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My Lords, the part of the United Kingdom that I come from is still geographically peripheral, but it is not politically peripheral at the moment, because of the backstop and border questions.
When we were living through difficult and much more dangerous times, we looked for places where we could find encouragement and inspiration. The European project was one of those places. We could see that those who had been at war, twice in a generation, had been able to find a new way of engaging with each other—a way of moving forward with different arrangements, with creativity and flexibility, to make something new and different and rather unprecedented. For me, that was tremendously encouraging. The ideas in many of the practical arrangements of the European project were incorporated into our negotiations and our way of thinking about things.
I was also encouraged and inspired by your Lordships’ House. I came here in 1996 and found a preparedness to engage reflectively, thoughtfully and creatively with difficult problems. Subsequent to 1998, as Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I found myself coming backwards and forwards to your Lordships’ House and finding it a restorative experience. I could return to the Northern Ireland Assembly with ways of working and engaging that were thoughtful, creative and reflective, and brought people together to find new ways of resolving problems.
So for me it is a personally painful business to see what has happened to the European Union and both Houses of Parliament here. A deep division has opened up in the European Union itself, not just between people in this country but between Governments and people and different sections of the community in almost every country in Europe. Some come out on to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with government and Europe. Europe has for some people remained a model, but for others it has become the cause of division rather than a healing project.
Even in your Lordships’ House, my sense of the past couple of years has been that people have held to positions and tried to defend and promote them rather than understand that the deep divisions that have opened up in our country and our continent are extremely dangerous and that we must find a way of resolving them. That is why I identify strongly with a number of the comments that have been made but perhaps most particularly with the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle.
I remember when John Hume was trying to engage with the IRA and he asked it what it wanted. The IRA said, “A united Ireland”. He said, “Look at the map. It is one island”. It said, “There’s a border”. He said, “That’s because the people of Ireland are divided about how to share the island”. I well remember Dr Ian Paisley, known to us in latter days as Lord Bannside before he passed away. He would speak about the fact that he represented the people of Northern Ireland, because he clearly had the largest vote in repeated elections. But nationalists and republicans said that they represented the majority of the people of the island of Ireland.
I hear the same kind of thing going on. People speak about how they represent the majority and the views of the people, but the people are deeply divided. Neither side seems prepared to recognise that the job of political leaders is to find a way for our people can live together, not agreeing on everything all the time—of course not. There are different perspectives and that is not only legitimate but healthy. Whatever happens, we will all have to continue to live together in Britain and Ireland, within Britain itself, and in Europe. We have to find a way of living together. One difficulty is that if one is so convinced of the rectitude of one’s own position and policy, one spends all the time attacking the other and promoting one’s own approach. We would not have been able to deliver the Good Friday agreement if there had not been serious efforts by all those negotiating, in advance of reaching an agreement, to indicate to people that there would have to be compromise, a coming together and a giving up of some cherished aspects so that we could find not an agreement but a way of living together.
The time for us to do this is short. No vote, referendum or election will bring our people together to find a way of agreeing a compromise. That requires political leadership. The truth is that all our parties have contributed to the division, either by themselves being divided or by taking one side or the other of the argument. That is the road to no town and a disaster. I appeal to Members of your Lordships’ House to return to what has been our tradition, our strength and our contribution to the country. By not having to be elected, we can afford to be more thoughtful, creative and reflective and engage with each other across party boundaries to find an accommodation that our people can live with so that we can not only live together on this island and in relation to the other island but in this continent of Europe. Without that, the future is gloomy for all of us, whichever side wins the argument in a referendum or an election. We have to find a way of living together.