Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:08 pm on 5th December 2022.

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Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench 4:08 pm, 5th December 2022

My Lords, I support the Bill and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Weir. This is the first time I have had the pleasure of welcoming a former student of mine to this House, and I hope it is not the last. He will bring a lot of skill and experience as a Minister and politician in Northern Ireland, which will be very useful to this House.

I particularly welcome that we have not fallen, as we have on previous occasions, into the trap of having too passive a model of direct rule for this—I hope short—period of time. It is pure common sense to allow senior officials to make certain discretionary decisions; we have had enormous difficulties in the past when we have not done that. It is difficult, and I fully accept the point made earlier that, as time goes on and with tough economic decisions to be made, it will become even more difficult. I fully accept that senior civil servants do not like it, but, on the whole, it is the best way forward for this period of time, which we hope to make as short as possible. It is an entirely appropriate exercise of UK sovereignty and, in essence, a practical measure. However, this Bill is meant to be a very temporary expedient, and the longer the directive lasts, the more difficult the position of our civil servants will become.

The question remains: how realistic is the putative return to devolution? I will address my remarks in the spirit of the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, both of whom placed the Good Friday agreement at the centre of their reflections. My remarks are intended to draw attention to some of the things that might facilitate a rapid return to devolution. It is clear that interesting negotiations are taking place—very interesting, if you read some of the Dublin reports on the interplay between the UK Government and the EU—and I hope there will be continuing good progress on that front. Last week, our officials gave a public demonstration, to which journalists and other interested parties were invited, of the new technology Britain could offer. The days are gone when the EU could dismissively wave its hand and talk about unicorn technology and magical solutions. This is now quite detailed and impressive, and it ought to make the difficulties in the strand 3 area much easier to overcome.

This is very important, because strand 3 of the Good Friday agreement insists on a harmonious and modern model of relations between Great Britain and Ireland, including Northern Ireland. Currently, however, the model is anything but harmonious, given the number of interventions, delays, checks and so on. We may have done the technological work which allows us a way out of that. The EU’s response is going to be very significant, because to return to devolution we will need to have the Good Friday agreement clearly up and running—and that includes the critical area of strand 3. However, it is not just strand 3 that is important; so is strand 2, on north/south relations. Here, I want again to say something positive and helpful, but the truth is that the working model of strand 2 we have had for many years—north/south relations mandated by the Northern Ireland Assembly—has basically crashed and collapsed and is in total disarray.

But are we therefore without hope? I draw attention to two things: first, what the EU itself says in the protocol section of the withdrawal agreement, parts 1 and 2 of Article 11, where it says that all the parts of strand 2 should be working—it really wants that. At the moment, however, it is as dead as a dodo; none of its parts is working. It then says that it will be flexible to make sure that this excellent arrangement for north/south co-operation continues. This is amazingly non-controversial to anybody who the remembers the Northern Irish politics of the 1990s: unionist acceptance of north/south co-operation on the basis of consent and an assembly mandate is one of the great achievements of the Good Friday agreement, and we must not throw it away. Instead, we must build on it to get out of the dreadful mess we are in. The EU has said that it wants it working at full tilt, and that it will be flexible to help with difficulties.

Secondly, I draw attention to a letter from the right honourable Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in the Irish Times on 8 July 2019, in which he picks up on that precise point. He is following on from important analysis by fair-minded and well-known commentators on north/south relations in the Irish Times: Newton Emerson, who wrote on 27 June, and Andy Pollak, who wrote on 3 July. Donaldson says that he, too, believes that the revival of north/south institutions would be helpful in facing and dealing with the problems currently posed by the protocol. As we have agreed institutions for food safety and animal health, which are clearly issues at stake in the whole mess we are now in, it has always been a mystery to me why they are not used or even expanded in certain areas. The institutions have grown up since the Good Friday agreement, and the two issues I mentioned are actually in the text of the Good Friday agreement, so why are these institutions not strengthened as a means of finding a way through this mess and to reassure the EU, which has legitimate concerns about animal health and protection of the single market?

In conclusion, I would like to point out that there is an excise border in the island of Ireland. It was there long before the protocol and it will be there long after the protocol. That excise border means that there is a substantial amount of smuggling already, and there is a strong such tradition. It is very much in our minds in recent days because we have just seen a gangland murder in Newry that seemed to have that dimension, and there is a rather dramatic case going through the courts in Dublin at the moment that also bears on some of these issues.

I remind the House that, in the wake of 9/11, both the United Kingdom and Ireland were on the Security Council, as indeed they are today. Then, we agreed and passed Resolution 1373, which says that borders are places of criminality and we need to keep an eye on them. They are places where money gets lost and where terrorism can sometimes place itself quite easily. It makes it quite clear that border areas are areas of skulduggery. I cannot understand why, therefore, at this moment—and we have just seen dramatic evidence with the latest murder that the border is once again an area of skulduggery—we do not have an enhanced UK-Ireland agreement to work together on these matters. This should be done for its own sake, but it would also perform the function of dealing with some of the concerns that the EU inevitably has about smuggling—which is a legitimate concern about smuggling and penetration of the single market.

I offer those ideas in the hope that they may be of some use in the current debate about how we bring devolution back, because the timescales announced in this Bill are extremely tight, given the interference, for example, of the Christmas holidays in the middle of them. It remains the case that there is now a possibility—I put it no higher than that—of a new understanding with the EU. The atmosphere is certainly much better; the fears expressed in this House at the beginning of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill on that score turned out not to be correct. There is now a possibility of some kind of positive movement, but it will be done—this is where I agree with the two previous speakers—only by intense fidelity to the underlying principles of the Good Friday agreement, strand 3 and strand 2, and by trying not just to preserve them but actually to breathe new life into them and, if necessary, expand them.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s letter, in that sense, is very close to what the EU says in Article 11.2 in the section entitled “Protocol to the Bill”; the EU says it is its position. So I think this is something we ought to be exploring at this point, because it is going to be a struggle to meet the timetable in this Bill.