Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:17 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Rogan Lord Rogan Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 1:17 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, on securing this most timely of debates. He brings a depth of knowledge to your Lordships’ House and is also a fellow Celt, which adds to his appeal. I agree with the contention implicit in the Motion before us today. But Brexit was destined to pose a perceived threat to the stability of our precious union because some nationalists were bound to use it for that purpose. The Scottish National Party has set the bar predictably low. But against the expectations of many, I argue that one of the few positives of the Brexit process so far—I say this as an outer—is that it has strengthened the union.

Further, I believe that Northern Ireland’s status as a valued component part of the United Kingdom has rarely been more secure. The debate around the so-called backstop to avoid the threat of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic has been passionate. The issue remains unresolved, but I do not have time to dwell on its finer details.

However, I take grave issue with those who claim that Brexit poses a threat to the hard-won peace on the island of Ireland. Such statements are not only wrong but opportunistic and insulting. The backstop debate has led many parliamentarians, both in your Lordships’ House and in the other place, to speak up for Northern Ireland, defend the Belfast agreement and remind those in other parts of the United Kingdom of the right of the people of the Province to self-determination. This has been very welcome, and I am grateful.

In contrast to Scotland, there has not been a constant demand in Northern Ireland for a referendum on our future within the United Kingdom. Yet many nationalists by definition still want a united Ireland and are perfectly entitled to that opinion. But most people, from both unionist and nationalist backgrounds, are more interested in Brexit and share a desire for a devolved Government to be restored to Northern Ireland.

It is a constitutional outrage that this month marks two years since the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed. In the intervening period, local people have been left without accountable Ministers taking decisions on their behalf. Our schools and hospitals, along with much else, have been left to spiral into decline. Your Lordships will accept that no Government, Labour or Conservative, would allow this to happen in any other part of the United Kingdom. So why is it allowed to happen in Northern Ireland?

We who live there deserve so much better than this. Our children are entitled to receive the best possible quality of education, delivered in properly funded schools. For two years, they have had to settle for second best, with parents and teachers often having to dip into their own pockets to pay for materials. The sick and the infirm are entitled to receive the best possible quality of healthcare, provided in properly funded hospitals. For two years, they have had to settle for second best, as waiting lists have lengthened ever further.

There is a widely held view that Her Majesty’s Government will make no further efforts to restore devolution in Northern Ireland until after the Brexit deadline on 29 March. I suspect that the Government’s dependence on the Democratic Unionist Party to keep them in office and to get Brexit through is not unrelated to that. This was clearly evidenced last night in another place, to the DUP’s obvious delight.

However, I ask the Minister directly to convey my message to his colleagues, in his characteristically polite manner. The Brexit process is a mess—I do not need to remind the Minister of that. As a result, there are growing rumours that the Government will have no option but to request an extension of Article 50 from the European Union. I believe this scenario will become more apparent in the coming days, when Members of Parliament gather to debate and vote on new ways forward, almost certainly including fresh negotiations in Brussels, which will require yet more time. Should an extension of Article 50 be deemed necessary, I implore Ministers not to use this as an excuse to further delay attempts to restore a properly accountable Northern Ireland Executive.

Initial suggestions were that the Article 50 extension would be until 1 July. This morning, I read several reports that it could now be until the end of this year or even beyond. The people of Northern Ireland cannot and should not be expected to wait any longer for a restoration of devolved government to return to the political agenda. Otherwise, the warm words of Ministers, in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere, about how much they supposedly value Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, will, I fear, blow cold.