European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Report (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 2nd May 2018.

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Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative 4:45 pm, 2nd May 2018

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Patten on a most impressive and, if I may say so, entertaining introduction to this subject. Having enjoyed listening to his speech, I think anyone who saw this amendment would say, “It’s all pretty obvious, isn’t it? There’s an overwhelming case and it must be right”. But then we had a little opening into the world of Northern Ireland in the contributions that came from one or two of those who are more closely involved directly with the Province and understand some of the background to it. The noble and right reverend Lord—a former Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland—and the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice and Lord Trimble, have spoken and they have echoed some of my concern about this. Everybody wants to see the concept that is contained in this amendment; my concern is about putting it into legislation in this form.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, raised the details, as do I. We are back in the same country that we were in during our discussion on the proposed clause on the meaningful vote. That amendment got longer and longer as dates were added into it that would complicate it. My noble friend Lord Callanan shakes a rueful head as I say that. The complications introduced seemed to me to make the position of the Government in their negotiations increasingly difficult. I echo the surprise about the activities of Monsieur Barnier, negotiating with different bodies within the United Kingdom. I do not know whether he asked permission to do that and whether it was agreed but I thought that was open to question, in the circumstances.

Looking at the situation, the amendment has all this detail set down. Is it all exactly right? Will it all be held tight or will it be subject to legal challenge thereafter? All sorts of complications arise within this. I have devoted quite a few years of my life, both in Northern Ireland and in defence, to trying to see what we now see as the much happier, and hopefully continuing, life in Northern Ireland. I have written too many letters of condolence to people—there are others here who carried similar responsibilities and know what I am talking about—about those who stood to try to ensure a happier future for people in the Province and for everybody in the island of Ireland. I am therefore determined to see that, whatever comes out of Brexit, we do not undermine the important advances that have been made. However, then I look at the details of this amendment.

I recall that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, glossed a bit over the arrangements and problems that I had over the Anglo-Irish agreement, which was of course the start of the peace process and led on to the further discussions in which we introduced the principle of consent. There was one item that I had to stand on continually. I was challenged by unionists who said, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, will remember well, that we had sold out to the Irish Government and no longer was Northern Ireland a part of the United Kingdom, a sovereign country. They said that we had let joint authority be introduced and that the Irish Government were able to rule part of Northern Ireland in that respect. All that time, with some personal embarrassment and threat to myself on certain occasions, I stood to make it absolutely clear that joint authority was not contained in it. We would listen with good will, attention and interest to any representations the Irish Government wished to make. They had a perfectly legitimate interest in the interests of the nationalist community of Northern Ireland but, in the final analysis, joint authority did not exist. The United Kingdom Government have the responsibility for the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and we maintained that position.

I am not a lawyer, so I tried to consult the Convenor of the Cross Benches on this. I see the last line of this amendment introducing something like a touch of joint authority. I spent a lot of my life persuading and assuring people in the Province that we would not have joint authority, but we seem to have it here. This is exactly the problem that I tried to raise on the meaningful vote issue and I raise it on this as well. Although the intention is good and the ambition absolutely right, we now start the complication of drawing up a very specific and long, detailed amendment. That is not the way to go. We make our position absolutely clear: I expect the Government to achieve those objectives, and I would look very hard indeed and wonder what my vote would be in the final analysis. There will be a final parliamentary vote at the end of these proceedings if we do not get a satisfactory outcome that we all wish to see for Northern Ireland, but this amendment is not helpful.