My Lords, this has been a very wide-ranging and in-depth discussions this evening on the Queen’s Speech. I make no apology for bringing to your Lordships’ attention, as we come to the end of the debate, a theme which has reared its head at almost every juncture of today’s work: the question of devolution. I do it for this reason. Although much reference has been made to Northern Ireland and its problems, its hopes and its failures, there has been little reference to the theory of devolution, which lies constitutionally, legally and politically at the root of many of the relationships of a country that faces Brexit. I believe that some of the lessons that come from my part of the United Kingdom are worth remembering as we approach that crucial stage of our history.
People say the Troubles are over. There were those of us in this House and in the other place who, when we saw the ending of the obvious elements of strife, turned away and said, “It’s over—it’s now history and we can move on”. But those of us who dedicated so much of our active lives to building bridges, healing wounds and trying to bring communities together know that it is still a tender plant when we talk of the peace process. For that reason, when I hear people talking about the question of the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, and the fact that it will soon become the frontier between the United Kingdom and the European Union, I wonder: do we pause to think of the significance of that other word which has to be linked to the theory of devolution—the word “relationships”? Relationships not only within the devolved nations but between the devolved nations and between those nations and central government will be tested as never before when Brexit becomes a reality.
I do not speak as a party politician or to represent a political party, but as one who has seen where relationships can break down, where harm can be done and where injury can be caused when this tender plant called relationships is allowed to flounder. The noble Lord, Lord Reid, reminded us earlier on in this debate of the importance of looking at the whole theory of devolution —what is happening in Northern Ireland with the collapse of the Administration and with the questions being asked about how Brexit will affect the United Kingdom as a whole. But remember, it will first and foremost affect the people of Northern Ireland. The border is not just a question of north/south but a question of east/west. Those relationships go to make up the community from which I come, and it is a question which we cannot allow to founder in the happenings of Brussels.
The Queen’s Speech rightly reminded us that the Government will attempt to work closely with the devolved nations in the years ahead, particularly through the Brexit process. However, they must go further than that in the case of Northern Ireland. It must be recognised that before, during and after Brexit the relationships that have been so carefully built up in the peace process could be fractured. Those of us who live there, and who know it is a tender plant, know that the slightest wavering of purpose or outside pressure could quite easily take us back. I am ashamed to say it, but I have to admit that sometimes I believe we are only a gasp away from seeing some of the darkness of that period return.
I beg the Government, as they approach Brexit and all its complications, and as they look at the theory of devolution, to remember that we are talking not just about laws or the constitution but about ordinary human beings who have been through a great deal and who have the right to expect, from this place and the other, a sensitivity that will ensure that Brexit is as much about people as it is about things.