My Lords, I put my name to a similar amendment in Committee and, as those who were there will recall, spoke very strongly in favour of it. However, when I saw the draft of this amendment, before it was tabled, I was unhappy about two things. One was that the commitment to entrench the principles of the Good Friday or Belfast agreement had been excised from it; I really do not understand why that is. It is only referred to in oblique ways, by referring not to the agreement but to the Act, which is not the same thing. I think that is a missed opportunity and I do not really see any good reason for it.
However, my main reservation about the amendment concerns proposed new subsection 2(b)(iii). It effectively suggests that one could not accept a requirement for security checks. The noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, has spoken about security and how it can be counter- productive if done in particular ways. I remember very well all the watchtowers and so on that he called to mind; I spent quite a lot of time flying round in helicopters watching soldiers taking them down. But this does not talk about watchtowers; it talks about security checks.
As legislators, we are not expected to be able to predict the future beyond what can reasonably be understood. Donald Rumsfeld advised us about “unknown unknowns”. But there are potential things that are not so unknown at all. Around the time we were coming up to mark the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, Mr Gerry Adams was interviewed by the German magazine Der Spiegel. He was asked whether he felt that terrorism and politically motivated violence was ever justified now. He said that yes, he believed that it was, and Sinn Féin went on to defend him in that stance, some 20 years after the Belfast agreement. In the last month we have also seen a new organisation, the Irish Republican Movement, announcing that it wants to get operational again because it is not happy about how things are going.
I therefore do not ask myself what the situation is with security now, well before exit day, when thankfully we have peace and a considerable deal of tranquillity and agreement within Northern Ireland and between the north and south, which is marvellous. I ask myself how things might develop over the next year or two, when there are those who are unhappy about Brexit and those who want to promote it. That is not the Brexit we are talking about, of Britain exiting the European Union, but the Brexit that is Britain exiting the island of Ireland and leaving Northern Ireland. There are those who are still prepared to use physical force to bring that about. Do they have any significance?
We are likely to see an election in the Republic of Ireland in the next 12 months, between now and Brexit day, and it is wholly within the bounds of possibility that Sinn Féin will be a member of a new coalition. Possibly it would not be with Fine Gael—although who knows? Anybody who would predict politics in any part of the world at the moment must be a courageous individual. But with Fianna Fáil, that is entirely possible. So the backstop protective position is that if there are no security checks near the border, it will be okay because we will be able to negotiate that with the Irish Government; and if it were the current Irish Government, I rather suspect we would be able to do that quickly. But I would not feel the same sense of confidence if there were the possibility of a Sinn Féin coalition Government.
Of course, if there was a major outbreak of violence, it might be possible to sit down and have that negotiation. However, what would happen if our security services had good information that a real danger was coming from across the border, not just to Northern Ireland but to this part of the United Kingdom, and they needed to get into negotiations with the Irish Government to introduce certain kinds of security checks which had not existed for some years and do not exist now? Are we confident that that could be addressed promptly, and that Sinn Féin would say, “The British security services have said this—that is absolutely dependable; we know we should act with responsibility in that regard, and we will act promptly and immediately against other Republicans”? Maybe it would, but “maybe” is not sufficient.
In February 1996 a huge bomb broke the IRA ceasefire, here in this city, in Docklands. Two people were killed, 100 people and were injured and £150 million of damage was done. Where did that bomb come from—the Home Counties, Wales, Scotland or west Belfast? No; it came from the South Armagh Brigade of the IRA, from the border area we are talking about. I simply want to have the confidence—and I do not see it in this component of this otherwise excellent amendment—that if our security services were clear that the Irish Republican Movement or some other organisation had decided to create a bomb to do damage in my part of the United Kingdom or in this part, they would be able to act freely and with the alacrity necessary to ensure that a disaster does not happen.
That is why—I say this with deep regret, because I support the spirit of the amendment—this wording is not entirely wise. I have talked to a number of colleagues, who say, “Don’t worry, John: it’ll be fine, because other legislation will let us get through that”. But that is not what it appears to say, and if there are other ways round it, it will simply justify in Irish minds that phrase “perfidious Albion”: we say one thing but we mean something different because we have a legal way round. That is why, with regret, I fear that I cannot support this otherwise excellent amendment.