Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:16 pm on 5th December 2022.
My Lords, I commence by giving a very warm welcome to my noble friend Lord Weir of Ballyholme. I also congratulate him on his excellent speech. I have no doubt whatever that this House will hear a lot more from my noble friend and that we will witness his forensic examination of legislation, so Ministers may not always be so pleased with what he has to say concerning legislation that comes before your Lordships’ House.
I acknowledge that the Secretary of State has been mandated by legislation to bring forth the Bill. Like many others in your Lordships’ House, I do not wish to be in a position where such a Bill is required. In the other place, my DUP colleagues made it abundantly clear that our party desires to see a functioning Executive dealing with the matters that affect the lives of the people of Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State said at the introduction of the Bill in the other place:
“I believe strongly that the people of Northern Ireland deserve a functioning … Executive, where locally elected representatives can address issues that matter most to those who elect them.”
However, I remind noble Lords that if anyone thinks that a restored Stormont would somehow have a magic wand to wave at and solve the crisis facing the people of Northern Ireland, including their cost of living problems, they had better wake up and smell the coffee. In reality, we need to remember that the hospital waiting lists that have been extending down the years did so when the Assembly was functioning. The lack of houses being built in Northern Ireland was also happening when the Executive were there. The idea that somehow the answer to all the ills of the people of Northern Ireland is the restoration of the Assembly certainly needs to face reality.
I also remind your Lordships that we should not be deluded because the Assembly can address only some of the issues that matter to the electorate. The Government, aided and abetted by this House, and because of a grubby deal that was done with Sinn Féin, took powers that were granted to the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate on the most sensitive issue, namely the right to life of the unborn child, out of the Assembly’s hands, as they did on the legislation concerning the Irish language. Practically with the stroke of a pen and in defiance of the wishes of the electorate, the devolutionary powers granted to Stormont were pushed to the side. They tagged the most liberal abortion rights on to a Bill that had absolutely nothing to do with the issue.
Northern Ireland has been without an Executive or functioning Assembly at Stormont not because of the unwillingness of any Assembly Member to deal with the many serious, complex or critical issues facing the community in Northern Ireland at this most challenging time but because of the intransigence of the European Union to resolve the Northern Ireland protocol, which strikes at the very heart of who the people of Northern Ireland are. As British citizens, we have the right to be a full and equal part of the United Kingdom and to enjoy the equal privileges of being so. That, in reality, has been denied to us through the protocol.
Before the election, no one in Northern Ireland was under any illusion as to where the Democratic Unionist Party stood on the Northern Ireland protocol and what steps the party would take if our candidates were successful in that election. Our leader sat in countless TV studios and did numerous radio interviews, backed up by media articles, to make our position clear. We produced an election manifesto stating clearly that the DUP would not nominate Ministers to an Executive until decisive action was taken to clearly address the grave difficulties created by the Northern Ireland protocol.
There was no ambiguity on the part of the Democratic Unionist Party. Those who want to criticise the party for fulfilling its election manifesto can do so and continue to do so. However, it will not change the principled stand the party decided on and brought before the electorate. When it stood on that manifesto, it meant it. It asked the people to give it a clear mandate. Let me make it abundantly clear that the DUP will not be driven, cajoled or whipped into breaking faith with its electorate.
The Government and European Union are aware that, until they effectively deal with the underlying issue of the Northern Ireland protocol, there will be no going back to Stormont. The Northern Ireland protocol is a clear and brutal breach of the Belfast and St Andrews agreements. In the other place Mr Julian Smith, the MP for Skipton and Ripon, said:
“I realise this is a debate about Executive formation, but Executive formation in Northern Ireland comes from protocol renegotiation, and protocol renegotiation comes from the EU having some amnesia about its views on the Conservative party position on Brexit and moving forward in the best interests of the citizens of Northern Ireland.”—[Official Report, Commons, 29/11/22; cols. 818-34.]
Every day, the protocol does harm to Northern Ireland’s position and place within the United Kingdom. That may not mean much to many, but thousands of people have died and are left with life-threatening injuries because of the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland to cherish their British heritage and not yield to the bloodthirsty IRA terrorists who roamed our streets for over 30 years. Even the authors of the Belfast agreement have been betrayed by the Northern Ireland protocol. The late Lord Trimble stated:
“Make no mistake about it, the protocol does not safeguard the Good Friday Agreement. It demolishes its central premise by removing the assurance that democratic consent is needed to make any change to the status of Northern Ireland”.
The New Decade, New Approach document committed the United Kingdom Government to restoring Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom’s internal market. That meant that there should not be regulatory barriers to trade on the movement of goods that travel between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and remain in the United Kingdom. Article 6 of the Act of Union gives the people of Northern Ireland the right to trade freely with the rest of this United Kingdom. That is being denied to the people of Northern Ireland today. Although that commitment was made in 2020, we will soon, God willing, be in 2023, and that commitment has not been delivered on.
Like my colleagues, I welcome the publication of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, but where is the urgency in getting it on the statute book? Indeed, many in your Lordships’ House want to park it, rather than swiftly process it. I state categorically: do that if you will, but engaging in such action only ensures that the 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement will come and go without a functioning Executive.
It is also appropriate to state that, if the United Kingdom Government and the EU think that they can cobble together a makeshift agreement that does not meet the seven tests set down by the unionist community in the Province, they are sadly mistaken and their scheme will abysmally fail. The people of Northern Ireland were used as pawns in the trade-off between our Government and the EU in the Brexit negotiations, and that wrong must be put right. This Conservative and Unionist Government cannot be permitted to sell out the fundamental building blocks of this historic union to placate, appease or please the European Union.
Proposing this legislation, the Secretary of State said that it was a stopgap Bill—but how long the gap is will be determined by the actions, not the words, of our Government and the European Union. He also stated that he intends to act rapidly to amend Assembly Members’ salaries, yet he does not seem to have the same urgency when it comes to getting the promised £400 energy payments or the £200 heating oil payments into the hands of the people of Northern Ireland—why is that? It was promised that the £400 would be received before the Christmas period, but it is now evident that the delaying of these payments is linked to the use of political leverage. No one should use fuel poverty payments as a political pawn. In the midst of the rising cost of living, the Government’s failure to deliver the payments received by the rest of the citizens of the United Kingdom demands an urgent investigation.
The Secretary of State is exercised by the deep financial hole he has found in Stormont’s finances, under the stewardship of a Sinn Féin Finance Minister, and is threatening that measures must be taken to fill it. Yet, at the same time, he is pressing full steam ahead with providing whatever finances are necessary for abortion—but none for cancer treatment or other major health issues. We can certainly see where the priorities lie.
I see that the Bill also grants civil servants powers to make key public appointments. Could the Minister assure me that it would be possible to ensure that the unionist community will have its fair share of those appointments, rather than appointees being only from the nationalist, republican or Alliance groupings? Over recent years, we have witnessed that few from the Protestant community have received major appointments or chief executive positions throughout Northern Ireland, whether in private or in public bodies. Fair employment legislation seems to work for only one community, and that can no longer be overlooked.
In conclusion, I have stated that my party wants to see devolution work, but it must be on the basis of equality for all. Political stability will proceed only when there is consent across the political divide. The genuine demands of unionists can no longer be swept aside at the whim of any Government, and to move forward means respect for the integrity of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’s place within it.