Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:26 pm on 18 May 2023.

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Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative 12:26, 18 May 2023

My Lords, I shall not detain the House long nor repeat everything that has already been said, because it would be quite unnecessary. I have great respect for the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and I agree entirely with what he said: there is no alternative to this legislation. That is unfortunate but true.

I think this is the first occasion on which we have debated Northern Ireland business since the death of Lord Carswell, a former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. I raise his death and pay tribute to him because I remember being here during the Brexit debates, which were long, monotonous and varied, when he spoke about his childhood in Belfast and how he could bicycle down from Belfast to Dublin and never saw a border or a border guard. That was in his lifetime. We talked a lot of nonsense about how there might be a hard border in Northern Ireland, but there has never been a hard border across the island of Ireland. Friends of mine spent many years trying to stop illegal border crossings, mostly smuggling and terrorist-related, across the internal border, and they completely failed.

One should remember what Lord Carswell said because this is partly behind the whole issue about the Windsor Framework. My view is that the Windsor Framework is flawed but it is the best deal we will get. In addition, we live in the art of the possible; that is what the Windsor Framework is. In politics, much as we might wish to, we do not always get our own way on everything. I deprecate the fact that the European Union should have anything to do with a sovereign part of the United Kingdom, but that is the situation we are in.

To move on slightly to the broader issue, I very much deprecate the fact that Sinn Féin is the largest party in the Assembly now—or it would be if the Assembly was sitting. I hate it. Sinn Féin was always described as the political wing of the IRA, and I think it still is. Because of that, it sticks in my craw that anybody should vote for Sinn Féin, although a lot of very decent people do. The IRA is now somewhat romanticised in Northern Ireland, but in fact it is a bunch of ghastly, murderous thugs, and we should remember that—starting with Gerry Adams, who, not in this world but perhaps in the next, should answer for the deaths of people such as Jean McConville. However, I say to my fellow unionists that we live in the world as it is and we are in the art of the possible.

I will not digress too far, but after 1997, many people in the Conservative Party wished to go back and say, “Why didn’t these stupid people, the electorate, vote for us?” Finally, however, we worked out that you do not blame the electorate—you blame yourselves for why people do not vote for you. I say to my fellow unionists, we have to change. The world changes; we all have to change—unbelievably, I am less hard-line than I was. I say to my fellow unionists that we need political leadership to understand how to get the electorate’s confidence back, and political leadership to go back into the Assembly so that we have an Executive in Northern Ireland. For all its defects, that is the best way forward.