My Lords, the Good Friday agreement was made possible, at least in part, by the fact both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland were members of the EU. The common rules and procedures under which we both operated, enabled unionists and republicans to claim that the agreement went some way to advancing their political agenda. It was in many ways a classic deal—fully satisfactory to neither party but acceptable enough to allow agreement. The UK then voted to leave the EU. It was not the option I preferred, but I accepted the result. Having accepted it, I was clear that the best course for us was to leave the single market and the customs union as well. Anything else might well have had some economic advantages but would have left us in the worst of all worlds politically.
That meant that there would need to be border of some kind between the UK and the EU. The nature of the border would depend on the future relationship between the two parties, but a border there would be. This was foreseen and foretold. However, a border that separated Northern Ireland from the Republic to the south, might well have implications, both practical and political, for the Good Friday agreement. The protocol for the EU withdrawal agreement was designed to deal with this and the Government were content with it when the agreement was approved by the UK Parliament. The Government now say the EU might apply the protocol in a way that was never intended, and that Part 5 of the Bill is necessary to protect the position of the UK.
Quite why we should assume the EU would behave in such a way, no matter what ill-advised comments might have been made in the heat of argument, is not clear to me. In any event, a dispute resolution mechanism already exists to tackle any problems of interpretation and application that might arise. If this were tried and found wanting, and the Government believed the UK’s national interests were seriously at stake, they could introduce emergency legislation to Parliament at that point. They would then be responding to a breach of faith, not creating one. This would place us in a position far preferable to that which would result from accepting the provisions in Part 5. Acting in self-defence—it seems to me and, I suspect, to many others—is entirely different from getting one’s retaliation in first.
There is no reason why the Government could not have an oven-ready Bill sitting in their political refrigerator for this purpose. If it were appropriate, and proportionate, we would, I suspect, have a great deal of international sympathy and I would certainly support it. What I cannot support, however, is a Bill that authorises Ministers to break the law based on some hypothetical event and damages our power to exercise strategic influence in the wider world. I am persuaded by many of my noble and learned friends that to do so would be wrong in law. I am quite certain in my own mind that it would be wrong in principle, for all the reasons I set out in my speech on Second Reading and that I need not repeat this evening. This is not a disagreement on matters of policy; it is a question of law and principle, which we have a duty to uphold.
I am not a remoaner. I have said that I accepted the result of the EU referendum. Indeed, as I said, having accepted it, I argued for our withdrawal from the single market and the customs union. If my voting record were to be checked, it would be found that I support the Government in the Division Lobby far more often than I oppose them. I do not believe I am what the Government might regard as one of the usual suspects. However, I oppose Part 5 of the Bill and will vote accordingly in any Divisions on its clauses standing part.
I acknowledge that the Government have a difficult task in reconciling the potentially contradictory aspects of the withdrawal protocol and the Good Friday agreement. That perhaps became inevitable once we left the EU but, given the breadth and depth of the dissatisfaction with Part 5 that is evident across this House, I urge Ministers to think again about the course that they are following. It is not too late for them to adopt an approach that can command support across the United Kingdom but that maintains our hitherto exemplary status as a law-abiding and trustworthy member of the community of nations.