United Kingdom Internal Market Bill - Committee (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 9th November 2020.

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Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP 7:30 pm, 9th November 2020

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, I have no claim to being a lawyer, nor the son of a lawyer, but I come with 50 years of experience as a minister of the gospel in the thriving congregation in Northern Ireland and 42 years as an elected representative of the people of Northern Ireland. I have been with the people of Northern Ireland through very difficult and trying times, as well as times of joy.

I was not one of those who negotiated the Belfast agreement, nor, truthfully, did I support those who did. However, I accept the reality of its existence. Throughout the internal market Bill’s progress through this House, much has been made of certain clauses’ breach or a threatened breach of international agreement. However, it is interesting to note that those who negotiated it, some of whom are Members of your Lordships’ House and were its chief architects, do not believe that these clauses do so.

The withdrawal agreement, as it was introduced, was bad for Northern Ireland economically and constitutionally. In the other place, my colleagues repeatedly pressed the Government for change; they focused attention on the flaws and the importance of protecting Northern Ireland’s interests, as I am sure noble Lords would expect them to do. This Bill is a step forward, a recognition by the Government of the defects of the Northern Ireland protocol and its impact on the internal market of the whole United Kingdom. However, more work has to be done.

The party I belong to has been focused on ensuring that consumer choice and costs are not impeded as a result of the protocol. It is vital that Northern Ireland businesses have unfettered access to the market of Great Britain, which is so important for the Province, and this Bill sets out potential helpful steps in that respect. However, I noted the noble Lord, Lord Newby, saying “Let us not hear of unfettered trade—there will be none”. That will certainly have serious implications in Northern Ireland, if it is true.

I recently read with interest that several right reverend Prelates and other bishops wrote to the Prime Minister stating that this legislation would set a disastrous precedent and that:

“If carefully negotiated terms are not honoured and laws can be ‘legally’ broken, on what foundations does our democracy stand?”

I found that somewhat interesting, because several times in this debate I have heard about “moral responsibility” and “morality”, and how this is “immoral”. I must remind this House that I stood here some months ago where, whenever we talked about the moral issue of same-sex marriage, the Benches of the right reverend Prelates were empty. Whenever we discussed the moral issue of the most liberal abortion laws that were forced on the people of Northern Ireland against their democratically expressed will, where was morality talked about then? I do not know of any letters being written to the Prime Minister on the importance of this moral imperative.

We know that those changes were made to placate Sinn Féin as a pay-off to get them back into the Northern Ireland Assembly. When we talk about such issues, I would like such letters to be written to the Prime Minister in the midst of our present national crisis with Covid-19 to encourage him to call for a national day of repentance and prayer, acknowledging our need of God’s help and deliverance in our time of great distress, as I did in March at the beginning of the pandemic.

However, returning specifically to these groups of amendments, the EU is failing to honour its own commitments as set out in the withdrawal agreement. The Northern Ireland protocol states in Article 1 that it is

“without prejudice to the provisions of the 1998 Agreement in respect of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland”.

It also states that it

“respects the essential State functions and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.”

I remind Members of this House that, for the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the integrity of the United Kingdom is of paramount importance.

Indeed, yesterday, across the United Kingdom, we remembered the fallen of two World Wars. In Northern Ireland, we also remembered all those innocent people across the community who were slaughtered by a vicious and callous murder campaign. Over the years, thousands of our citizens have died—yes, British citizens have died—and tens of thousands have been injured because Northern Ireland’s ordinary law-abiding people refused to be terrorised out of the United Kingdom. That is what we believe is precious to us.

Those who are beholden to the Northern Ireland protocol ignore its threat to the household prosperity of every corner of Northern Ireland. The Freight Transport Association estimates that 70% of some 425,000 lorry crossings every year are destined for so-called dead-end hosts—that is, supermarkets, retail outlets, car showrooms et cetera in Northern Ireland. If those movements are subject to checks, these businesses will feel real pain and real financial loss, but I wonder whether people really care.

Free access to the internal market is a foundation block of the union. The 1707 articles of union between England and Scotland and those between Great Britain and Ireland in 1800 abolished all customs duties between the different parts of the United Kingdom. They also declared that citizens of all parts should be on the same footing in respect of trade and navigation and in all treaties with foreign powers. Does not the withdrawal agreement breach this? A single, unified internal market is therefore a key block in the constitutional foundations of the United Kingdom.

In my opinion, for the EU it was never about protecting peace in Northern Ireland. It has been using Northern Ireland to punish the United Kingdom, as was stated by Monsieur Barnier. Sadly, many others, whether willingly or without realising it, are being used in that cause. For those who support the protocol, the destruction of the UK’s internal borders and household prosperity is simply collateral damage.

Amendment 161 would require the Secretary of State to

“publish a statement on the impact … on … peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland” through the exercise of Clause 44. From whom would a threat to peace come? Those of us who have lived under the threat of IRA terrorism for over 30 years—personally—and our families do not want to see terrorism rise again. However, we must not be held to ransom because of the threat from those who have lived all their lives to make Northern Ireland a failed political entity. They made no apology for that being their belief and carried out their terrorism on that basis.

I want to see every part of Northern Ireland bear the fruits of prosperity—prosperity enjoyed by every section of the community. I believe that that is best served within the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Surely those proposing Amendment 162 are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. On the one hand, they want to avoid barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, yet in several other amendments, they would dictate that the Government must not use the powers set out in the Bill if they counteract the protocol. In effect, that requires customs entry and exit declarations. They ought to come clean and stop being disingenuous. If this amendment is to be acceptable, surely there is a need for continuity throughout the Bill.