No, they are not. Are their bellies less deserving of food?
I want to make a plea in respect of this Bill for the agri-food sector in my constituency—for Mash Direct, Rich Sauces and Lakeland Dairies, three companies that have some 2,500 jobs. I agree with Richard Fuller. With this Bill, are we decreasing or minimising our standards? No; he is right to say that we are not. Companies will grow, and we will retain the standards that we have achieved. There is no way in the world that we will let it be otherwise, and I respectfully suggest that anyone who thinks that we will has got it wrong. Previous Ministers have sought and got agreements across the world, including for trade deals in China. We got those markets with our products, quality levels and standards. We are not going to surrender them; we are going to keep them with this Bill.
The fisheries sector is also important to me and my constituency. It is important that this Bill becomes law to ensure not only that we can produce the products that we do out of Portavogie, Ardglass, Kilkeel and elsewhere in Northern Ireland, but that we can increase our trade and potential to grow, and continue to feed the United Kingdom and Europe.
The UK’s chief negotiator has confirmed:
“I am afraid it has also been said to us explicitly in these talks that if we are not listed we will not be able to move food to Northern Ireland…if GB were not listed, it would be automatically illegal for NI to import food products from GB.”
That is why this Bill, as it was presented by Government, is the way for us to move forward. The European institutions are using Northern Ireland—as I knew they would—to exert control and undermine our sovereignty, and the House is considering a method of protection, which is what the Bill is about. Yes, there could be a breach, but it is one of acting in bad faith, and the blame lies with the Europeans. They are threatening my constituents, Northern Ireland and the whole United Kingdom. They are threatening my constituents with the possibility that our biggest supplier, GB, will have checks and perhaps tariffs on my food—on my constituents’ food. Tariffs on fish, tariffs on food—am I less British than those from Scotland, Wales and England? Do I deserve less consideration and support from this Government? I do not, and my nation does not. The opinion and wishes of the Northern Ireland Assembly are entitled to such consideration.
I have listened to those who trounce out the Belfast agreement as a talisman against the United Kingdom internal market. When I look back—I say this with great respect—at the treachery of both Blair and Major with on-the-runs letters and shady backroom deals, and when I look at their banner-waving of the Belfast agreement as the only consideration in this debate, it is difficult to understand their absolute abandonment of the principle of consent, which is being demolished by the Northern Ireland protocol. I understand why the amendments have been tabled, but I feel that the protection that the Government have put forward is worthy of consideration and support, and our party will be supporting the Government on their proposals.
We have heard legal opinions from other people, and I want to put this one on the record. Martin Howe QC has clearly said that
“the alteration of the constitutional status of NI (which across the board tariffs on GB to NI exports would entail) would breach the core principle of the Good Friday Agreement…International law does not justify a later treaty to which these community representatives are not parties being used to over-ride the rights they enjoy under the earlier treaty”.
That legal opinion tells us that the Good Friday agreement is not under any threat; indeed, I suggest that it enhances where we are and where we are going.
Let us grasp why the Bill exists. As my esteemed colleague, my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson outlined yesterday, we should consider who is threatening to destroy the peace process. The only such threats are coming from Europe. As is often the case, they are smoke and mirrors—they have no validity. Those who espouse the Belfast agreement and devolution, and who respect the will of the people that the Northern Ireland Assembly should have a say, need to think carefully about what will happen. We can see our fears coming to be reality. It is right and proper not just that the Government understand that but that, with this Bill, they are putting in place measures that can be enacted if Europe continues down the route of bad faith that tit has set out on.
It is equally right and proper that we as a House protect Northern Ireland as an intrinsic part of the United Kingdom and ensure that the devolved Administrations, and in particular the Northern Ireland Assembly, have a say. That is why the Bill, as put forward and without change—with the exception of clause 47—is the right way to do it.
The Prime Minister hopes that the provision will never need to be used and sees it as an insurance policy should Europe act in bad faith. I see it as a necessary tool for when Europe throws the dummy out of the buggy or pram and uses my country as a way to attack the rest of the United Kingdom. We need each other. Alexander Stafford described it as a family. Northern Ireland needs to be able to trade with our strongest ally—the rest of the United Kingdom. We need the principle of consent within the internal market, and the devolved Administrations need to be involved.
GB accounts for some 53% of Northern Ireland external sales, to the value of £2.3 billion. GB is the largest market for six of the 10 agrifood subsectors. The increase in freight vehicle traffic of some 532,000 units indicates to me that over the next period the opportunity to grow will be even greater. Exports of Northern Ireland aggregates are rising. That again shows the importance of the internal market and of having the opportunities to sell products. Many of the roads around London have rock and stone from Ballystockart quarry in my constituency, because the view is that it is the best rock and stone for roads around London. That is a fact. That is why the internal market is so important. We need to have that trade. Of course, the rock and stone is taken further afield than that as well.
Some 65% of Northern Ireland’s purchases are from GB, and they are worth £13.3 billion. More than 90% of Northern Ireland businesses trading with GB are SMEs. In Northern Ireland, we have the largest number of SMEs in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They are an integral part. We have 90% of our businesses trading with GB. That is why the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is so important. That is why we need to get it right. That is why we need to preserve the Bill as is. Tomorrow, we will have the opportunity, with clause 47, to present to the House an opportunity to cement and strengthen that situation even more.
While many are caught up in the argument of who would be breaking the treaty, how that appears internationally and the effect on our reputation, I am looking to this Bill and the Trade Bill. I am looking to food on the shelves. I am looking to job opportunities. I am looking to my companies in my constituency and across all of Northern Ireland working together with strength to ensure that we can get those things in the future. I am looking to trade for our businesses and our legal right under the Act of Settlement to be treated the same as any other nation in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—we want to be treated the same as Scotland and Wales—strengthened by the principle of consent in the Belfast agreement.
Just today, the figures came out for unemployment. I just want to state them for the record, because it is important for showing where we are. Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate is 2.9%. The United Kingdom’s unemployment rate is 4.1%. The EU’s unemployment rate is 6.7%. The Republic of Ireland’s unemployment rate is 5.3%. That would indicate to me and probably to others in this House the importance of Northern Ireland’s relationship within the internal market with the United Kingdom and how we can collectively ensure that unemployment rates are kept down through the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Government here.
To conclude, will the House please stand with us and send a very clear message that if the intention is to undermine British sovereignty and for negotiations to fail, as they have failed thus far, we will not be pushed? Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is worth standing up for, and I urge all in this House to do just that.