Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 5th December 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Hoey Baroness Hoey Non-affiliated 5:00 pm, 5th December 2022

My Lords, I add my warm congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Weir of Ballyholme, on his maiden speech and welcome him as another pro-union voice in this Parliament. I was honoured to be on the same platform as him at an anti-protocol rally some months ago, and his detailed knowledge is going to be needed if His Majesty’s Government are to get on with the Report stage of the protocol Bill. I am sure the noble Lord will add his voice to that.

“We are here today because we do not have an Executive … and we do not have an Executive because of the protocol.”

Those are not my words, although I agree with them; they are the words of the Minister of State in the other place when repeating what the honourable Member for Strangford said at Second Reading. The Minister went on to say that

“the hon. Gentleman is right: that is indeed why we are here.”—[Official Report, Commons, 29/11/22; col. 861.]

So no one should think that there is any other reason for us having to have this Bill today other than that there is a protocol.

Of course, the Government have no alternative. It is law to bring forward the Bill. I must say that when the Assembly was not sitting for three years because Sinn Féin brought it down, I did not see a mad rush to reduce pay then and other measures. On the salary issue, it is interesting that Clause 10 states that salaries will be restored when a Speaker is put into the Parliament in Northern Ireland. I am not sure whether that is some kind of sweetener to get a Speaker back as quickly as possible. However, I assure the Minister that this kind of monetary incentive, which has been mentioned by other noble Lords, will not work because we in Northern Ireland face a big threat—an even bigger threat than we had before over 30 years of people trying to bomb us and terrorise us. We face the threat of our place as an integral part of the United Kingdom being whittled away by the protocol, and that transcends any monetary considerations.

Last week, I sat for nearly two days in the Supreme Court listening to a government lawyer tell us that Article VI of the Act of Union had been disapplied by the protocol. In the Northern Ireland courts, we heard first that it had been implicitly repealed, and then it went to the Supreme Court, which said that Article VI of the Act of Union had been subjugated by the protocol, and the government lawyer told us that it had been disapplied. I think being disapplied means that it has been broken, and we will hear from the Supreme Court in its ruling, even if it goes along with implying that we in Parliament all knew when we voted—I did not—for the withdrawal Act that we were getting rid of Article VI. We will probably see that judgment in the new year, but it will not make a difference if it rules against it as it is a political battle. It is a two-strand approach to getting rid of the protocol.

I do not fear an election in Northern Ireland as I think pro-union people will be even more determined to come out and vote as they have seen what has happened over the past months. However, the Minister should think about planning, so that council elections are brought forward and are not held on the weekend of the Coronation because, as noble Lords may not know, it would take a long time to count those votes and that would bring us into the Monday of the Coronation. If we are going to have elections, let us combine them and have them on the same day in April.

I do not think that anything will have changed by then as far as the European Union is concerned. Negotiations seem to be going nowhere. We do not get any reports or updates; we just have to listen to selected journalists who have been told what is happening and read the little tidbits put in the newspapers. It seems to me that the EU is still working under the same negotiating mandate, and that is not going to work.

We cannot be left under EU rules. Huge chunks of the retained EU law Bill coming to us will not apply to Northern Ireland; we will be left even further behind as divergence takes place. Let us not forget that the protocol has not yet been fully implemented and we have no idea what will be happening to the grace periods that are ending.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, spoke of the new technology that the EU has been talking about: this invisible border that we can now have in the Irish Sea. It is talking about technology that will make it all invisible so that it does not matter. Well, if it is invisible at the Irish Sea border, it can jolly well be invisible at the frontier between Northern Ireland and the independent country of the Republic of Ireland that is within the European Union. Technology could work—many people talked about that some time ago—but, if it is to be invisible, it can be invisible where it should have been in the first place.

As has already been mentioned, we are facing the 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement in April, and President Biden wants to come—to Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. That is meant to hit people with the idea that, to get President Biden here, we have to get the Assembly working again; that we cannot possibly have him here if the Belfast agreement is not being properly carried through. But I am not sure many people are that worried about whether President Biden will come or not. He has shown that he does not really—or does not want to—understand the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland, so I do not think that will be a particular influence on getting any changes.

Then just last week—I have to mention this because it shocked so many people—Ursula von der Leyen spoke in Dublin about the years of Ireland being in the European Union and how wonderful it was. She then appeared to liken the IRA to freedom fighters in Ukraine, and likened the United Kingdom to Putin. Your Lordships may say that she did not actually say that, but she certainly spoke in such a way that everyone who listened knew what was going on. How can we in Northern Ireland think that Ursula von der Leyen, as President of the Commission, really has the interests of the Belfast agreement and peace in Northern Ireland at heart when she can go to Dublin and say that?

Finally, let us remember that the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot legislate on so many contentious issues—social security, welfare reform, abortion, legacy and so on. Also, there is this idea that the cost of living will be absolutely solved tomorrow if the Assembly and the Executive are back, but I genuinely do not feel that many people in Northern Ireland waking up every morning, listening to the radio, are thinking to themselves, “I just wish the Executive was back. I just wish we had an Assembly.”

We know that most of the changes—and the direction of change—to help people in Northern Ireland, and the money involved, come from the United Kingdom Government. That is what we have to recognise. I know that noble Lords will not want to—indeed, many of my friends in the Democratic Unionist Party will not want to—but we need to face up to the fact that we, here, are the legislature for Northern Ireland and have been so on many issues over a long period of time. We should not try to pretend otherwise.

At least with direct rule, or full integration as I would call it, we did not experience all this stop and start. It may be that we are going to have to look and whether in the long term this kind of devolution in Northern Ireland can actually work. The priority now has to be—I know the Minister and the Government know this—that, if we can put this legislation through in one day as we have for other important issues regarding Northern Ireland in the past, we should get the protocol Bill here for its Report stage as soon as possible, immediately. I am sure noble Lords will not want to amend it too much but, if they do, it has to go to the other place and come straight back here again. The Government have to show their determination that they mean to get rid of the protocol. If we cannot get rid of it by using negotiations in the EU then we have to use the protocol Bill. If we want devolution back, we are going to have to get rid of that protocol. That is the real issue facing us today.