Outcome of the European Union Referendum - Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:57 pm on 6th July 2016.

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Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 6:57 pm, 6th July 2016

My Lords, as a lifetime committed pro-European, I have spoken increasingly over the past five or six years on my concerns about how things were developing in Europe and in our relationship with Europe. First, it seemed to me that the fundamental purpose of the European project was being forgotten. The purpose was not economic prosperity. It was not to provide a seat at the top table of world affairs for European politicians. It was not even the extension of democracy and human rights on our continent.

All these were instruments, but they were not the purpose. The purpose was to ensure that we never again descended into deep division, conflict and violence on our continent. The more we forget about the purpose and focus on the instruments, the greater is the danger that we will fail in our purpose and return to the kind of division and conflict that existed in the 1930s—and before and after.

I spoke about these things because I could see quite clearly that people were becoming more and more disenchanted with Europe. It was forgetting about the importance of local identity and national culture and history in its fever to develop something at the European level, not recognising that to do this at European level could provide instability locally and for ordinary people in their own communities if it was not properly attended to.

I said on a number of occasions that I believed that a referendum was almost inevitable, but we needed to work much harder at persuading people that the European project was so important. When eventually it became clear that the referendum was coming sooner rather than later, at home in Northern Ireland we developed a public conversation which we called EU Debate NI. I pay tribute to Eva Grosman and Conor Houston, the two folk from the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building that I run in Belfast. This became the major initiative in Northern Ireland: a public conversation, not campaigning for one side or the other, but enabling people from all sides and with all views to come together in public and engage on the legal, constitutional, educational, agricultural, industrial, economic—all aspects of the question.

It meant that in Northern Ireland the debate was able to be conducted without some of the rancour and vitriol that there was over here, and the outcome was an accepted outcome for remain. In a part of the United Kingdom so used to partisanship we were able to find a way of debating this difficult question without deep rancour. That was not the case on this side of the water, which is a serious warning that, not just in this country but more widely in Europe, the subject of our co-operation and collaboration in Europe is descending into vitriol, rancour and great danger.

On the afternoon of the referendum count, Charlie Flanagan, the Foreign Minister of the Irish Republic, was able to publish a contingency plan for all departments of the Irish Government on how they were going to address the problem of Brexit—Her Majesty’s Government, take note. The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, quite properly paid tribute to Prime Minister Cameron, because one of the first people whom the Prime Minister rang was Enda Kenny to thank him for his support and to make it clear that there was a preparedness to co-operate in succeeding days. Indeed, in Ireland north and south, there is an appreciation that, whatever happens, we have to find a way of working closely together.

Of course, that is for the sake of the Good Friday agreement, although I am encouraged that, rather than the Brexit result producing polarisation, it has been treated as a problem to be addressed rather than a dividing line among our people. But I ask the Minister to give an undertaking that Her Majesty’s Government will see it as a top priority, because it is matter within the United Kingdom, to ensure that the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly are involved in the conversations with the Irish Government to ensure that the Good Friday agreement continues to work effectively and efficiently.

There are many Irish people living here in Britain. They, too, wonder how relationships with the Irish Republic will be conducted. I trust that I can also seek an assurance from the Minister that Her Majesty’s Government will see the Government of Ireland as being what they are: the closest and best friend in Europe and in the European Union that this country has, and that they will be regarded not simply as one of 27 with whom we have to engage but rather the closest possible friend with whom we must work directly to ensure the best outcome for this country, the best outcome for Ireland—which, whether in spite of or because of our historic difficulties, is very close to us—and the best outcome for the United Kingdom.

I have much less concern than many of my colleagues about the economic survival of this country. It will go through difficult times, of course—not only because of Brexit but for other reasons—but I remain deeply concerned that what is happening is not just a cause but a symptom of deepening division not just in this country but across Europe and more widely. I plead with the Government and others in your Lordships’ House to spend time not focusing alone, although it is so important, on how we deal with the best interests of this country over the next few years in Europe but also on analysing and understanding more clearly the geopolitical developments which are leading us to a very dangerous place—in this continent, in North America, in South America, in sub-Saharan Africa, of course in the wider Middle East and in fact across our world. These are difficult times, but we must not focus only on ourselves as we try to address them.