Consideration of Lords amendments
After Clause 3
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
Before I come to the Lords amendments, I say to the House that this is the first occasion that a Northern Ireland Office Minister has been before the House since the withdrawal of the First Minister of Northern Ireland from the Northern Ireland Executive in recent days. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is in close contact with the party leaders in Northern Ireland, the Government of the Irish Republic and others. Our strong message to the party of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) is that we would rather he returned his party to the Executive. A stable Executive and stable governance are in the interest of the people who matter the most in all this—the people of Northern Ireland.
The Minister must recognise that it is in the hands of the Government to restore the situation in Northern Ireland quickly by simply living up to their promise that there would be no separation between Northern Ireland and the rest of our market in GB, and no constitutional separation between Northern Ireland and the country to which we belong. If the Minister and his Government were to take action to live up to that promise and to take on the EU, we would be back in government tomorrow.
As a courtesy, I thought to update the House briefly before the substantive business before us. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that talks between the Government and the Commission to make the changes necessary to the protocol to make it work for all the people of Northern Ireland are ongoing and intense. Those discussions will continue until we get to a satisfactory conclusion. If we do not, the Government’s position has been clear: we will take the necessary steps available to us to act unilaterally.
If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not; the business of the House that we are dealing with is Lords amendments.
I thank the other place for its scrutiny of the Bill. I pay particular tribute to my noble friend Lord Caine for guiding it through the other place and to my noble friend Viscount Younger for his work in assisting him during the Lords stages of the Bill.
There are two Lords amendments to consider this evening, both of which deal with the commencement clauses of the Bill. Both here and in the other place, the Government were clear that we would consider early commencement if the political situation in Northern Ireland were to warrant it. We listened to the strength of argument put forward by the political parties of Northern Ireland in both Chambers and agreed to make this concession.
Lords amendment 2 will allow for provisions in the Bill to come into effect on the day of Royal Assent. To ensure that there is no ambiguity over whether the provisions of the legislation apply, Lords amendment 1 allows for the relevant provisions in the Bill to apply retrospectively if Royal Assent coincides with the resignation of a First Minister, thus triggering the existing seven-day Executive formation period.
In practice, that means that if Royal Assent is given by Thursday this week, the relevant provisions of the Bill will apply retrospectively, and instead of the seven-day period for filling the offices of First and Deputy First Minister applying, the new period of up to 24 weeks will apply, as agreed under New Decade, New Approach, which was negotiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who is sitting behind me. I therefore urge the House to agree to the Lords amendments.
I welcome the Minister to his place in leading on this important Bill, which has taken on great significance due to the resignation of the First Minister of Northern Ireland. I thank colleagues from across the House who served in Committee and those in the other place who worked to secure the necessary amendments that we are discussing today.
The Belfast/Good Friday agreement is one of Labour’s most important political legacies. We therefore welcome attempts to safeguard power sharing and improve the sustainability of the Executive, the Assembly and the institutions, which have collapsed previously and are in crisis once again. The Bill emerged from a cross-party commitment made in the New Decade, New Approach deal, which was signed over two years ago. I pay tribute to the considerable work and achievements of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) in negotiating that deal, which thankfully returned a functioning Executive in time to serve the people of Northern Ireland during the pandemic. It is a crying shame that the Government did not treat legislation that flowed from that agreement with the same priority as those who negotiated it. Because of the two-year delay in reaching this point, we have found ourselves in a situation where this Bill is being treated as emergency legislation whose retrospective powers will be activated immediately on Royal Assent.
New Decade, New Approach was about strengthening the institutional framework on which politics in Northern Ireland can be built in the coming period. By leaving it so late, Ministers have allowed it to be perceived as keeping the wheels turning for as long as possible before they come loose. The delay is symptomatic of an approach to Northern Ireland where promises are constantly allowed to drift. The amendments before us today were drafted to deal with a hypothetical power vacuum that has become a reality due to the Government’s lack of focus on the political deterioration in Northern Ireland. They will remove the requirement for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to set a date for an election if the positions of First Minister and Deputy First Minister are not filled by the end of this week.
That these amendments were accepted by the Government in the Lords is an admission that the delayed passage of this Bill was negligent. The instability caused by a First Minister resigning is unsettling for all of us who cherish the Good Friday agreement and believe that its institutions and the principles that underpin it represent the best way forward for Northern Ireland. As ever, that instability has been most keenly felt by the people of Northern Ireland. It is regrettable that a political crisis in one of our United Kingdom’s devolved legislatures is not on the front page of every national newspaper.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that in that light, because there now is a crisis, it is astonishing that we have not seen any Government Minister come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement on the Government’s policy? That would have been in the interests of everybody, whatever their views.
I am grateful for the service to the people of Northern Ireland that my hon. Friend has given from the Labour Front Bench over the years. He makes a very pertinent point. I was flabbergasted, on a Friday during a real crisis in Northern Ireland, to see the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland tweeting about “Game of Thrones” and not the situation that was unfolding. That was a negligent approach to the situation and to the responsibility that the Northern Ireland Secretary has to be present. There are several Secretaries of State with responsibility for negotiating, commenting on and making policy that has a profound impact on the people and politics of Northern Ireland. The fact that none of them has come to this place to answer questions in recent days is negligent.
This crisis has been caused by the ongoing negotiations over the Northern Ireland protocol. Given that traditionally the Opposition have worked with a degree of consensus with the Government on Northern Ireland matters, will the Opposition support the Government if they act unilaterally on the protocol in order to ensure the unity of the United Kingdom, which surely the Labour party agrees with as much as us?
The consensus that needs building is between political parties in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister has now been revealed as having been making promises and pledges to parties in Northern Ireland and failing to meet them, which I think is what underpins the failure we see in Northern Ireland at this time.
I am going to make some progress, because I am coming to aspects of what we have been commenting on that I think the right hon. Gentleman will want to intervene on more pertinently.
We are here to talk about Lords amendments, but I will stray on to other areas simply because of the lack of availability of Ministers to answer questions in this place.
Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I must remind the House, lest he be tempted to take too many interventions, that we have only one hour for this—until 8.40 pm. He certainly has not taken too long so far, but I just want to protect him from the temptation.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; your protection is always welcome. I try my best to defend myself and to embrace as many interventions as possible, while bearing in mind that other Members from Northern Ireland also need to speak in the debate.
Power sharing is a fundamental outcome of the peace process. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement is not an abstract. Strand 1 details the envisioned day-to-day functioning of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.
The support for power sharing among the public in Northern Ireland is resolute. As Professor Tonge said in an evidence session on this Bill:
“Devolved power sharing is overwhelmingly a preferred option that comes back from each of those surveys—never larger, it should be said, than in 2019, which might be seen as remarkable given the hiatus in devolution from January 2017 until just after the election in December 2019. So the public have never lost faith with devolved power sharing. They have continued to support it.”––[Official Report, Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Public Bill Committee, 29 June 2021; c. 7-8.]
People in Northern Ireland are now emerging from a profound health crisis. Constituents in all parts of the United Kingdom are facing a cost of living crisis and huge public service challenges—multiple crises. For all political leaders in Northern Ireland, these are priorities that people want to be addressed in the coming weeks, in addition to valid constitutional issues, which must be resolved, as a result of the protocol that this Government negotiated and signed.
Lords amendments 1 and 2 allow the Bill to have an immediate commencement and for its provisions to apply if it receives Royal Assent during the seven-day Executive formation period following a First Minister or Deputy First Minister resignation. The Labour party fully supports the Lords amendments, but it is disappointing that the optimism of the New Decade, New Approach deal has not been realised.
In the light of these Lords amendments for a crisis, does the hon. Gentleman not think the crisis has been brought on by the EU interfering in the internal market of GB and Northern Ireland and diverting trade, and would he urge the EU to step back so that we can get back on track?
What is holding us back is people continually re-fighting the battles of the past. We need to build a better future, and we can do that only if we are facing the future, unlike the right hon. Gentleman. Instead of a break from the past, the Government have dragged us back into the Brexit quagmire, as he and others seem hell-bent on doing, which has directly led to the Bill being needed with immediate effect.
Northern Ireland has often been a secondary issue for this Government. When the consequences of decisions taken by Ministers have played out in Northern Ireland, the Government have behaved as though they found themselves at the scene of an accident over which they had no control. This bystander effect peaked last week. The Northern Ireland Secretary and the Foreign Secretary both pretended that the Northern Ireland protocol was purely a matter for the Executive, but in reality it was part of a deal drafted, negotiated and signed by the Prime Minister, and the legal duty to uphold that deal rests with the EU and UK Governments. Ministers cannot wash their hands of it as easily as they pretend.
Now the First Minister has resigned, with the protocol and broken ministerial promises playing a central role. The manner and impact of the resignation raise serious questions that must be addressed. I have sympathy for the position in which the Democratic Unionist party has been placed. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), in frustration, revealed that the Prime Minister told him that the current protocol negotiations have only a 30% chance of success. If that is the case, do the Government have a plan B? Have Departments worked up impact assessments and action plans for the eventuality or possibility of article 16 being triggered?
The people of Northern Ireland and the political parties have been given promise after promise by the Prime Minister and his Ministers, some of them fundamental and existential, such as the promise of no border in the Irish sea. It is no wonder that frustrations have boiled over, that trust in this Government is at rock bottom and that we find ourselves in this moment where hope seems so distant.
We have just discovered that the Northern Ireland Secretary is flying to Washington tomorrow. That is right: the Secretary of State will get in a plane and fly right over Northern Ireland on his way to Washington. That says everything we need to know. There is no one with the stature required in this Government, so he has to go to America to find a grown-up to be the honest broker they need.
While the Labour party welcomes this legislation and has supported its progress at every stage, we cannot pretend that it has an answer for how the Executive will be reformed if more progress is not made in protocol negotiations. It is hard to know whether the ongoing negotiations with the EU are a priority, because after three rounds of negotiations there have been no statements on progress made to the House. Considering the vital importance of those negotiations to the immediate circumstances in Northern Ireland, I hope the Foreign Secretary can come here and make a statement without any more delay. The political parties in Northern Ireland deserve such an update on the record—we have had enough nods, enough winks and enough back-handed promises that are never met and do nothing more than destabilise the fragile political settlement.
The Bill was supposed to deliver greater resilience in the institutions established under the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday agreement, but once again their fragility has been highlighted. Too often, Northern Ireland has been overlooked and the work to deliver on the promise of peace allowed to stall. While the Labour party supports the Bill and hopes it receives Royal Assent in time to be effective, it is worrying how much of it may already be obsolete. The provisions of the Bill alone cannot enable stability. To do that, Ministers must take responsibility for their words and actions, which have shaken faith within Northern Ireland. It is time that this Government, from the Prime Minister down, are seen to care about their words, promises and actions in a vitally important part of our United Kingdom, and to directly work on a way back for the Executive.
I support the amendment that will ensure that the Bill has immediate effect. That is a positive one, as is the new clause outlining the transitional arrangements that mean if the Bill gains Royal Assent this week, the powers in it, and in particular the provisions to allow for a longer caretaker Administration, will kick in seven days prior to Royal Assent. That means they will apply from last week and ensure that the pull-out last Thursday by the First Minister is subject to the longer caretaker period.
Some questions remain, however. Why has this Bill taken so long to come through Parliament? A simple, quick Bill to protect power sharing is finally enacted, two years after the New Decade, New Approach deal and nine months after it was first introduced to this House.
Is it really just coincidence that the seven-day retrospective power, which ensures that last week’s pull-out is covered by the newly introduced transitional provision clause, was introduced to the Lords last month? People across Northern Ireland have concerns and questions about how involved the Government were in last week’s decision by the First Minister to leave power sharing. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain the context of last week’s pull-out from the UK Government’s point of view and how the retrospective amendment just happened to be put in place weeks ago and now fits perfectly with events as they have panned out. We need honesty on that, but we also need clarity on a couple of other points. Why did the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland state last week that the UK Government might not uphold their international obligations? Is that really the Government’s position? I am sure it is not the Minister’s position.
On the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Belfast the previous weekend, why did she apparently not meet all parties across the political spectrum? How does that fit with Good Friday agreement obligations on treating all communities with respect?
All these points are linked, as they show that, at the moment, the UK’s commitment to the Good Friday agreement, in deed not just word, is currently shaky at best. Power sharing, honest brokering and the rule of law, all these commitments under the Good Friday agreement are vital to preserving trust and, I would argue, to preserving our United Kingdom.
Today’s amendments mean that some form of government can continue, despite the pull out last week. For the people of Northern Ireland, for businesses, for young people and for those who want to get on with education reform, health reform and the Budget, this is a deeply depressing state of affairs. Having worked with so many others across this House and beyond to get Stormont back up and running two years ago, last Thursday was deeply depressing.
Power sharing is supported in Northern Ireland despite its flaws. Day-to-day political decision making is needed, even more so now. These provisions help to keep the show on the road, but the lack of a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister, and the fall of the Executive, is really bad news for the majority of women and men in Northern Ireland who support the GFA institutions and who want to have good governance and leadership.
Members should take a look at the charities, the young people and the vulnerable citizens who spoke out over the weekend, reacting to last week’s events. Have they been through two years of pandemic only to find that some politicians have decided to desert them in their hour of need? Yet again, the majority who want to get on with day-to-day life and day-to-day business are held hostage by the parallel universe of elements of the Northern Ireland political world. I urge the Government to make a full statement to this House on Stormont and to reassert immediately their commitment and conviction on power sharing and on restoring it in full forthwith.
I note the Minister’s opening remarks on the present situation. I have previously made my own views and those of my party pretty clear on the manner of the UK’s departure from the European Union and the negative consequences that have flowed, and I do not intend to detain the House by repeating them here. Time is short and there are voices that need to be heard in this debate far more than mine.
The SNP has supported this legislation throughout its passage, because we believe it improves transparency and accountability in governance in Northern Ireland. It also gives the time and, more importantly perhaps, the space for politics to do what it needs to do in terms of cross-community discussions on the way forward for politics in Northern Ireland.
We are content to support the Lords amendments, and we believe they can be positive. We are happy to support them on that basis.
The hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), in a fantastic speech, spoke about the importance of trust in all this. He is absolutely right, and my right hon. Friend the Minister will concur that the overarching objective has to be to rebuild trust between the parties as quickly as possible.
I agree with every word my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) said. The rule of law is so important. Honouring the rule of law and our international obligations should be the hallmark of any Tory Government—of any Government in this country, I should say, but particularly one of our side. To have that thrown into question when we have willingly signed up to agreements, understanding them perfectly, as the noble Lord Frost confirmed to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee some months ago, and to seek to resile from that now, pretending we did not quite understand what it meant or that we did not think that people would hold us to what we signed up to, shows so much brass neck as to be unspeakable.
I welcome the Lords amendments and their necessity. Thankfully, the Government did not go down the road of double jobbing. Unfortunately, we missed the opportunity to create a joint First Minister. As we all know, in essence the positions are joint—neither the left hand nor the right hand can do anything without the other saying yes or no—and that might be a way to move these things forward.
Yet again, we find ourselves in a situation in which self-service rather than public service has trumped all decisions. What happened last week was, in my judgment, an abdication of responsibility. Rage against the protocol if you will—tear your hair out and rend your clothes about the protocol; go on marches; do what the hell you like—but do not abandon the communities of Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member should choose his words very carefully when he says to people in Northern Ireland, “Do whatever”—I will not repeat the profane language—“you like.” He talks about the rule of law; does he agree that doing what you like does not include taking up arms or going out and committing acts of violence and that when we use language we should be very careful and precise by what we mean when we say, “Do what you like to oppose the protocol”?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I refer him to the exchanges among a number of us in the NIAC last summer on that very issue. When I say, “Do what the hell you like,” I am talking about within the rule of law—protest, petition, demonstrate. Of course, nobody is advocating breaking the law and it would be preposterous to suggest that I as a Tory would suggest that.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon made reference to the voluntary sector and those most in need in both and all communities of Northern Ireland. We saw what happened in the last interregnum: health outputs down, education outputs down and infrastructure and housing moving backwards. As always, it is those who are most in need of those services, in all communities, who are going to be hit the hardest. We know where this ends up. It is a diminution of the quality of life of those people who live in Northern Ireland and who, as we move out of covid, are now looking, perfectly legitimately, to their local politicians to craft local solutions to local problems.
Now is not a time for self-service; now is a time for us all, with our shoulders to the wheel, to serve those communities that, for too many decades, have suffered disproportionately as fellow citizens of the United Kingdom. I do hope that this is a temporary impasse, that the burden is taken up again and that public service is recognised as important. I suggest that if it is not, those communities will have their say in the ballot box in the coming weeks.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this brief debate.
The Lords amendments are indeed a matter for the Government, but let me be absolutely clear in response to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith): there is absolutely no question of some form of collusion—a popular word in Northern Ireland—between my party and the Government on the timing of the amendments. As far back as last September, I indicated the course of action that I would take if the Government failed to act and to honour their commitments in New Decade, New Approach. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the timing of our decision was not influenced by any amendment to the Bill.
The amendments will ensure that the Bill’s provisions are retrospective in nature, to a degree that is, as I say, a matter for the Government, but if we do not get a resolution to the issues that have given rise to the current impasse in Northern Ireland and to the decision to withdraw the First Minister, frankly the amendments and the Bill will be irrelevant. If we do not get a resolution within the next six weeks, it matters little whether or not this legislation is retrospective. Personally, I would love to see a resolution in the next six weeks. I can assure the House that if that happens, we will not be found wanting in reinstating the institutions and restoring Ministers to office.
In the short time available, I want to remind the House, as the right hon. Gentleman did, that New Decade, New Approach is a detailed, delicately balanced agreement. I commend him for his work during his time as Secretary of State to help to bring it about, but it is an agreement that has not been fully honoured. I commend the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for recognising the frustration felt among DUP Members about the Government’s failure to honour their commitments.
Annex A is titled “UK Government Commitments to Northern Ireland”. Those commitments were made on behalf of the Government by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, who I accept is not in office and therefore cannot directly be held responsible for the failure to deliver them. However, the idea that it is merely for the parties in Northern Ireland to deliver their commitments, and that the Government can sit on their hands and not deliver their side of the agreement, just does not add up.
I am a Unionist. I believe passionately in Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. At the heart of the Belfast agreement is the principle of consensus. The former leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party, John Hume, told us time after time that the way forward in Northern Ireland was not the politics of one side being in charge of the other and of majority rule; it was about consensus. On a matter as fundamental as Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom and the harm that the protocol is doing to that relationship, there is not a consensus in Northern Ireland. There is not a single Unionist party and not a single Unionist elected representative who supports the protocol.
I thank the right hon. Member for giving way; I regret that he was not so comfortable with the words and language of John Hume for many years. Will he agree, then, that there was no consent for the Brexit that he and his party pursued? Does he agree that Brexit was presented, as Mark Durkan has put it,
“as a consent-free mystery tour”?
Does he acknowledge that his party was wrong to oppose the numerous amendments that attempted to write in a role for the Northern Ireland Assembly and for the people of Northern Ireland?
I remember the former Member for Foyle telling us that what we really needed to do was
“to remove some of the ugly scaffolding”
of the Good Friday agreement. The sooner we get on with some of that, the better, but that does not involve negating the need for dual consent in Northern Ireland. That consent is not forthcoming from the people I represent.
There is this idea that the protocol can be proceeded with by ignoring the wishes of Unionists and just telling us, “Get on with it—you can rage against it,” but that is not what the agreement says. It says that the Government will bring forward
“measures to protect and strengthen the UK internal market”
and Northern Ireland’s place within it. Yet since the agreement two years ago and since the Command Paper more than six months ago, the Government have done nothing to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the internal market. They have not honoured their commitment in the agreement, which is the basis on which my party re-entered the power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland. How long are we expected to be in the position of my Ministers having to implement measures that, day after day, are harming Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom and our economy?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that as time has gone on, the EU, rather than trying to ameliorate the concerns of Unionists, has tried to stoke the fires of frustration and opposition to the point where it is now saying that people travelling from GB to Northern Ireland should have their vehicles searched and their possessions taken out because they are moving into a different country?
My right hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. If the European Union insisted that the personal belongings of Conservative Members’ constituents were searched every time they moved from one part of the United Kingdom to another, would those Members hear about that from their constituents? Might those constituents have cause for complaint? Yet that is what my constituents will be subjected to if the European Union has its way and the full and vigorous implementation of the protocol is taken forward.
At Christmas, a constituent—a lady who lives in Lisburn and who is the former principal of an integrated college in my constituency—received a Christmas card from her sister, who lives in Llanelli, in Wales. On the envelope was a customs stamp with a customs fee of £3—a customs fee of £3 to send a Christmas card from one member of a family in one part of the United Kingdom to another member of the family in another part of the United Kingdom. My constituents and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends are being subjected to this kind of thing.
Article 16 of the protocol—this is relevant to the debate this evening—makes provision for the UK Government to act unilaterally, and the Minister has said that the Government are prepared to do that. However, they said that in their Command Paper over six months ago, and in those six months the cost to Northern Ireland businesses has exceeded well over half a billion pounds. In those six months, businesses in Northern Ireland have faced costs and disruption to their trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. This is simply unacceptable.
The European Union said that the main purpose of the protocol, apart from setting out practical arrangements for the movement of goods, was to protect the political institutions in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement. Does anyone now seriously believe that the protocol has achieved that purpose? It has not. Why? Because there is no Unionist consent for the protocol. It has changed our constitutional status with the rest of the United Kingdom. It has superseded article 6 of the Act of Union itself, which makes provision for free trade within our own country.
I am therefore disappointed that, although we are debating this Bill and the issues it addresses, they are relatively minor in comparison with the key commitments made by the Government in the New Decade, New Decade agreement, which have not been honoured two years later. Why should my constituents be treated as second-class citizens in their own country? Why should my constituents be subjected to laws that are imposed by a European Union over which we have no say whatever? We have regulations that my Ministers are required to implement and over which we have no say whatever.
We have been patient. We have waited and we have waited for the Government to act or for the EU to recognise the reality that this protocol is harming political and economic stability in Northern Ireland. But I am afraid that I have to say to the Minister: enough is enough. We need action—not words, not more promises, as the hon. Member for Hove said, and not more empty commitments. We need action by the Government, because this is about the Union, about the future of the Union and about protecting Northern Ireland’s place within the internal market of our own country. Why are we leaving it to the European Union to come up with a solution? This Government are the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Their primary responsibility is the integrity of this country. It is time the integrity of this country, and Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom, was properly protected in line with the promises made in this agreement.
It seems there is an election in the air. It is wonderful to hear all the new converts to the Good Friday agreement and civil rights. I wonder where they were when the Good Friday agreement was being signed, or when people were marching for their civil rights on the streets of my constituency and others. [Interruption.] Well, you weren’t there anyway.
I remember that, in the negotiations that led to the New Decade, New Approach agreement, the people arguing for this piece of legislation were the Democratic Unionist party. Rightly, they made the argument that Sinn Féin might bring the Assembly down. Of course, we had good evidence to say they might because they brought it down and it was down for three years. At that point I thought, “Good, everybody’s learned their lesson. Bringing the Assembly down gets us nowhere. All it does is have longer waiting lists. Our school estates are crumbling, our economy is not being dealt with. Maybe finally we are at the point now where people have learned their lesson that when you get elected to be in a position you have to go there. You have to take the power in your hands and try to change people’s lives.” But then this very week, coincidentally, four days ago, just within the seven-day gap that the new amendment will allow people to avail themselves of, the DUP walked out of the Executive and now we do not have an Executive at all.
I hear a lot in this House about the precious Union and how this is all about the Union. Where is the Prime Minister or even his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when a key part of that supposedly precious Union, the Executive of the devolved Administration of Northern Ireland, has collapsed? Nowhere to be seen is the Prime Minister of this precious United Kingdom. If I was a Unionist in Northern Ireland today—I can assure the House I am not—I would be looking very closely at how this Government treat them.
To be honest, I find it quite shocking we are in this position today. One of the things that has led us to this position is that the Prime Minister, the former Brexit Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have been promising to trigger article 16 for months. Of course, the protocol was part of the withdrawal agreement that this Prime Minister negotiated, signed and told everybody was fantastic. But what is worse about all this is that the DUP actually believed him. I have a four-year-old who would not have believed him. It is astonishing that, after all of this, the DUP, which championed Brexit—it’s all one United Kingdom referendum, we all have to leave together, we were told—[Interruption.] Then there was an opportunity—[Interruption.] Members really want to listen, Mr Deputy Speaker. Then there was an opportunity to stop a border in the Irish sea by voting for the whole of the United Kingdom to stay in the customs union and single market. The DUP rejected it. [Interruption.] I hear, “That wasn’t Brexit.” Well, maybe it is about time that the DUP chose between the purest version of Brexit and the Union they profess to love. Now we have a protocol that had to be put in place because the DUP and others forced the hand of a previous Prime Minister into ensuring there would be a border in the Irish sea. It was not as if this was a surprise. Many of us, people of a nationalist persuasion and people of no persuasion at all, were shouting it loudly on TV and on the radio to tell them: this is what is going to happen if you don’t do something sensible about Brexit. We also have an opportunity. Let us get rid of most of the checks. Let us do it tomorrow. Let us have an SPS agreement with the European Union. The DUP reject that as well. How did they think this was going to end?
Now we have the DUP, who for months have held a gun to their own head, telling the British Government and the European Union, “If you don’t get me what I want, I’ll shoot.” And now they have shot and what have they got? This will never precipitate the result they want because it is impossible to do what the DUP wants. That is the reality. This is not about the protocol; this is about an election that will come in the next few months. All this is about is shoring up the Unionist support. That is what every election in Northern Ireland is about. Let’s get the people worried! Let’s get them scared! Who is going to be First Minister? Who is going to be Deputy First Minister? The Union is at risk! Why not actually work to make the institutions work and persuade the people out there who are interested in this big constitutional debate that they actually should vote for the Union at some point? But everything that the DUP does makes my job easier and easier. I do not have to do anything to persuade people to vote for constitutional change. I just have to let the DUP speak, because everything it has done over the past five or six years has led to more support for the Union.
The real losers in all this are the ordinary people of Northern Ireland who are going through a health crisis—our waiting lists would embarrass a third-world country—and who are seeing rising gas prices. They want to see the climate change legislation, they want to see the welfare mitigations going through and they want to see the domestic violence and stalking legislation, but what the DUP wants to do is walk away from its responsibilities. I hear from Sinn Féin that it wants an election as soon as possible, never mind about getting all the legislation through. Surely we have to learn the lesson that politicians are elected to go to work, to be at their desk to deal with the problems, and to sit down and work together to solve the problems on behalf of the people. All we got from the DUP this week, and from Sinn Féin five years ago, is that they walk away if they do not get what they want. Well, look how it is going to end up. The waiting lists will be longer, the schools will continue to crumble and our young people will continue to emigrate. That is the legacy of those two parties running Northern Ireland over the last 15 years, and it is about time people looked for something different.
There is truth in the point made tonight that, almost five days into the crisis, the Prime Minister of this nation has not spoken. That is wrong. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom ought to have spoken on Thursday evening about this issue. He should not shut up about it until the issue is resolved. These are his responsibilities. When we view a constitutional crisis through the prism of a divided community, which is what Northern Ireland is, we create suspicions and we raise concerns unless those matters are properly addressed. There is a fear among some people that the Conservative and Unionist party that governs this nation is actually an English nationalist party that is concerned not about a border in the Irish sea but about a red wall on the mainland island, and that that is what eats it up every single day. If that is this Government’s only concern, they are betraying the Union and the Unionist people.
That is the reality of where we are this evening. It is obvious to all of us who have been warning about this crisis—whatever side of the divide we are on, whether nationalists, Unionists or whatever—that this was bound to come to a head. That is the unfortunate reality of what has happened.
The hon. Gentleman is aiming his artillery at the wrong enemy. The truth is that this protocol and trade across Northern Ireland are no threat whatsoever to the integrity of the single market. This Government have done their level best to try to get trade flowing completely freely; it is the EU that is making it so impossible.
No one from that side of the House needs to lecture us about the support that this party and the people of Ulster have invested in this Government—no one. The only reason that GB has Brexit is the support that the Unionist people of Northern Ireland gave to the right hon. Gentleman’s party. Let us make no mistake about that. The reality is that, if the Government had given a fair deal to all the people of the United Kingdom, we would not be debating this issue this evening and the institutions of Northern Ireland would not be teetering on the brink of collapse. I fear that, alarming as the situation is in Northern Ireland, this will not be easily brought back together. The comment made by the right hon. Gentleman, who is a close friend of mine, betrays a lack of understanding of how deep the hurt and the cut is in Northern Ireland this evening. That must be addressed urgently.
There has been some talk about elections, and there will be an election. Frankly, the sooner the election comes along, the better, because until the May elections actually come we are going to limp from pillar to post. I say this to the Unionist people. In a matter of weeks, the power to determine the self-determination of their country will be in their hands, and sitting at home, splitting votes, not being unified, and going off on different tangents will do nothing to preserve the Union. However, if they do any of those things, Sinn Féin will happily step up, walk over and trample not only my rights but those of the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and his party. We saw that at the weekend at the benevolent cemetery, where Sinn Féiners and republicans destroyed a memorial that mentioned the deaths of Irish nationals because those deaths were not good enough for them. That is what we will continue to see: Sinn Féin rising and trying to have what they did not get in 1918—a purple patch for republicanism.
Either we ensure that the people of Northern Ireland unite and fight against that—I encourage every single Unionist to get out in the coming election, put their divisions and different party loyalties behind them and ensure that Unionism continues to be the first party in Northern Ireland—or this nation is heading towards a referendum on the future of the Union. Whether that referendum is in Scotland or Northern Ireland first, I am afraid it is more than likely that unless Unionists get out in the election and fight and vote for the right party, there will be a campaign towards a united Ireland. [Interruption.] I am glad that the hon. Member for Foyle recently cited, and rightly so, that his mother would not vote for a united Ireland because of the NHS. I hope that people do start to recognise the benefits of this Union; otherwise, we will get into an awful handling that the Government will never be able to unravel.
I recently tabled an amendment on immediate commencement, so I am pleased that that has finally come to fruition. In the circumstances, I have a few extremely brief points to make. First, most people in Northern Ireland are not focused on the protocol—it is there in the background, and it does pose challenges—as their priorities are health, jobs, the cost of living and their children’s education. That is where their focus lies and it is important that we fully represent that.
I fear that we are walking into an even bigger crisis after the next Assembly election. If people walk away from power sharing, they do so at their peril, because power sharing devolution is the only way in which Northern Ireland can be successfully governed. That is a clear lesson from history.
The protocol is the product of the Government’s choices around the nature of Brexit. Pragmatic solutions are available if people want to work on them, but what is not available is delusions and fantasies about what is out there. If people want to walk back some of the choices made on Brexit, that is good. However, given the nature of Northern Ireland, there will always be a need for some form of special circumstances. Whenever you leave the single market and customs union, you draw a line on a map, and that will inevitably create some degree of friction, but we have a challenge and a choice to manage it.
First, may I say to the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), that it is good to be opposite him in the Chamber this evening? I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions, which have, if I may gently say so, strayed slightly beyond the scope of the two amendments that we are debating.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear with me.
I say to the shadow Secretary of State that the content of this legislation was set out a significant period of time ago. This has not been an emergency piece of legislation; in fact, it is very welcome that this is one of the first pieces of legislation dealing with Northern Ireland that has not been emergency legislation. The debate on the final stages of consideration of Lords amendments was timetabled for today some time ago, although I do concede that the amendments are landing in a period of political turbulence. It is worth remembering that Ministers remain in place, however, and the Assembly continues to sit and can make progress even in the context of the withdrawal of the First Minister and the consequential lack of a Deputy First Minister. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State issued a written ministerial statement on Friday calling for the DUP to reinsert the First Minister and get the Executive fully back and focusing.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) has rightly taken a huge interest in all this, not least because he was the author of New Decade, New Approach. On the question of the responsibility of ownership of the protocol and the checks, the operation of checks at the port is clearly a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. The protocol is the consequence of an internationally negotiated treaty, which is a responsibility of the United Kingdom Government as a whole. As he will understand, given the live court proceedings I am slightly constrained from saying too much more than that, but we were certainly not seeking in any way to abrogate responsibility.
I want to pick up on my right hon. Friend’s point about charities. Yesterday afternoon, I was in Belfast Cathedral, St Anne’s, as a guest of the Dean. I had gone before Christmas to join the collection of the Black Santa appeal, and I was there yesterday when those involved revealed that they had raised more than £150,000. Many of the charities who will benefit from that want the restoration of stable power sharing and a stable approach, as do the other people I met during the last few days in Northern Ireland.
Does the Minister of State accept that the people of Northern Ireland think they have been in a “call waiting” queue since 1 January 2021? They feel that their opinion has been undervalued and their voice has not been heard. Will the Minister give a commitment to ensuring that the Northern Ireland protocol is done away with, article 16 is initiated and the voice of the people of Northern Ireland is heard in this House and across the whole of Northern Ireland?
I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that article 16 and its triggering and doing away with the protocol are not the same thing. Triggering article 16 is a provision of the protocol; it does not remove the protocol.
I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) that we understand the destabilising impact of the protocol. The Government remain absolutely committed to resolving the issue of the protocol, the writing of which, by the way, recognises Northern Ireland’s integral place in the internal market of the United Kingdom. I visited a shop in Lisburn before Christmas and was told that it had had to reduce its range of shortbread, because shortbread now requires a veterinary certificate as a result of the butter content. That was clearly not what we signed up to when we agreed to the protocol.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—I will be very nice to him, because I am giving evidence to the Committee tomorrow—tempts us to legislate beyond the scope of what is in New Decade, New Approach. We have very deliberately decided to stay within the scope of what was agreed, because it was agreed by the political parties. That is certainly not to say that some of his suggestions are not without merit.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) talked about the divided nature of society in Northern Ireland. I have to say—I say it in affection—that I think it was slightly superfluous of him to reassure and remind us that he was not a Unionist. He did say that this was all about the build-up to the election, and there was a bit of electioneering in the air, but I suppose that is understandable.
In the moments left to me, let me say that I returned this morning from five nights in Northern Ireland. I bookended my trip with a visit to Clonard monastery on the Falls Road, where I listened to an engaging talk with the Northern Irish boxer Carl Frampton, and with a moving service yesterday at St Matthew’s on the Shankill Road, with a sermon from the Archbishop of Canterbury—all part of the 4 Corners festival, bringing together all that unites Belfast and, indeed, wider Northern Ireland—led by Father Martin Magill, a Catholic priest on the Falls, and the Rev. Tracey McRoberts, a Protestant clergywoman on the Shankill. I met businesspeople yesterday afternoon in Lisburn. I met a victims’ group in Fermanagh. I talked to Ards, Banbridge and Craigavon council about levelling up. I went to the Ulster museum, where I saw the silent testimony of “The Troubles and Beyond” exhibition, a powerful and stark reminder of what happens when society in Northern Ireland goes backwards. These are modest proposals that improve the governance and flexibility in Northern Ireland, and I commend these amendments—
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
Question put and agreed to.
Lords amendment 1 accordingly agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).
Lords amendment 2 agreed to.