I beg to move
That this Assembly recognises that a trade deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union is critical in protecting the interests of everyone living in Northern Ireland; expresses deep concerns about the UK Government’s approach to negotiations and the terms of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill; rejects any argument that the Bill is necessary to protect the Good Friday Agreement; further rejects the unilateral move to undermine the authority of the devolved institutions contained in this Bill; affirms its commitment to upholding international law; mandates the First Minister and deputy First Minister to take a formal position opposing the UK Internal Market Bill; and calls on the Prime Minister to respect the will of the people of Northern Ireland and the principles of devolution.
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who speak will have five minutes.
As I rise, I am again reminded that we are living in the midst of the greatest public health emergency of our lifetime. That, in turn, has caused a profound economic crisis. None of us yet know how big the proportions of that crisis will be. We are just 100 days from the end of the transition period and a potential further shock to our economy. That is for no reason other than unbending ideology.
In moving today's motion, let me first reiterate a message from a previous Assembly motion that I moved on Brexit that the transition period should be extended beyond the end of this year. It is both economically reckless and immoral that the UK Government refuses to do so.
Today's motion is about the Internal Market Bill. First, it makes it clear that it is overwhelmingly in the interests of everyone living in Northern Ireland — indeed, everyone in these islands — that a trade deal be struck between the UK and the EU in the coming weeks. If a deal is struck, it is unlikely that it will be anything more than the thinnest possible arrangement providing zero tariff and zero quota trade between the UK and the EU. Even that, however, would be better than the extraordinary act of self-harm that no deal would represent. If that were to happen, the UK would have the same trading relationship with the EU as is enjoyed by Mauritania or Mongolia, a remarkable position to end up in, given the claims made during the referendum campaign, including claims by some on the Benches opposite, that the EU would rush to give the UK unparalleled access to the single market. Anyone who thinks that we do not need the protections provided for in the protocol should consider that. If there had been no protocol and the UK had left the transition period without a deal, trade between businesses in Dundalk and Newry would have taken place on World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. In trading terms, the North would have had less access to the market on the rest of this island not just than Singapore or Canada but than Madagascar or the Solomon Islands, all of which enjoy preferential trade partnerships with the EU that go beyond WTO rules. All of that, Mr Speaker, is to state why the protections in the protocol, though imperfect, are essential. That is why the attempt by the UK Government to nullify the provisions in the protocol via the Internal Market Bill is so serious.
Over the past few years, the speed of events and the volume of information and change that all of us have had to process have been dizzying. That sense of bewilderment is, in many ways, one of the most effective tools of the populist, and Boris Johnson is certainly a populist. Therefore let us remember what he said about the deal that he is now repudiating via the Internal Market Bill:
"it is oven ready … you just put it in the microwave and there it is."
However, anyone watching the House of Commons two weeks ago will have seen the Northern Ireland Secretary stand at the Dispatch Box and say that the UK Government intended to repudiate the Bill by undermining it and breaking the law in narrow and specific ways. That is not how international law works. The international rules-based order is not based on countries arrogating to themselves the power to break their obligations as and when it suits them. If you do not believe me, take it from none other than the Brexiteer former Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox:
"we simply cannot approve or endorse a situation in which we go back on our word, given solemnly not only by the British Government ... but also by Parliament when we ratified this".
Take it also from that other famous closet pan-nationalist and liberal Remainer, Michael Howard:
"How can we reproach Russia, China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards ...?"
Many Brexiteers and, indeed, some Members opposite have been quick to criticise prominent US politicians, including the Democratic candidate for the presidency, who have warned against the UK breaching its obligations in the withdrawal agreement and, by extension, its obligation in the Good Friday Agreement. Let me say this: think about who is speaking out on this. Think about the reputation — I say this with the greatest of respect — of the country that you are passionate about remaining part of. The current UK Government are fast developing a reputation as an irresponsible actor on the world stage.
Let me move on to some of the specifics and specific problems of the Bill. First, it has been claimed loudly that it is about protecting the seamless flow of goods, especially food, from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. That is a remarkable claim, since nothing in the Bill makes provision for the movement of goods from Britain into Northern Ireland; it all relates to goods moving the other way. Just another casual lie and misrepresentation from Boris Johnson and his populist Government.
We want the protocol to operate as seamlessly as possible; I cannot state that enough. However, that is not what the Bill does. It gives UK Ministers the power to disapply unilaterally certain provisions of the protocol. That would plunge Northern Ireland into legal and administrative chaos. The protocol and its requirements would still exist — indeed, the UK Government claim that they intend to uphold the protocol, notwithstanding the specific and narrow breaches — but we would be left in an extremely invidious position in relation to our access to EU and UK markets. That is not a position that any of us should want our economy to get into, especially not in the current circumstances. I go back to what we have been discussing and debating in the Assembly today and in the House of Commons at Westminster. Does anyone think that it is acceptable for our economy to be plunged into chaos at the end of this year in the middle of the biggest global health emergency in a century?
There is a further fundamental problem with the Bill: it represents a clear undermining of the devolved settlement not just in Northern Ireland but across the UK. Part 6 provides UK Ministers with sweeping powers to spend money however they please on the full range of devolved competencies. That Part, which is less than half a page long in the Bill, is in fundamental contravention of the principles undermining devolution. It is no wonder that the Scottish and Welsh devolved Administrations are opposed to it. Let me say this: it was the Labour Administration in Wales, not a nationalist Administration, who opposed it. It also undermines the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act, which puts the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement into effect.
There has been much commentary about what is and is not in the Good Friday Agreement. Let me clear: a hard Brexit and all that goes with it, including the Bill, contravene the agreement in, to use the British Government's language, narrow and specific ways. For example, of the dozen specific areas of North/South cooperation mentioned in the agreement, all but a few are either underpinned by or interact with EU law; indeed, coordinating the delivery of EU funds is, in itself, one of the North/South implementation areas specifically mentioned in the agreement. The Bill, as I have said, attacks the devolved competencies provided for in the agreement. Paragraph 3 of strand one states:
"The Assembly will exercise full legislative and executive authority in respect of those matters currently within the responsibility of the six Northern Ireland Government Departments".
Paragraph 4 states:
"The Assembly — operating where appropriate on a cross-community basis — will be the prime source of authority in respect of all devolved responsibilities."
Clearly, Part 6 of the Internal Market Bill is in direct contravention of that.
More broadly, the Bill is another example of the shock to the central nervous system of the relationships and assumptions that underpinned the agreement and remain critical to the functioning of our institutions and the broader set of relationships across these islands. Those relationships are precious to us and to my party. To those who are frustrated and bored by us constantly talking about them in the Assembly and at Westminster I say that we are not going to stop. We will not stop talking about them, we will not stop bringing motions to the Floor of the Assembly and we will not stop tabling amendments to the Bill at Westminster, using our colleagues there.
To unionist colleagues who are uncomfortable with the notion of checks in the Irish Sea, I want to say this: I acknowledge those concerns. I particularly acknowledge those concerns coming from members of the Ulster Unionist Party, many of whom sincerely voted to remain. I have said throughout the process that the entirety of a hard Brexit is a shock to the principles underpinning the Good Friday Agreement, but I ask this, given the conduct of the current UK Government and the red lines that they have set out since 2017 and particularly since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister: what is the alternative? To those considering whether to back the motion today, I say this: think about whether Boris Johnson is a man to be trusted; think about how he has lied to you before; think about whether the Bill is really what our economy or our institutions need.
The UK Government have repeatedly made great claims about respecting the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly; they even had that written into the withdrawal agreement. Let us make it clear that the Bill does not have our consent. For obvious reasons, I will not hold my breath on a clear statement of intent from the Executive, but let us be clear that the Assembly rejects the Internal Market Bill, upholds the principles that have underpinned our institutions and affirms that commitments made in peace agreements and international treaties should not be the plaything of demagogues. I commend the motion to the Assembly.
This feels like round two, as we debated the issue yesterday; indeed, the Member for South Belfast repeats the same arguments, and I have no doubt that we will hear the same arguments again from those on the Benches opposite and the Alliance Party, as part of the nationalist movement on the issue. Nevertheless, we will confront them and expose the hypocrisy around the issues being raised. The motion, to which, it goes without saying, we will object, because it is flawed in its content, talks about a UK-EU trade deal being "critical" — so it is, so it is — but, by 1 January, in three months' time, will that be achieved? There is a huge question mark over that. What else can the sovereign Government of the United Kingdom do but prepare for the European Union continuing to be intransigent and continuing to threaten and bully and be ready for any eventuality that does not do harm to its people or, at least, mitigates that harm? The Internal Market Bill goes some way but not anywhere near far enough. The Government have given assurances that they will address further issues in the Finance Bill with more amendments. I do not trust Boris Johnson or the Conservative Party to do the right thing for this place, because, time and time again, they have let the unionist people down. That will not stop us advocating in the interests, we believe, of all our people and the unionist perspective.
We need certainty for our businesses and consumers, and that is absent. The withdrawal agreement and the protocol hands the leverage to the European Union to use us as a pawn in a much bigger plaything. Do Members really think that Michel Barnier and those who lead the European institutions care about Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? Do you think that the French put a priority on this place over their fishing industry, as they seek to exploit every opportunity to get access to the UK's waters? That is the priority for your European comrades whom you seek to have greater allegiance to. They will always give precedence and priority to their people, as opposed to what we have to do, from all perspectives, which is to represent our people.
When we think about the protocol, we are talking about tariffs, increased paperwork around regulations, declarations and imports, regulatory checks on agri-food and manufacturing being subject to certification and inspections. We think of the fisheries aspect, which the Joint Committee may well be able to subject to rules and EU customs declarations. We think about the agricultural support, with the Joint Committee again holding the power to set upper limits on farm subsidies that would be in line with the common agricultural policy (CAP). We think about the state aid issues as well. The magnitude of this is not something that should be glibly commented on by Members opposite. When you consider that £355 million is being announced for a trader supporter scheme funded by the UK Government, that should crystallise the magnitude of what we are talking about. Members opposite, supported by the nationalist Alliance Party, continue to prioritise their political ideology over the reality of the implications for our business community and consumers.
When it comes to the Internal Market Bill, what business organisation has said that they are opposed to it? They may not like the tactics that have been deployed, but, when it comes to the substance of the Bill, give me a business representative organisation that has said that they do not like the substance of it. They may not like the tactics, but I have not heard them saying that they do not agree with removing the potential for barriers. It is important that we deal with this and deal with it effectively.
I want access to both markets. I want access to our Great Britain market, and I want access to the European market. The Members opposite, supported by the Alliance Party, put precedence on the EU single market at whatever cost and in whatever circumstances. That is what they voted on yesterday. Members talk about consent and the Good Friday Agreement, but they did not worry yesterday that not a single unionist voted for their motion. No, they continue to ride roughshod over the concerns of the unionist community and their representatives. That is something that we will oppose.
The Member makes a valid point. The UK Government have said that one of their objectives is to have special circumstances for free ports to maximise economic opportunities, but state aid rules would have implications for that and, of course, nothing will stop the predatory neighbour in the Republic of Ireland — that is what they are, when it comes to commercial activities, corporation tax, the way they go after our airports with Dublin Airport and when it comes to ports, including Warrenpoint, Foyle and Belfast — using European institutions to frustrate those economic opportunities. That is more important for the Members opposite and the Alliance Party.
We need to represent our people and act in their interests. The Belfast Agreement, whatever it is worth to the Members opposite, spoke about respecting the integrity of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wanted to.
The withdrawal agreement and the protocol breach it, but the Members opposite and the Alliance Party could not care less. I oppose the motion.
Tá mé ag labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin seo. I speak in favour of this motion. The British Government, without doubt, should withdraw the Internal Market Bill immediately and retract the threat of replicating similar provisions in future legislation. The Bill undermines the Irish protocol, it amends the 1998 Act — the legislative outworking of the Good Friday Agreement — and it is an attack on our power-sharing arrangements. These are the provisions that override the protocol, attempt to block judicial reviews and erode international and domestic law.
There is a clear attempt in this Bill to give priority to the British internal market over the future priorities of our power-sharing Administration. This could have a particularly severe impact on the work here to advance equality, human rights and environmental protections.
The dreams of future generations cannot be crushed by the imposition of a Tory nightmare vision of the internal market. The provisions of the internal market risk undermining the human rights and equality protections in the Irish protocol, which states that there should be no diminution of rights. Therefore, the Equality Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission should use their powers under the protocol to raise concerns with the specialised committee. We need to hear a clear message from the commissions, and we need to hear it this week. They need to stand up for equality and human rights and use the powers that they have to maximum effect. Now is not the time to cross fingers and hope that things will not happen. Now is not the time for silence. We warn the NIO not to undermine the significant role that those commissions have under the Irish protocol. The commissions need to be effective and robust, so the NIO must not decimate institutions that are central to the Good Friday Agreement.
The British Government will not impose their cold-house vision for rights and equality here. There is an urgent need to hardwire additional guarantees — those unequivocal commitments that were made on the European Convention on Human Rights — into the future relationship agreement currently being negotiated between the British Government and the EU. The political declaration refers to both the European Convention on Human Rights and the Good Friday Agreement. We simply — the world, simply — does not trust the British Government, given what we know of their current threats to the human rights convention. The common travel area promises are still not adequately reflected in law, policy or practice. Many are going to discover that these guarantees, and the guarantees given, are meaningless in practice. We want to see the damage limitation guarantees implemented. The Irish protocol needs to be protected, and it needs to be protected in full.
The shameful attack by the British Government has rightly been condemned around the world. It has even been condemned within the governing party. However, it does raise an additional question. We have another option. We certainly do have another option, and Sinn Féin invites all those parties that are committed to the return of the North to the EU to discuss the scope for the development of an agreed position. Sinn Féin endorses the recent proposals from the constitutional conversations group. Sinn Féin would welcome the opportunity to discuss common ground with others. We need to engage with each other on how we are going to share this island differently in the future.
I thank my friend from South Belfast and, indeed, my friend from the Finance Committee for tabling this motion, although, unfortunately, we will not be supporting it. The reason why we will not be supporting this motion is that we have a fundamental issue today that is being discussed, 100 days out, in London between Mr Gove and Mr Barnier. The discussion is an informal discussion about how we are going to resolve the problems that we have currently.
Many people have listened to the sterility of this debate over a considerable period of time, when, to many ears on this side of the House and, indeed, in my constituency, it sounds like Boris-bashing turning into Brit-bashing. That is not something that I think is conducive or helpful for the people of Northern Ireland, particularly the consumers of Northern Ireland, who will be faced with some really significant choices in a very short period of time.
The Ulster Unionist Party has a proposal for you, Mr Principal Speaker, the Members of the Assembly and its political parties that we as an Assembly write to both Mr Gove and Mr Barnier and say to them that we have real, significant concerns about Northern Ireland being used as a political football. We have 100 days before we have to have in position things that will prevent our goods from being stopped in coming across from our own country. We are going to have to be in a position where we will have to understand what the implications of state aid rules will be. We need to understand what the role of the European Court of Justice will be because that will be a fundamental issue.
Mr Principal Speaker, what we should be doing as an Assembly and what we can do through the Chairs of all the Committees is to come together, through you, and write, as Chairs, to the First Minister and deputy First Minister in the Executive Office and to Mr Gove and Mr Barnier. As Chair of the Finance Committee, I will ask the Committee about this issue tomorrow. We will ask them to please stop using Northern Ireland as a political football. They have said right from the beginning that the single most important thing is the Belfast Agreement. The single most important thing is maintaining peace and security in Northern Ireland, and the best way to achieve that is to remove uncertainty. The best way to achieve that is to make sure that our traders, our businesses and our companies are able to understand what is going to happen on 1 January next year. That, Mr Principal Speaker, is what we as an Assembly should be debating, because the Executive Office is not bringing those things to us. We should be the ones who are now saying to everybody in the United Kingdom, Europe and the rest of the world, "Stop using Northern Ireland as a political football".
Let us do what is appropriate and what is right for Northern Ireland. Can any Member in this Assembly say that we will be better off on 1 January next year? No. Can anyone tell me, at our Tesco and ASDA stores and everywhere else, what the impact will be on the shopping basket of the consumer in Northern Ireland, all of whom are our voters, by the way? Can anyone tell me what that is going to be like? No.
Just one second.
Can anybody actually tell me what the European Union and the United Kingdom have agreed in the specialist committee or the Joint Committee? Have we seen any output from them? Do we have any understanding of what it means to us? We are 100 days out, but nobody seems to be paying any attention to that. I think that we as an Assembly, with all of the MLAs here, should, through our Committee structure, because no one else is doing anything, be putting that through.
Thank you for bringing the note to bring it towards the Assembly, but there is something more fundamental here. We can tilt at windmills as much as we like, and we know that the withdrawal agreement and the so-called Internal Market Bill are both deeply flawed, but who will stand up for the people of Northern Ireland if it is not us? That is what we were elected to do. We are not standing up for the people of Brussels, and we are not standing up for the people of London. We should be standing up for the people of Northern Ireland. Mr Principal Speaker, I have made a proposal, and I look forward to hearing from the rest of the Committee Chairs later.
There is a bit of déjà vu, but this is a slightly different debate today. It is a debate regarding the Internal Market Bill, which contains a series of provisions on the functioning of the internal market in the United Kingdom, which of course already had a part of the EU. There are issues with this, including the obvious and likely dominance of England in comparison with the other nations, as well as the impact on the devolved settlements. I realise that the Scottish and Welsh Governments rejected the Internal Market Bill's White Paper following its publication because of such concerns. Therefore, it is disappointing that it appears that there was no formal response compiled by the Executive in Northern Ireland.
However, for today we will focus on how progressing the Internal Market Bill interacts with the Northern Ireland protocol, and the arrangements to avoid a hard border with the Republic. I said yesterday, and I will be clear again, the protocol is not a perfect arrangement; the original backstop was a much better deal for Northern Ireland and the protocol —.
No, I want to finish, thank you. The protocol is a compromise of a compromise. It is an arrangement to negate some of the problems that, unfortunately, Brexit brings to Northern Ireland, and we all know who brought Brexit to Northern Ireland.
It is a matter of deep concern that legislation is being progressed in our national Parliament which undermines an international agreement that was signed less than a year ago, and which adds further unease about the future of businesses and people in Northern Ireland, and on that point I agree with Mr Aiken.
No, I want to continue.
It is totally disconcerting for businesses and for people who are in employment in Northern Ireland that we are being taken down this route. Upholding international law is the sign of a responsible actor on a world stage. There is a certain amount — indeed, a great deal — of irony that the Government instructs others to follow the law and yet blatantly sets out to break the law, and is sadly followed by a number of Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland. Again, it is hard to work out what the Government is doing.
The reality is that it is within the power of the United Kingdom's Government to prevent barriers and friction by striking a comprehensive trade deal. If these issues were so fundamental to the Good Friday Agreement then why did the Prime Minister agree to these terms and then run a general election campaign on them? Even if this is a negotiating tactic, it undermines the UK's international reputation and credibility, and thus our ability to strike further trade deals.
Yesterday we heard, and it is worth repeating again, politicians from both sides of the Houses in the US that they are very concerned, and they have made it very clear that it compromises any chance of a US-UK trade deal. At this rate it seems that the UK will not have any trade deals on the table; not even one with the EU and no trade deal with the US. Of course, it is welcome that they have sealed one with Japan, but then why bother because they already had exactly the same deal with Japan through their membership of the EU. How will anyone benefit from the UK having next to no preferential trade partners?
It seems that all of the lofty aspirations of Brexit have evaporated and we are left with a gloomy, complex and uncertain future. That cannot be good for business and it cannot be good for employees, with piles of red tape and increasing barriers to business and people's lives.
Whether it is, as Mr Aiken says, our concern about the price of a bag of sugar in the shops in Northern Ireland or whether it is that they turn the south of England into a lorry park, all of those are very serious issues. We do not want borders and we do not want checks anywhere, but if a hard border happens then compromise must be made. That is where the protocol comes in because it is the basic structure to prevent a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. The UK Government should, and must, uphold its word to protect Northern Ireland from the harmful impacts of Brexit. Ministers here must ensure that the protocol is implemented before the end of this year.
Finally, I thank Mr Givan for being a cheerleader for the Alliance Party because every time he mentions our name I can hear the cheers rising amongst all of those people who voted for Naomi Long and smashed it when we elected her to the European Union.
The Internal Market Bill is a step forward. It is a recognition by the UK Government that there were defects with the Northern Ireland protocol and the potential impact that it would have on the internal market of the United Kingdom. However, more work is required. We are focused on ensuring that consumer choice and costs are not impeded as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol.
It is important that goods arriving here, in Northern Ireland, are not subject to unnecessary checks, which, in turn, will lead to increased cost and reduced choice for consumers. It is vital that Northern Ireland businesses have unfettered access to the GB market, which is, of course, so important to Northern Ireland that it is welcome that the Internal Market Bill sets out potential helpful steps in that respect. With Northern Ireland's competitors able to support their emerging sectors through government aid, it would be wrong and would place Northern Ireland firms at a clear disadvantage if we were to be restrained in a state-aid straitjacket, unlike the rest of the UK.
I will not.
The UK Government have stated that, through the Internal Market Bill, they are delivering on commitments to provide unfettered access between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and to maintain and strengthen the integrity and smooth operation of our internal market. We all signed up to the New Decade, New Approach agreement to restore this Assembly. The commitment in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document states:
"To address the issues raised by the parties, we will legislate to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market, and ensure that this legislation is in force for 1 January 2021."
We must ensure that we protect the £8 billion worth of goods and sales from Northern Ireland to GB and guarantee our place within the UK's internal market. These are not new commitments. The DUP has been consistent at all levels, including at Westminster, where a lot of this really matters. We need certainty. We need legal certainty and clarity for businesses in Northern Ireland whose largest market is with the rest of the United Kingdom.
In relation to some of the specifics in the Bill for Northern Ireland, clause 40 places an obligation on the UK Government and devolved Administrations to consider Northern Ireland's place in the UK internal market when implementing the protocol. That applies to trade between GB and Northern Ireland in both directions. Clause 42 gives UK Ministers the power to disapply or modify export summary declarations for goods moving from NI to GB. The Government, again, yesterday, made clear that the declarations that would be disapplied through this clause would be those that do not recognise or respect the fact that Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom.
The Government talk about a "safety net". I think that "safety net" is a reasonable description, given the fact that, if these issues cannot be resolved through the Joint Committee, there absolutely needs to be a safety net in place. That is what any responsible sovereign Government would do.
My party colleagues at Westminster, yesterday, clearly articulated our position in regard to the Bill and, indeed, the amendments that were tabled in our name. The Government have indicated that many of these issues will be addressed through the finance Bill. We will wait and see what happens in that respect.
We will not be supporting the motion. Our views have been well rehearsed. I note that the Members opposite continue to table these motions. They are more than entitled to do so. However I would urge them to respect the fact that many businesses at the moment are struggling in a wide range of areas, and I think that we should be mindful that, whilst it is great that certain Members want to have their voices heard in this Chamber, the focus should be on ensuring that the United Kingdom's internal market is protected and that the businesses are properly heard through the relevant channels.
Just when we thought the issue of Brexit was sorted, with the withdrawal agreement and the protocol, the British Government announce that they are going to break an agreement that was made only last January. Their announcement to break international law was not surprising, although, this time, they did it publicly. As a result, we are in the midst of another British-inspired Brexit crisis: the Good Friday Agreement is under threat; the fragile economy of the North is at risk; and we are facing a real possibility of a crash out of the European Union.
The power grab clearly outlined in the Internal Market Bill gives authority to British Ministers to directly impinge on the workings of this Assembly and ignore the protocol and the withdrawal agreement. The protocol stated that nothing is to enter or be on sale here unless it meets EU standards, even if it comes from Britain. However, clause 45 gives the British Secretary of State the power to ignore any EU requirements for goods coming here.
Like many Members, I have talked to many businesses, their representatives and individuals about Brexit, particularly in my constituency, and I hear no clamour from customers here to see the lowering of EU standards. In relation to the Good Friday Agreement, strand two, all-Ireland areas of cooperation like public health and environmental standards are not grounds for exemptions. Under the British Government's Internal Market Bill, Ministers of the British Government will be empowered to breach elements of the Good Friday Agreement and the withdrawal agreement.
The British Government have once again shown contempt for this part of Ireland and, indeed, for all the people of this country who voted for and ratified the peace agreement. They are bringing this Bill forward to suit their own domestic political agenda. These are the same people who supported, campaigned for and financed Brexit. To say that they are protecting the Good Friday Agreement could not be further from the truth. With British Ministers like Michael Gove viewing the Good Friday Agreement as wicked, it is little wonder that Britain, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, can breach it and boast about it at the same time. The reality is that Tory Governments have been undermining the Good Friday Agreement since they entered power in 2011. Therefore, to argue that the Internal Market Bill is to protect the agreement is nonsense.
Despite what Members on the opposite Benches say, there was never a good Brexit. It must be remembered that the majority of people in this part of Ireland voted against it. The protocol is not perfect, but it mitigates the worst aspects of Brexit. Brexit itself is the problem. People in the North want certainty, and I know that people opposite have said the same. They need clarity as well. They want to know that their families and jobs will be safe next year. Their priority is to avoid any border on the island of Ireland, protect the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement and the all-Ireland economy. We in Sinn Féin will defend those as we have done in the last four years.
Here we are, act two, take two of this drama, and it is very clear that the Northern Ireland protocol is not good for Northern Ireland plc. The Democratic Unionist Party at Westminster opposed and consistently voted against that legislation. We warned Her Majesty's Government, and now we recognise and are glad to see that they accept the pitfalls and defects in those protocols. The Internal Market Bill is a step forward but it is not perfect.
Yesterday, in this House, during act one of this drama, we heard that many parties across the way were concerned about a hard border. Those who were claiming that there was going to be a hard border would not give way to those of us who were challenging who was going to make a hard border. The only person talking about a border on this island of Ireland — the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic — was the former Prime Minister of the Irish Republic when he claimed at the World Economic Forum last year that he could see customs returning and uniformed people — police and army — potentially returning to the Irish border. No one in the United Kingdom Government, in the Northern Ireland Executive or in this House wants to see a hard border, so let us nail that. That is just nonsense.
Then, we also had the situation on the Sinn Féin Benches that the peace process was potentially being undermined. By whom is it being undermined? I will give way to those who want to tell me by whom. The reality is that the Belfast Agreement —. Are you going to undermine it?
I am very grateful to my colleague on the Public Accounts Committee for giving way. Just as a point of information, he said that no one in the UK Government had ever said anything about a hard border. He will recognise that, in early 2016, during the referendum campaign, numerous Members of the UK Government, including the subsequent Prime Minister, then Home Secretary, Theresa May, said that there was no way that the UK could leave the European Union in a specific way without there being the recreation of border posts.
That is why my party rejected her proposals, and where is she now?
The reality is that that great golden cow of the Belfast Agreement that your party sets up there — it is absolutely untouchable; we must not damage the Belfast Agreement — but, in January, the SDLP leader in the House of Commons talked about joint authority, saying that we will not go back to direct rule — such was his arrogance — we will have joint authority. Your party voted in support of the Belfast Agreement. I did not. The principle of consent is absolutely enshrined in that agreement. Where is the consent for joint authority? I will give way if you tell me from where the SDLP gets the consent of the unionist people for joint authority.
I am grateful to the Member for proactively giving way. We are not debating that statement today. We are debating the motion before us. Let me say clearly, however, the principle of consent is absolutely at the heart of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and we support it. That is what the motion is about.
You are contradicting your party leader and are not on the same page as him. Yesterday, we even had the potato famine invoked as a great wrong done to Ireland. Of course it was, but we are in 2020. Let us be clear: the reality is that anything that hinders or impedes Northern Ireland plc trading from Northern Ireland to GB and in return is not good for Northern Ireland business. As Mr Givan said earlier, Northern Ireland business organisations are not on the same page as the parties across the way.
I understand nationalists and republicans supporting the protocol, because they want to destroy and end the Union. They cannot cost the utopian united Ireland that they talk about. They cannot cost it: none of them can. They have never been able to do it. You cannot, because it is simply impossible.
We stand for free movement and free trade. We want to see the free movement of goods across the North Channel and the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland businesses must be given unfettered access to our largest market, Great Britain. The Bill is helpful in that regard. It is not a panacea, but it is helpful. Northern Ireland parties therefore need to decide on this basis: do you want what is best for Northern Ireland, what is best for the Northern Ireland people and Northern Ireland business and what is best for your constituents and mine, or do you want to disadvantage permanently Northern Ireland business?
The withdrawal agreement is bad for Northern Ireland economically. It is also bad for Northern Ireland constitutionally. You may welcome that, but the fact of the matter is that I hear much talk about the damage to the United Kingdom and to international law. What about the damage to the free movement of people, the free movement of trade and the equality of rights for people that came from the Acts of Union of 1707 and 1800? What about those? When you are Brit-bashing, and on that basis I agree with Mr Aiken, and attacking the Prime Minister, let me be very clear —.
I have given way to you twice. I am not giving way to you again, so do not even think about it. You are Brit-bashing, but the reality is that the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland want to remain part of the United Kingdom. It is your job to convince them otherwise, including economic unionists. You are not able to do that, because you cannot. That is the truth of the matter. As we move forward, I want to see business in Northern Ireland protected. I want to see the Union protected: the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That is where success and everything else flows from for Northern Ireland.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. The Internal Market Bill is a full-frontal assault on the Good Friday Agreement. I do not think that there is any doubt about that. The actual problem is Brexit, however. When the Members opposite were supporting with gusto the campaign to leave the European Union perhaps they did not have the foresight to see what the repercussions were going to be. Brexit was going to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. There was no doubt about that. We had the protocol as a far-from-perfect solution to the problems that Brexit was going to create for the Good Friday Agreement.
Now we have the Internal Market Bill. Everybody believes the Internal Market Bill undermines the Good Friday Agreement. Even the British Government understand that, but, of course, they say otherwise. They actually turn things on their head and say that the Internal Market Bill protects the Good Friday Agreement. This is a Government that would tell us that black is white and that night is day. They are a bunch of unvarnished liars.
Who did they send to the United States to convince Americans that the IM Bill protects the Good Friday Agreement? Dominic Raab. Dominic Raab is the man who appeared before the NI Affairs Committee and admitted to Sylvia Hermon that he had not read the Good Friday Agreement. He was sent out as some sort of expert to explain to Americans. Luckily, the Americans are more learned than Dominic Raab. They understand the repercussions of the Internal Market Bill for the Good Friday Agreement.
I say this to unionists: try to break away from the Stockholm syndrome that you are caught up in. It is sad to see once proud unionists like Gregory Campbell and Sammy Wilson on their hands and knees, with their ears down and their tails between their legs, licking the boots of people like Johnson and Cummings. It was Cummings who said:
"I don't care if Northern Ireland falls into the [effing] sea".
That is the man you are dealing with. That is the man you are kowtowing to
Why do you not —.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Certainly, I will try to be as temperate as possible.
There is a fundamental issue. The English Tories do not care about here. That is reflected in what Dominic Cummings said and in the jingoistic English nationalism that has driven the whole Brexit debate. I say this genuinely and honestly to unionists: the English Tories will never consider you as their equal, never. I say this to you, as a friend and a fellow countryman: join with us. The ground is shifting under your feet. Join us to build a new country, a country of equals where we will all have the same rights and freedoms. Let us join together. Let us forget about the unvarnished liars and the other people who yank your tails. Let us — all of us together — build a country where we can all live as equals.
The British Government have a long history of treating people with contempt, and you do not have to look too far to see examples of that. My friends in the DUP can affirm that. In my city of Derry, we suffered greatly due to the wrongdoing of the British Government, but we had hoped that the British Government had moved away from that shameful past. It has been clear during the negotiations with the European Union that the British Government have reverted to the bad old days of treating nations, neighbours and friends with complete and utter contempt. The Prime Minister had already shown that contempt in how he played with the truth during the Brexit referendum. Now, he is going further by rejecting the withdrawal agreement protocol that he signed up to and negotiated just a few months back. By doing that, he has shown contempt for the EU, contempt for the citizens of the UK and comtempt for the rule of law, and he has shown utter contempt and disregard for every person in Northern Ireland.
Do not be fooled by the further lies that are being peddled. Actions have consequences, and the protocol, as signed, is the consequence of the UK voting to leave the EU and to reject the single market and the customs union. Make no mistake: it is the UK that has put a border in the Irish Sea, not the EU. More than that, Boris Johnson and his Government are showing absolute contempt for this Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Parliament. The Internal Market Bill is a naked power grab by a power-hungry, right-wing English nationalist Government.
Our powers as an Assembly will be badly cut by the Bill. It is no wonder that Nicola Sturgeon referred to it as a "full-frontal assault on devolution". Boris Johnson and his inner cabal want that power to themselves, to have the most-centralised UK Government there has been for decades. He wants to limit the powers to govern Northern Ireland, and that should make every person in the Assembly angry. Under the Bill, any legislation that we pass that impedes the internal market will have no effect. That means that, if we want to protect the health and well-being of livestock, we may not be able to. If we want to eliminate zero-hours contracts, we may not be able to. What happens if we confirm a policy of no fracking and one of the other nations says that fracking is OK? The Welsh Government are concerned that even their building regulations could be replaced by those of England. Regulation sits at the heart of the Assembly. Without our ability to regulate, the Assembly becomes little more than a talking shop. Boris Johnson is ripping up the devolution settlement. It is the old colonial way and attitude: "If they do not like it, punish them". We want more powers, and the response from Westminster is to give us fewer. You can see the same in Whitehall. Senior civil servants give the Government advice, and, if they do not like it, they get sacked and are replaced by yes-men — and, predominantly, they are men.
Just as we hoped that we were making progress, we find ourselves going backwards, slapped down by a Government who want to exert as much control as possible. I ask the Chamber to support the motion and ask the First Minister and deputy First Minister to make clear our rejection of the Internal Market Bill. The Executive need to take a formal position opposing the Bill. We know that the Government intend to ignore us if we refuse to approve a legislative consent motion. That is just one more illustration of their contempt for the Assembly and for the people of Northern Ireland of every tradition and none.
I, too, oppose the motion. I reiterate the point made by my colleague Steve Aiken: we are 100 days away, and motions that do not garner support from all sides will be ignored. We need a reality check on that. A particular phrase in the motion irks me, namely where it:
"rejects any argument that the Bill is necessary to protect the Good Friday Agreement;"
There has to be a recognition that the Northern Ireland protocol drove a coach and horses through the Belfast Agreement. I quote from paragraph 1(iii) of the "Constitutional Issues" section:
"the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, that Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish; and that it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people".
It continues, at annex A, paragraph 1(1):
"It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll" and it goes on to explain how such a poll would happen.
Why do I say that the protocol breaches the Belfast Agreement? It creates a border down the Irish Sea. It cuts us off from other parts of the United Kingdom. We will not be governed by the Assembly or Westminster. Many decisions will be taken out of our hands and determined by the Joint Committee and the Specialised Committee, arbitrated on at a European level. It significantly alters our constitutional position. There has been no recognition of that, not by the British Government, not by the EU, not by others who claim to be guarantors of the Belfast Agreement. The Americans have taken a single-sided approach. The protocol breaches the Northern Ireland agreement, and that needs to be recognised if we are to have a solution.
Going forward, we have to recognise that, if we do not reach an accommodation, we will all be losers — all Northern Ireland consumers, all Northern Ireland workers and our businesses. We are 100 days away, and what are we doing about it? We are continuing to throw brickbats and blame Brexit. Whether you voted for or against Brexit, it is coming on 1 January. We need solutions, and, until we speak collectively and move towards solutions, applying pressure to both sides in our interests, they will ignore us and we will continue to be pawns. That is why I agree with Steve Aiken: we collectively need to take action, speak to both sides and highlight how this damages Northern Ireland, damages the Belfast Agreement and potentially damages our consumers. The cost of importing goods will go up, the prices in our shops will go up, delays will cost jobs and trade will be disrupted unless there is an agreement, so this is urgent. What are we doing about it? We are blaming one side or the other. We need to apply pressure to both sides to try to bring about a solution. It is not good enough to continue to take a single-sided approach.
I will remind you about the trading aspect. Some £13·4 billion of our trade in 2018 came from Great Britain, and £5·2 billion came from the Republic and the rest of the European Community. A border down the Irish Sea is two and a half times more dangerous unless we get free trade flowing that way. It is not just about free trade flowing North/South; we need free trade flowing east-west. Look at our sales and our exports. Similarly, £11 billion — sorry, let me get my figures right — £6·7 billion of our goods move to the Republic or to the EU, but a much larger amount, £10·6 billion, moves to GB, so that will potentially have a huge bearing on our exporters and our jobs. We need free flow. I think of simple things. For example, there is an Asda distribution store in my constituency. If goods arrive in and are meant to have a three-day shelf life but only have a two-day shelf life, they get dumped, so the cost of transport and the cost of goods go up.
We need solutions, and we need to work together. The sooner we get together and argue against the views being brought forward by the European Community and by the United Kingdom Government —
I rise to speak in support of the motion. First, let me say this: it is not rehashing the Brexit debate to reiterate that the people of the North voted to reject Brexit. They did so because the contradictions of Brexit in the context of our relationships across our small island and on these islands were apparent.
In recognition of the unique and special circumstances of the North and the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement, the EU prioritised it in negotiations, and the protocol was painstakingly negotiated with the British Government over three years in recognition of the need to offer those protections to the all-island economy, North/South cooperation and the Good Friday Agreement. As many Members outlined yesterday afternoon and again today, the protocol is a clumsy and imperfect tool, and the best outcome for it to operate in an efficient way is a comprehensive free trade agreement between the EU and the UK. As Members also outlined yesterday, safeguarding and dispute-resolution mechanisms are built in to the protocol. All efforts — "best endeavours", to use the term — should be focused on achieving an outcome that results in a free trade agreement.
We in the North have been through many negotiations, and we know only too well that they are difficult and complex. These negotiations have been going slowly, with little progress reported on key issues, but, instead of applying themselves to resolving the issues in the process, the British Government have decided to throw the toys out of the pram and, like a petulant child, have a tantrum to get their own way. This is no childish game. The stakes for our businesses, our economy, our communities and our peace agreements are much too high to be used as a pawn in negotiations by the British Government.
As was highlighted at length in yesterday's debate, the Bill undermines the devolved institutions. It has also been described as a "power grab" by the Scottish and Welsh Governments. It limits the ability of the Assembly to make regulations. The three Finance Ministers for the North, Scotland and Wales have outlined their concerns about the powers that it gives Westminster to bypass the devolved institutions in funding allocations.
However, what has caused a great deal of concern in the international community is the freely admitted intent to break international law. The utterances of "specific and limited" mean nothing and wash with no one. It is a clear admittance that the British Government think nothing of breaking an agreement when the ink is hardly dry. The approach that they have adopted is reckless for people and businesses here. Of course, Boris Johnson is not worried about what new red tape it will cause for his small business and whether it will be able to survive. David Frost is not a young person who hopes to study in the South and wonders whether they will be able to afford the fees. Michael Gove does not have the hassle of applying for a settlement scheme permit to keep his family here, or concern about whether he will still be able to cross the border. Those are the realities that are faced by people here. What I care about is those realities. What Members in this Chamber should care about is giving businesses and communities certainty to plan for what is only 100 days away.
What will unfettered access actually look like? What will be the definition of "at risk" goods? What will the VAT regime be? What will SPS checks actually look like? What are the labelling requirements? Those are the types of practical questions to which businesses desperately want answers, but, as yet, do not have them.
As I said in yesterday's debate, the argument that the Bill is, in any way, designed to protect our peace agreement is absurd. I say it again: it is ridiculous. The protocol in the withdrawal agreement was negotiated to protect the Good Friday Agreement and mitigate the contradictions of Brexit on the integrated arrangements across these islands. The Bill seeks to undermine that with the flimsy excuse of giving certainty to businesses when we all know that it is simply about the British Government trying to have their cake and eat it, and not live up to commitments that they made.
The Bill has caused havoc instead of providing certainty. It has muddied the waters further and created distrust when calm heads and rational thinking were actually needed. The reality is that the clock is ticking down and time is running out to provide that much-needed clarity and certainty before the end of the year. Businesses and communities are already struggling with the impact of COVID-19. They will be devastated further if there is no trade agreement. As it is, the time frame for implementing any arrangements that were agreed is already far too short. All efforts are needed now by the British Government to ensure that there is no cliff edge come 31 December.
I rise to support the motion and express my deep concerns about the UK Government's threat to breach international law over the Northern Ireland protocol. It suggests that the UK Government have not yet come to terms with the implications of their choices and red lines on Brexit. Their claim to be doing so on behalf of the people and businesses of Northern Ireland and to protect the Good Friday Agreement is risible. The framing of the Internal Market Bill is, in fact, at odds with the view of most people in Northern Ireland; the Irish Government, of course; and the European Union. Northern Ireland remains a divided society and contested space. The agreement brought a semblance of structure to manage those fault lines. It was made easier, many people believe, by already established relationships, including that of the UK and Ireland both being members of the EU customs union and the single market. Twenty years on, the situation in Northern Ireland remains delicate, and work to promote integration and reconciliation continues. Essentially, Northern Ireland works best through interdependence, which includes —.
I am very grateful to the Member for giving way. In response to some of the points that have been made across the Chamber, does he agree that British and Irish citizens in Northern Ireland voted to remain, and that it is wrong to turn this into a narrow, one-identity-versus-another debate?
Absolutely. I thank the Member for the intervention. Indeed, some branding was done of me earlier. I ignored it because it was incredible. Democrats should accept my position as stated, and not question it or brand me in that way. With regard to the numbers that are involved and support for the Belfast Agreement or against Brexit, we have heard a lot about the will of the people and the majority of the people. Anybody who spoke about that should look back to the 2016 referendum and the 52% of the vote.
I was talking about the interdependence, which includes the free flow of people and goods east-west and North/South. Any border drawn across the island —.
No, I will not give way so soon.
Any border drawn across the island or down the Irish Sea brings emotional and political implications. However, in pragmatic terms, although east-west trade is greater in value than North/South trade, there is more movement on the island than across the Irish Sea plus there are around 270 crossing points to consider on the island versus seven across the sea.
Separate to that, any reneging on the terms of the protocol could see that customs frontier pushed back onto the island, with pressure for checks as the EU naturally seeks to protect its economic integrity. Threatening to breach the withdrawal agreement is self-defeating both in the narrow terms that I have referenced and to the UK's ambitions to have a future relationship with the EU and get a trade deal with the United States.
As a member of the AERA Committee, it is important for me to stress the agri-food sector's importance to the Northern Ireland economy. It represents around 10% of activity, which is considerably higher than the UK average, making the sector a much more important component of the regional economy than it is for the UK as a whole. Furthermore, the profile of agriculture and associated industries also varies across the UK. The Northern Ireland sector is built around quality rather than scale; standards really matter and they are a matter of pride and priority for all stakeholders. Environmental, food safety, animal welfare and labour issues are all critical considerations. With 100 days to go and with the clock ticking, it is not a good time to start rewriting the rules and redrawing the boundaries.
It is important to also acknowledge the unique situation that Northern Ireland finds itself in with the implication of the protocol. That is, of course, the inevitable outworking of Brexit, in particular the decision taken by the UK Government and Parliament to rule out a softer Brexit based on a customs union and continued membership of the single market, and the ongoing need to ensure an open border on the island of Ireland and protection of the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland will, consequently, remain aligned to large aspects of EU regulation. The all-island context on matters such as food safety and environmental considerations should be, to all involved, self-evident. It would be a strange thing if the Northern Ireland Assembly did not want to shape policy within its own area of competence.
Guided by my belief in open and liberal international trade and, more importantly, by many expert voices from our vital sectors, I support the motion and urge others to do likewise.
I commend those who tabled the motion. Over the course of the debate, there has been some quite intemperate language used such as "Brit-bashing". That is not what the motion is intended to do. The Internal Market Bill is one of the greatest acts of internal self-destruction that I have seen, and it has caused huge damage, if more damage could be caused, to the international reputation of the British Government. That analysis comes from within the British establishment; it is not coming from these Benches. We have already had Blair, Major and May — three former Prime Ministers — expressing huge concerns about it, as has Norman Lamont. We have had the House of Lords' Constitution Committee saying that it unravels the withdrawal agreement and brings the British Government into conflict with international law. In the USA, Nancy Pelosi and members of the Ways and Means Committee have expressed concern. Indeed, the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, has said that it shows a flagrant disregard for the rule of law and undermines confidence in the legal system. So, this is not a Brit-bashing exercise where we are trying to get at the Brits. The Bill has huge implications, and it is quite right that we debate it because it could have huge implications for businesses here. As Chair of the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, I have a special interest in that aspect of our society.
Turning to the actual legislation, it is important to look at a number of its clauses. I took a look over the legislation earlier, and clause 42, for example, disapplies the EU declaration exit procedures and gives a commitment that there will be no new checks on goods that are going from here to Britain. It does not address unfettered access, because it has not set out what a "qualifying" good is. We do not know. We had imported 41,000 cattle and 350,000 pigs into the North by August this year. If the products that come from them are not to be qualifying goods, will they be able to go to the British market? While the Internal Market Bill aspires to have no exit declarations, it does not state that there will be checks on what goods qualify and do not qualify.
Clause 43 is about the disapplication of state aid, which might sound good to some people, but when Britain leaves on 1 January, World Trade Organization rules will kick in. The WTO rules post-transition are hugely different to the state aid rules that govern our payments and subsidies here. For example, the WTO does not set any limits at all on coupled and decoupled support for farming and agriculture. That will create a huge imbalance in the playing field for our producers compared with those across the water in Britain. As Seán Lynch said a while ago, clause 45 overrides all the other relevant laws.
To draw attention to a couple of other things that I noted, I will point out that, in clause 48, the British Government have completely and unilaterally amended the NI Act 1998. That is written into the Bill. It amends the NI Act in relation to what they term "Distortive or harmful subsidies". They tell us that they decide what so-called distortive or harmful subsidies are, so if mother England is telling us what is good and what is bad, we cannot make up our own mind. Clause 49 amends the NI Act as well. The entrenched amendment restricts the Executive and the Assembly's competence to modify aspects of the Bill that could have implications here. It is about the protection of the Act against modification. Again, that completely and utterly rides roughshod over our ability here to have any input. That NI Act was unilaterally amended without any consultation with or recourse to this devolved Assembly. It undermines every single one of us.
As has been said, there is no good Brexit. The best option for seamless east-west trade and North/South was to remain in the EU. Unfortunately, the democratic wishes of the people of the North of Ireland were completely discarded, and we did not get that. The backstop might have facilitated a freer flow of east-west trade. That was undermined by the DUP in Westminster when it was in hock to the Tory Government. Now we have the protocol, and the Internal Market Bill has added confusion to a huge level of uncertainty. There is no good Brexit, but, at this stage, the protocol is probably the least-worst option that there is to try to deal with a very complicated situation, so —.
It was clear, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, that a trade deal between the UK and the European Union was critical in order to protect the interests of everyone living in Northern Ireland. Securing an economic recovery from the impact of the pandemic would be difficult enough in the best of circumstances. The withdrawal agreement that was reached between the UK and the EU may not be the best of those circumstances, but it is the only circumstance that both sides could agree on.
The implementation of that agreement in full remains an obligation under international law and is an obligation that the current British Government, under Boris Johnson, signed up to. Crucially, it addressed the prospect of the chaos and uncertainty that would accompany a no trade deal between the EU and the UK. It was always recognised that a no trade deal with the EU would cause chaos, particularly on the island of Ireland, and a number of Members referred to agri-food and its importance for our local economy and to the free flow of those economies and trade in Ireland, which, in fact, happens daily. That is why it was necessary to include the Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement. That protocol was the balance and produce of long, difficult and detailed negotiations and represents a delicately balanced compromise by all sides. It was necessary because of the many complex and sensitive issues that Brexit raised for everyone living on the island of Ireland.
The UK Internal Market Bill plans to drive a coach and horses through that delicately balanced compromise.
If the Bill is enacted, it would seriously damage political trust between the EU and the UK and, I should add, the USA, where prominent politicians have recently pronounced on the difficulties with the direction that the UK is taking and where that will wind up. It threatens to unilaterally replace that agreed approach with measures that will further erode the authority of the Assembly and the other devolved Administrations. The Bill's measures would create more difficulties for the agri-food sector on the island, damage our economy and undermine political stability. No doubt, some would look to profit politically from that instability, whatever the cost, just as there would be those who would look to profit financially from the economic chaos and uncertainty of no trade deals with the EU. The risk involved is why the UK Government's current approach to negotiations is of such concern.
For all his bumbling public persona, Boris Johnson understands that perfectly well. He understands the well-founded concerns of the Irish Government and the parties in the Assembly, as well as those of the other devolved Administrations. He also understands the concerns of the EU regarding the difficulty of maintaining the single market in a no-deal scenario. It is one of the reasons that he is threatening to tear up the protocol. It is, in effect, an attempt at extortion rather than negotiation.
Even without the serious implications for everyone living on this island, there would rightly be concerns about the tactics of the British Government; tactics that were demonstrated by the introduction of provisions in the Bill that are designed to break international law. That is why Boris Johnson faces a rebellion in his party, by those on both sides of the Brexit debate, and criticism from former UK Attorney Generals. It is why the UK Government's Advocate General in Scotland was unable to reconcile his obligations as a law officer with the policy intentions of the Internal Market Bill. It is also why advice has been given to civil servants in London about what to do if they are asked to work on a policy that breaches the Civil Service code, which makes it very clear that civil servants must comply with the law and uphold the administration of justice. It also raises the question of whether the support for the Internal Market Bill would breach the Northern Ireland Executive's ministerial code of conduct, which, similarly, requires Executive Ministers to support the rule of law unequivocally in word and deed.
If we are to believe the British Government, they will seek the legislative consent of the Assembly for the implementation of the Bill. In those circumstances, I would expect, first, that the Executive would seek legal advice on that question and, if they do not, perhaps the Speaker's Office and the Assembly should seek advice. Following a plethora of statutory instruments being foisted on the AERA Committee, we have had to seek legal advice on those and the manner in which the Department seeks to pursue them. In the meantime, the First Minister and deputy First Minister should commit —
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I do not have anything prepared for two minutes, but I will try to get through as much as possible.
As many in the Chamber have explained, and will no doubt continue to, there is no such thing as a good Brexit for Northern Ireland, and the latest shambles surrounding the UK Internal Market Bill only underlines that. The misleading claims and mistruths of ardent Brexiteers are beginning to unravel, while the future of Northern Ireland makes the front pages again and again and we all scramble for the latest scrap of detail on the post-transition plans from Boris and the Executive. Nothing new then.
Analysts consistently pointed out that the UK internal market White Paper would not be workable in full for Northern Ireland unless the rest of the UK remains aligned with the EU's regulations for goods. Given what the UK Government says that they want to achieve, it is simply impossible to satisfy both the internal market and the protocol.
What is the Executive doing? They are the Ministers who are elected to represent businesses, livelihoods, families and the best interests of people here. In July, I tabled a priority question for written answer to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to ask for their assessment of the UK Government's approach to the UK internal market in relation to the protocol and whether they had even responded to the consultation on the White Paper. Two months later, I am yet to receive a response. Judging by moves in the other devolved regions, the power grab that is the UK Internal Market Bill will be fiercely resisted. One just has to look at Scotland and the efforts of my Green Party colleagues there. Yet, there is no strong, collective voice standing up for the legislative competence of this Assembly and the principles of devolution.
As the political pantomime over the Internal Market Bill continues, livelihoods are being lost and the hope for Northern Ireland's post-transition future is fading. Post-Brexit trade deals will see the rich getting richer and the most disadvantaged suffering more. There is a perfect storm coming in Northern Ireland when it comes to food poverty, with increased grocery costs, especially for those in rural communities who rely on small retailers; the impact of COVID; the reduction in employment; and the growing numbers on universal credit. It is time for the Executive to step up —
The Member will also be aware that speaking rights are through d'Hondt, by and large, as is everything in the Assembly and this institution. That is to guarantee the democratic rights of every single voter out there so that their representation is proportionate. All of the Members who indicated that they wanted to speak were on the list as of right. I cannot determine how everyone is going to vote or argue when they participate in a debate. The speaking list today was agreed on the basis of the proportionality rule that, by and large, governs how we do our business in the Chamber. I have exercised discretion in previous debates, but there was no need for it here because you could not have done so during the debate this afternoon. All of the Members who spoke here today had a valid right to do so. You would have been the next Member called to speak had other Members not taken the additional minute. I cannot guarantee how everybody is going to speak or vote. That is the decision.
As you say, they may have declared how they were going to vote when they began to speak. Anyway, we are moving on. All those who spoke had a valid right to do so under the proportionality principle. I stress again that I have, on past occasions, called Members, including you, Mr Allister, to speak out of turn in the Chamber to ensure some type of balance. It cannot be exercised in every single debate, but all of the Speakers do their best to do that when possible.
It is now 12:5. I shall continue. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion before us today and wind on the debate.
There can be no doubt that the entire process of Brexit — of taking back control and English nationalism gone mad — has been an unmitigated disaster. Just like the SDLP motion that called for an extension to the transition period in June, this debate is an essential opportunity for the Assembly to make our voice heard again. We were denied that opportunity for too long. We are able to signal to the British Government that we do not agree with the Internal Market Bill.
Since the initial Brexit vote in 2016, we have seen three United Kingdom Prime Ministers, all from the one Tory Party, and all with differing views on what Brexit really means. Brexit has rocked international relations and how the United Kingdom is viewed the world over. All the while, the public here wonder what it means for them.
Members can say what they want. Many have stated many times that the Brexit vote was UK-wide and that we must accept the will of the people. I categorically say that I do; I accept the will of the people of my constituency of South Down, an overwhelming 67% of whom voted to Remain. I accept the will of the people across the North; 56% voted to Remain. I accept the voice of the Good Friday Agreement, whose authors understood and appreciated our place in the European Union and all the assistance that the European family provided us, whether economic, social or cultural, as we clawed our way out of so many troubled years and into a time of peace.
What I will not accept, however, is the voice and will of a UK Government that ran roughshod over their own MPs, their own Ministers and their own Prime Ministers. They negotiated another deal and then threw it out because they simply could not sell it to their own Brexiteers. I do not accept the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, who openly declared in the Houses of Parliament that his Government will have to break international law — but just a bit. That is all to say nothing of how abysmally they have treated the negotiating team from the European Union.
Mr Speaker and Members, how can we ever trust the perpetrators of such a shameful abdication of responsibility? Make no mistake, if this Internal Market Bill passes at Westminster — SDLP MPs are working hard with others to try to prevent that from happening — it will confer pariah status on this Tory Government. If this Bill passes and the United Kingdom foolishly believes that it can tailor the Good Friday Agreement to suit its needs, there will be no US-UK trade Bill. That is not open to discussion and that is not negotiable.
I will highlight a few remarks that a number of Members made during the debate. We started with my colleague Matthew O'Toole, who referred, amongst other things, to the fact that we could still be looking into the face of a no deal scenario and that that would be totally and wholly disadvantageous for us here. He mentioned, as did many others later, the internationally reckless and diabolical approach that is being taken by this British Government. He then asked a really key, critical question: do we want to be plunged into an economic crisis whilst we are in the middle of the greatest pandemic to impact on us in living memory? Is that really where we want to go?
Last week at the Economy Committee, we heard from Richard Ramsey about how it could take us until 2024 to recover from the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. That was not taking into account a no deal outcome. Does the Member agree with me that we really need to see a focus on achieving a free trade agreement?
Absolutely. We cannot control COVID in the sense that it will have the impact that it has, and that will be terrible for our economy, but some control can be exercised over the Brexit outcome. We have seen the British Government try to opt for one of the worst possible outcomes, and that will have an even bigger impact on us.
Talking of that British Government, Matthew made this very valid point: is Boris Johnson somebody who we really want to trust with our future? Boris Johnson.
I am going to make moves. I am over halfway through my time.
Paul Givan highlighted how this feels like it is round two today after a similar debate yesterday. What is wrong with that? What is wrong with having a conversation every day about the biggest, most seismic constitutional, economic and cultural change that there will be to these islands, impacting on everybody who lives on them? I think that we would be neglecting our duty if we were not talking about this every day.
I also note that we are not having a debate at any stage on a ministerial statement by the First Minister or deputy First Minister. For the second time today, I get to make the point that they must be in hiding because they cannot agree on an approach. Mr Givan also asked which business group disagrees with the content of the Internal Market Bill. What about this: how many of those business groups agree with Brexit? They were all pretty vocal in saying that Remain was the best way forward.
Martina Anderson detailed the importance of the protocol and the protection of equality and rights and how those were underscored in the Good Friday Agreement. They are protected there, yet the Internal Market Bill rides roughshod over the protections of previously agreed international agreements. We need to see our commissions effectively challenge the attack and grab that there could be on our rights.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way briefly. Can I set down in absolutely clear terms, and does he agree with me, that not only are there hundreds of thousands of British citizens in Northern Ireland who did not support Brexit, but there are people across the island of Britain who utterly reject Boris Johnson's Government and what he is doing?
I speak as someone who, until earlier this year, lived in London. It is all well and good for the Member to put his head in his hands. I lived in London, and my son was born there. I utterly reject and am offended by the suggestion that it is "Brit-bashing" to oppose the conduct of Boris Johnson and his Government, which is damaging people across these islands.
I thank the Member and totally agree with what he said. I agree that it could not be further from the truth. We are interested in here. Whether it was Johnson, May, Cameron or whoever, if they do not have the best interests of here at heart, we will not support what they are going to do.
Dr Aiken also suggested that we write to Mr Gove and Mr Barnier. We did. Back in July, nearly 100 days ago, the Committee for the Executive Office, which I chair, wrote, and we still await a reply from Mr Gove. So, I am not so sure that our writing will achieve anything. However, if it is something that we can do to try to mitigate the impact of Brexit, we will certainly be agreeable to that.
He also said a few —.
I thank the Chair of the Executive Office Committee for doing that. I am in the process of writing to all Committee Chairs. Bearing in mind that we have only 100 days left, it is very appropriate that we do that.
You mentioned a few times that it is100 days away and that we are in peril and need to move quickly. I have to say that that is why the SDLP asked for an extension to the transition period. We would not be staring at 100 days; we could have been looking at a year plus 100 days, if we had all supported that back then. I am sorry, Mr Dickson, that I will not get to refer to what you said because my time is moving on.
The people of the North voted to remain in Europe and, in so doing, reject Brexit. The SDLP has been steadfast in that view and its commitment to it. We are proud Europeans. We are steadfast in our commitment to our place in Europe because we know that our relationship with Europe is a mutually beneficial one. We hold the Good Friday Agreement as sacrosanct, so we will vehemently oppose this UK Internal Market Bill. We call on the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, just for once — for once — to show some genuine leadership, respect the will of the people here and realise that the Brexit agenda that he is recklessly pursuing — regrettably, an agenda that is aided and abetted by some MPs from the North, who, in the run-up to the Brexit vote in 2016, agreed with the statement that we needed to "Get the ethnics out" — will not be good for anyone. Brexit will not be good for anyone, and it will be worst of all for the people of the North of Ireland.
I am proud to support my colleague Matthew O'Toole and the motion.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly recognises that a trade deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union is critical in protecting the interests of everyone living in Northern Ireland; expresses deep concerns about the UK Government’s approach to negotiations and the terms of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill; rejects any argument that the Bill is necessary to protect the Good Friday Agreement; further rejects the unilateral move to undermine the authority of the devolved institutions contained in this Bill; affirms its commitment to upholding international law; mandates the First Minister and deputy First Minister to take a formal position opposing the UK Internal Market Bill; and calls on the Prime Minister to respect the will of the people of Northern Ireland and the principles of devolution.
Members, take your ease for a moment, please.
Members, before we resume our business, I see that Doug Beattie has entered the Chamber. Within the past couple of hours, Mr Beattie has been told that he is under threat from a loyalist paramilitary organisation. On behalf of all Assembly Members, I extend our solidarity and support to Douglas and his family at this time.
Motion made: That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Speaker.]