My Lords, it is daunting to speak after the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and to find myself disagreeing somewhat with a former Lord Chancellor. I am not a lawyer; I feel as though I have stumbled into a convention of highly distinguished lawyers. Had I stumbled into a convention of highly distinguished grocers discussing this subject, they may of course have taken a rather different tone and approach to the practicalities of the matter.
At the heart of this claim about the rule of law is a statement made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in his speech at Second Reading, that the rule of law is indivisible. This is not a legal point but a point in the philosophy of law, and it is highly contestable. The implication is that a breach of international law, however small, will lead to, for example, a rising murder rate in Scotland or the reckless parking on double yellow lines of vehicles in Birmingham—or, indeed, that the Government of China might observe their obligations better if we did not pass this Bill.
However, people outside this House understand that that is not how law works. They understand that international law is a distinct realm in which practical relations between states are codified but do not endure if they place intolerable burdens on one party. That brings us to the substance of this part of the Bill: the intolerable demands being placed on the coherence of the United Kingdom by the manner in which the European Union is seeking to interpret and implement the Northern Ireland protocol.
Some noble Lords, in talking about this in relation to another treaty—the Good Friday/Belfast agreement—presented the alternatives as straightforward: either punctilious observation of the Northern Ireland protocol or the return of the bomber and the gunman. In fact, that was very much the gravamen of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, at Second Reading. This is a simplistic view of the state of affairs in Ireland; it rests on the fallacy that the Good Friday agreement requires the absence of a goods border on the island of Ireland. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, said, that simply is not true; the Good Friday agreement says nothing at all about goods borders on the island of Ireland. It says a great deal about the principle of consent of both communities—a principle that seems to have gone seriously astray—but about goods borders it says nothing at all.
In those circumstances, when challenged, people who take that view refer not to the text of the Good Friday agreement, where they do not find such a mention, but to its context. You cannot insist on the detailed written text of the Northern Ireland protocol while ignoring the detailed text of the Good Friday agreement and instead appealing to its context. The truth is that we have entered into a mesh of largely conflicting treaties. They do not mesh well, and the question is not whether some of those principles are going to go but which will. I noticed that, when the noble Lord, Lord Newby, spoke, he quite happily cast away the principle of unfettered access of trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. He does not believe that it can exist in practice, but that is because he prefers one interpretation of that complex and contradictory agreement to another.
It is an understatement to say the situation in Northern Ireland requires details and nuanced handling. An illustration of that emerged even after that debate, with the breaking news that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, representing the DUP and Sinn Féin, had written jointly to the European Commission to object most strongly to the idea that supermarket vehicles travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland might have to be subject to border checks—but it is entirely within the Northern Ireland protocol that they should be. It is a subtle situation in Northern Ireland; if you can unite the DUP and Sinn Féin on that point, it shows that simplistic views need to be avoided.
What we face is a determination, dating back to 2016, that the EU take economic control of Northern Ireland, despite the fact that even that is contrary both to the Good Friday agreement and the EU treaties themselves, all of which recognise that Northern Ireland is fully part of the sovereign territory of the United Kingdom. I am afraid that too many Members of your Lordships’ House have adopted that view. My own view is that I do not agree with them and that it would be nice if a few more Members of the peerage of the United Kingdom actually spoke up for the United Kingdom.