My Lords, I was pleased to hear in her Majesty’s gracious Speech that her government Ministers will promote the strength and integrity of the union and that measures will be brought forward to strengthen devolved government in Northern Ireland. In promoting the benefits of maintaining and enhancing our great union of nations, we should emphasise that we have in these isles a history and a bond unmatched anywhere else in the world. We have a unique selling point: four distinctly original constituent parts of one nation.
We hold this key debate during Northern Ireland’s centenary year, a very significant milestone in our country’s history. One hundred years since its foundation, Northern Ireland is still very much part of the United Kingdom, and in 2021 it is in many ways unrecognisable when compared with how it looked and felt in the darkest days of conflict. One has only to look at Belfast’s harbour and skyline to appreciate the changes. In recent years we have witnessed relative peace and significant inward investment, including the growth of a strong film and television industry. International companies and studios recognise Northern Ireland’s value and potential as a location containing some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery in this nation. The considerable growth in tourism over the past decade is perhaps further evidence of that.
However, our union now faces several different and unique difficulties and challenges. In Scotland we hear familiar separatist rhetoric from those who wish to divide us. Despite having lost a previous referendum, some still seek to divide.
In Northern Ireland, regrettably, we are facing new realities as a consequence of trade uncertainties arising from the introduction of the Northern Ireland protocol arrangements. It is essential that we ensure the long-term prosperity of the UK and the viability of businesses. We must do all we can to protect our internal market and build on our relationships across our nation. It remains true that no part of the UK should feel disadvantaged because of the proximity of a trade border. There remain some real concerns in communities and within businesses in Northern Ireland that the protocol represents a threat to the integrity of our union. These are not concerns that will be easily swept away. I am sure the Minister will appreciate that many will seek further assurances and legal guarantees regarding these matters.
The UK’s independence from the EU now opens up a new era of opportunities for increased co-operation and trade across the globe. However, before we enter new arrangements, perhaps we should first seek to repair, improve and further the friendships and alliances on our doorstep, across these isles. Being equal partners in a shared and integrated UK economy helps all the constituent parts of our nation to deal with risks and share opportunities. Inside the union we share not only a currency, a language and common standards but we are also socially integrated. Our strongest cultural bonds, interests, histories and values are those that we share across our nation. It is an undeniable fact that strong links across these isles and our open UK markets have brought huge benefits to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The case for maintaining the union is as important as it is compelling. Though being British may be interpreted differently in different parts of our nation, there is a common understanding and appreciation of certain basic constitutional principles, such as the rule of law. Most British citizens instinctively recognise the many practical benefits of our union, such as our shared currency, which facilitates the growth of a strong and integrated economy. However, we should never complacently take those opinions for granted; nor should we use language that may alienate some when making our case. We must continue to work together, championing the union and strengthening the bonds between us.
The case for the union is a compelling one, based on future growth and opportunities. It is important to older and younger people alike. It is a case based on securing our economic future and sustaining our place on the world stage for years to come. Maintaining the union is the responsibility of all of us. Putting forward the case for it is as vital now as it was 50 or 100 years ago. All those who value and respect our United Kingdom, across all parts of it, must seize the opportunities before us to promote and safeguard it for future generations.