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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:10 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 6:10 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, it is a pleasure, as always, to follow the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, but I shall take my text from what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan. I share his concern and surprise that the gracious Speech is silent on what seems to me to be the clear and present danger of the union disintegrating. I too will talk about Scotland, but also about Ulster.

I agreed with Mr Johnson when he told the DUP conference in 2018:

“No British Conservative Government could or should sign up to … regulatory checks and … customs controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

I agreed with that, but he has so signed up. Clearly I was wrong to discount the polls that told us that the party in England would rather lose Ulster or Scotland than delay Brexit. However, it still seems rather odd that the Government are so relaxed about the possible price to be paid. It does not take a crystal ball to spot what might happen when trade in both directions across the Irish Sea is subject to checks supervised by a third party, with tariffs payable to a third party on Northern Ireland’s imports from the mainland if there is any risk of those goods going on into the Republic. When many regulations and standards, all state aid rules and all VAT rules in Northern Ireland are set not by this Parliament or Belfast but by Brussels institutions in which Belfast is not represented but Dublin is, the economic integration of the island of Ireland will proceed apace. Will not political integration likely follow, with Westminster required to deliver on the 1998 promise of a border poll?

Northern Ireland voted to remain, and will now remain in much of the single market and all of the customs union. Anyone born there will retain the right of EU citizenship, except the citizen’s right of representation —but will not support for correcting that democratic anomaly be reinforced over time by Northern Ireland’s demography? A return to full EU membership would of course be easy. It would not require any accession negotiation; the 1990 German unification precedent would obviously apply.

It is not for a Scot like me to say whether the end of a century of Irish partition would be a good or a bad thing. All I can say is that it now seems rather likely, given Johnson’s betrayal of Ulster unionism. Where does that leave Scotland, which also voted to remain and whose Government have since argued in a series of White Papers brushed aside by Mrs May and Mr Johnson that, if the UK were to leave the single market and customs union, Scotland should be allowed to retain some kind of EEA-type arrangement—an arrangement rather like the one Ulster Unionists did not want but are now going to get? In Edinburgh the contrast adds insult to injury. If next year’s election up there returns another nationalist Government, I find it hard to see how the demand for another referendum on independence can be resisted. To go on dismissing self-determination would only fuel the demand for it, and the Irish have their right to a border poll. So where does this end?

In 2014 I campaigned against Scottish independence. Doing so will be harder next time. I annoyed Mr Salmond particularly by insisting that leaving the UK would mean leaving the EU, something few Scots wanted. That argument has gone. I majored on the economic downside to secession, but the English have just been persuaded that, for them, sovereignty matters more than prosperity. We should heed the eloquent warning of the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan; the Scots might take a similar view to the English. They might want to take back control. It is a potent slogan, and head might lose out to heart.

The gracious Speech was, as the noble Lord said, strikingly silent on all this and on how these risks could be reduced. However, the accompanying memorandum tells us on page 121 that the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, is about to undertake an independent review into the UK Government’s “union capability”. I have absolutely no idea what that means, but I look forward to hearing from the noble Lord later today and wish him luck. I have great respect for him and it seems to me conceivably to be an extremely important exercise. I hope its terms of reference are broadly drawn.

In the meantime, I will make two concrete suggestions to the Minister. Will the Government include representatives from Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in the new team being assembled to conduct the future trade relations negotiations and in the Joint Committee which is to implement the withdrawal agreement? Will they rapidly refresh strands 2 and 3 of the 1998 Good Friday agreement institutions, in particular considering how to give some democratic legitimacy to EU laws applying in future in Northern Ireland?