Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:01 pm on 13 May 2021.

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Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Deputy Chairman of Committees 3:01, 13 May 2021

My Lords, I am delighted to echo the congratulations to my noble friend Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie and the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, on their excellent maiden speeches.

I also strongly welcome the commitment in the gracious Speech that

“Ministers will promote the strength and integrity of the union.”—[Official Report, 11/5/21; col. 3.]

Throughout 34 years, ever since I was first employed in the Conservative Research Department and as a special adviser to six Northern Ireland Secretaries, the union is the cause to which I have devoted most of my political energies. For me, the strength and integrity of our United Kingdom is the most precious of all commodities, and I have always been a unionist first and a Conservative second. However, today, as many noble Lords have pointed out, the United Kingdom is once again under sustained attack and threat. In the short time available, I will focus on Northern Ireland, where my experience lies, but I will make one observation on the situation in Scotland.

As things stand, Scotland’s departure from the United Kingdom could take place on the basis of 50.01% of those actually voting in a referendum. However, in circumstances where a referendum were carried by such a slender majority, and where border areas voted decisively to remain within the United Kingdom, what is the prospect of those areas demanding some form of special provision, with one option being for them to stay within the union?

I merely throw open the question. Like the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, I do so conscious that 10 days ago we marked the centenary of the coming into force of the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which made special provision for the six north-eastern counties of Ireland, thereby establishing Northern Ireland as a distinct political entity within the United Kingdom. Those who devised the Act intended it to be a temporary arrangement, so I am especially pleased that, 100 years on, Northern Ireland remains firmly rooted within our great union.

I also completely acknowledge that, for some, this is a contentious centenary and certainly not one greeted with any enthusiasm by nationalists. It is right that this anniversary, like others in this so-called decade of centenaries, is characterised by reflection as well as commemoration. The aim must always be to promote greater understanding rather than to fuel further division.

In the past, I have expressed the hope that the centenary might also provide the catalyst for a debate within unionism about how the union could survive, prosper and be strengthened for at least the next 100 years. Little could I have predicted that the centenary would actually take place against a backdrop of the resignations of not one but both leaders of the two main unionist parties in Northern Ireland—two people whom I know from personal experience to be individuals of great conviction and integrity.

As a result, we now have two leadership contests, and at the heart of both is the future direction of unionism and the union itself. As such, in that context, I say that Northern Ireland is a very different place today from that in which the Belfast agreement was made, nearly a quarter of a century ago. Even so, I remain convinced that, in any border poll, a clear majority of people would vote to stay within the United Kingdom—incidentally, a far greater number than those who currently vote for the two main unionist parties. I am sceptical of the methodology of certain recent internet-based opinion polls that might suggest otherwise.

However, in the long term, the union will not be secured by unionism turning in on itself, retreating into history or singing the same old songs, whatever short-term comfort that might bring to some. The surest foundation for the future of the union and Northern Ireland’s place within it has to be an open, inclusive and tolerant unionism that understands, is comfortable with and embraces the values of the modern world. It has to be a 21st century unionism, with a narrative that speaks to people outside its core base and whose mission is to build a more stable, prosperous and secure Northern Ireland that everyone, irrespective of their background or ultimate political aspiration, can be proud to call home—a Northern Ireland based on a shared and united future rather than a divided past.

In conclusion, it is over 50 years since the unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill made his famous broadcast, in which he said:

“Ulster stands at the cross roads.”

In so doing, he asked a question of his fellow unionists:

“What kind of Ulster do you want?”

Surely, against the backdrop of the centenary of Northern Ireland and two leadership elections, the time has now come for unionists decisively to answer that question in ways that secure rather than weaken Northern Ireland’s future as part of this great United Kingdom.