Skip to main content

Northern Ireland: Citizens’ Rights

Volume 811: debated on Wednesday 28 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the rights of Northern Ireland citizens in comparison with citizens of the rest of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the United Kingdom is a family of nations and a union of people. The recognition and protection of rights are fundamental values of our union. That is reflected in the Government’s unwavering commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, of which guarantees of rights are an essential part. The Government will take every opportunity to strengthen Northern Ireland’s place within the UK and will continue to ensure that the rights of all Northern Ireland’s people are protected within it.

My Lords, surely, one fundamental right that all United Kingdom citizens should enjoy in a democracy is being able to elect those who make the laws for the economy. The protocol, introduced without one single person in Northern Ireland agreeing to it, has now placed Northern Ireland in the outhouse of the United Kingdom family, with a foreign jurisdiction making the law and a foreign court overseeing it. Does the Minister recognise that the constitutional position of that part of the United Kingdom has changed utterly with the loss of that fundamental right?

My Lords, it is fair to say that urgent progress is needed to restore confidence on the ground and to address the outstanding protocol issues. However, I remind the noble Baroness that, as she will know only too well, Article 2 of the protocol states:

“The United Kingdom shall ensure that no diminution of rights, safeguards or equality of opportunity, as set out in that part of the 1998”—

Belfast/Good Friday—

“Agreement entitled Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity results from its withdrawal from the Union, including in the area of protection against discrimination”.

My Lords, if there is equality of rights between the citizens of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, how is it that in GB at a funeral, even a royal funeral, only 30 people are allowed to attend, whereas in Belfast, apparently, a funeral for an IRA/Sinn Féin supporter can be attended by over 1,000 people?

I certainly do not want to be drawn into answering on that particular thing. I simply reiterate that the Government take their obligations in regard to the rights of all United Kingdom citizens incredibly seriously. The Government are committed to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and the protocol does not impact on the constitutional arrangements within the United Kingdom or the provisions in that agreement.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that any difference between the rights of citizens in Northern Ireland and those of the rest of us in the United Kingdom is one of the many results of the Brexit disaster, which Northern Ireland’s people voted against? Who does the Minister think is most to blame for that: Boris Johnson, Arlene Foster—or the noble Baroness who tabled this Question?

I can only reiterate that we are urgently looking at addressing the issues on the ground. As the noble Lord will know only too well, much work is being done by my noble friend Lord Frost and Mr Sefcovic to address the outstanding issues to ensure that rights are equal between the citizens of Northern Ireland and those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement enshrined many rights for the people of Northern Ireland but, following Brexit, there are fears that some of those rights are being diminished. Does the Minister agree that the British-Irish Council would be a useful forum to discuss these concerns? Can he confirm when he expects the next meeting of the council to take place?

I cannot confirm the actual date. I was drawn in on the BIIGC the other day and I understand the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness, but I cannot give any further information. She will know that that we are aware of its potential operation.

Does my noble friend agree that a clear majority of people in Northern Ireland continues freely and legitimately to support the union on the basis of their

“cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom”?

Can he assure the House that this Government will always defend and uphold that fundamental position of equal citizenship for all the people of Northern Ireland against any threat, including in relation to the EU’s implementation of the protocol?

I believe my noble friend makes the right emphasis. The Government firmly believe that UK nationality law is consistent with their Belfast agreement obligations and therefore with equal citizenship within the UK. The Government have always stressed the importance of the union and Northern Ireland’s place within it. We share, as my noble friend will know, so many cultural, social and economic ties that make for greater prosperity and for security.

My Lords, there is much unease in Northern Ireland at the moment and the marching season will soon be upon us. Does the Minister agree that dialogue and intervention are now vital? Will he convey to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that their personal involvement is now absolutely necessary to stop any drift towards potential instability in Northern Ireland?

I can certainly pass the message upwards, to answer the noble Lord’s question. I reassure him again that much work is going on, with intensive discussions between the co-chairs of the specialised committee, who have begun to clarify, work forward and address the outstanding issues. Some very good and positive momentum has been established. As I said earlier, these matters are urgent and must be addressed.

Given that the anomalous position of Northern Ireland, spelt out by the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, is justified by the need to uphold the integrity of the European single market, can my noble friend explain why it is necessary to have barriers to goods coming from GB towards the European single market, to uphold its integrity, but no barriers are necessary to uphold the integrity of the United Kingdom market? Is its argument simply bogus or bureaucratic obsession, or are we letting our internal market be put at risk?

I think it fair to say to my noble friend that we are going over old ground because of the agreements that have been set out on the unfettered access that is in place for goods that move from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. As he will know, some necessary minimum checks are required for certain goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

My Lords, young people in Wales are very envious of the deal facilitated by the Irish Government, which enables young people from the North to maintain their full access to the huge benefits of the Erasmus+ programme. Does this not demonstrate that the best way for the people of Northern Ireland to retain links with the EU, for which they voted, is to work closely with Dublin wherever possible?

As the noble Lord is alluding to, the Irish Government have separately offered higher education students in Northern Ireland the chance to take part in Erasmus+. Institutions taking part will remain eligible for the Turing scheme, which, as he may know, will enable 35,000 students in higher education, further education and schools across the United Kingdom to go on overseas placements.

My Lords, I spent the best part of a year of my life defending the position of the citizens of Northern Ireland, from whatever community, as equal citizens of the United Kingdom. The current situation is not acceptable. Will my noble friend go back to the Government and say that my noble friend Lord Frost, or whomsoever, must negotiate to amend, scrap or even ignore the protocol?

I do not agree with my noble friend on that point. The point is that the protocol has to work. As I said earlier, urgent progress is being made to address the outstanding concerns. The House will know that my noble friend Lord Frost will appear at the Dispatch Box tomorrow and I am sure that my noble friend will wish to put certain questions to him.

My Lords, is this not a classic case, as far as the protocol’s application in Northern Ireland is concerned, of taxation without representation? How sustainable is it in the western developed world, in a modern democracy, for people to have laws imposed on them without any say or vote?

The noble Lord will know better than I do that in terms of consent, ultimately the protocol’s fate depends on the political representatives of the people of Northern Ireland. The Assembly will next vote on the protocol in 2024, as agreed in the protocol itself.

My Lords, the effect of the Northern Ireland Protocol is that any amendment made by the EU to an EU law currently in forced in Northern Ireland has direct effect, with no approval needed by the UK Parliament or by the Northern Ireland Assembly, and will be immediately justiciable in the relevant court in the UK. Will my noble friend consider again if this situation of the people of Northern Ireland is compatible with Article 3 of the first Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, which grants an unabridgeable right to free, secret and regular elections to a relevant legislature?

My noble friend is right that any solution in Northern Ireland should have democratic support, which ties in slightly to the previous question from the noble Lord, Lord Dodds. That is why Northern Ireland’s elected representatives have a democratic choice. The Assembly can extend or end Northern Ireland’s alignment with EU law with the first consent decision, as I said earlier, at the end of 2024. This process will repeat every four or eight years, depending on whether consent, if given, is given on a simple majority or a cross-community basis.