[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on 23 January, 7 February, and 1, 16 and 21 March 2023, on the effectiveness of the institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, HC 781.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the 25th anniversary of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
It gives me great pleasure to open today’s debate on the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. This is an historic occasion, not just for the people of Northern Ireland, who have benefited directly from the peace, prosperity and host of other benefits the agreement has brought, but for the entire United Kingdom and for all of us in this House. I know that right hon. and hon. Members will have their own unique reflections on this momentous occasion.
The agreement ended almost 30 years of armed conflict in Northern Ireland. That will always remain its most profound and important legacy. The generation that has grown up since its signing has only known relative peace and increasing reconciliation. That in itself is a remarkable achievement.
As many of us know, the agreement comprises three closely interrelated strands, all of which underpin the peace and prosperity that Northern Ireland enjoys to this day. Strand 1 established the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, enabling decisions on health, education, employment and much more to be undertaken locally for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland. These institutions provide an important guarantee on inclusive decision making on governance, representative of all communities in Northern Ireland.
Yes, indeed. I think that is even more vital now that we have a generation of people across our United Kingdom who did not experience the troubles at first hand. It is very important that knowledge is transferred to them, so that they can learn from the mistakes of the past and rebuild the foundation and network the hon. Lady identifies.
Strand 2 of the agreement provided for co-operation between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and established the North South Ministerial Council. Strand 3 included the establishment of the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which are conduits for the important and enduring friendship and dialogue we enjoy with the Irish Government and with jurisdictions across these islands today. The Government are steadfastly committed to upholding each of the three strands, which balance the aspirations of all communities in Northern Ireland and remain vital elements in Northern Ireland’s constitutional settlement.
The Belfast/Good Friday agreement is also based on guarantees of rights. It recognises the crucial birth right of all people of Northern Ireland to identify and be accepted as Irish, British or both, and confirms that the right to hold one or both citizenships is accepted. The Government delivered the powerful new institutions set up by the agreement to secure and protect the rights of the whole community. The agreement enshrines the principle of consent—an important principle that safe- guards Northern Ireland’s place in the Union and means that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority of its people want it to be.
We must credit the agreement with helping to set Northern Ireland on a path to permanently ending armed conflict. That achievement was delivered with the support of many other countries, including the United States, Finland, South Africa and Canada.
One of the most important and most tangible aspects of the agreement was the return to devolved Government in Northern Ireland after nearly 30 years. There has been a long history of devolved decision making in Northern Ireland since its foundation 101 years ago. The agreement recognised that previous devolved Governments had not been inclusive of the whole community, and the agreement established important guarantees and principles setting out that a devolved Government should work for all parts of the community in Northern Ireland.
With a functioning Executive, Northern Ireland enjoys the best of all worlds—a strong Northern Ireland Assembly and a strong United Kingdom Government. Regardless of which part of the community people are from, the importance of locally accountable decision making in the interests of Northern Ireland is something that everyone should be able to agree with.
I thank the Minister for giving way in what is a significant debate to all of us, marking an important milestone for peace in Northern Ireland. Does he agree with me that we need to be very careful that we do not take that peace for granted? We have seen the threat level increase recently and increased tension. It is as incumbent on all of us now as it was 25 years ago to do whatever we can to protect what is an ongoing process in the peace agreement.
The hon. Lady utters very wise words. It falls on all our shoulders and on those of all politicians across the United Kingdom, especially in Northern Ireland, to continue to build on the peace process and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and what it stands for today, and to do so deep into the future, because it is so important. As we have seen this week, with the rise in the threat level of Northern Ireland-related terrorism in Northern Ireland, we cannot take anything for granted.
The Secretary of State rightly comments on the change in the security threat assessment; I note in particular the threat relating to dissident republicans. He will also be acutely aware of the rise of activity within loyalism, with a spate of attacks in recent days in my constituency and that of my colleague the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Will the Secretary of State tell us a little more about the Government’s commitment to crack down on continuing loyalist activities and ensure that those people who are involved in illegality face the full rigours of the law?
Yes. This is probably not the appropriate time or space to do that, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there has been an increase in loyalist paramilitarism. The Government are supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland in clamping down on it; we are well aware of it, and are working with politicians across the piece in Northern Ireland. With the Police Service of Northern Ireland, there is a lot that we can do both to decrease tensions in those communities and to make sure that those who are using criminal activity at the expense of their neighbours in their communities face the appropriate penalties.
Let me return to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. For our part, the UK Government have continually supported and invested in Northern Ireland, its place in the Union and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement framework. We are committed to making it better still, as we have shown through the investment, support and commitment that we have provided as a UK Government to the Northern Ireland institutions through numerous successor agreements. Those agreements prove that the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement 25 years ago was not the end of a journey, but a new beginning. Each of them has helped to pave the way to the Northern Ireland that we see today, whether it be the progress on policing and justice at St Andrews that enabled those matters to be devolved in the Hillsborough Castle agreement; the substantial capital funding that we provided for new shared and integrated schools in Fresh Start and Stormont House; or the investment that we provided in public services in New Decade, New Approach.
It is precisely because of the UK Government’s steadfast commitment both to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and to Northern Ireland’s place in our Union that we have, through listening to and heeding the concerns among the people of Northern Ireland about the protocol, replaced it with the new Windsor framework, which makes fundamental amendments to it. The framework restores the delicate balance struck by the agreement and addresses problems with the protocol by removing the Irish sea border for UK goods, with a new green lane and UK internal market scheme for businesses trading from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, removing costs, paperwork and checks. Just as importantly, it gives the people of Northern Ireland a veto over new laws that apply there, in the form of the Stormont brake.
Northern Ireland has changed beyond recognition over the past 25 years, thanks to the peace and prosperity that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement has brought. Upon that foundation, Northern Ireland has built a dynamic and vibrant economy, as can be seen across the whole of the nation. Its world-leading screen and film production industry, which produced “Game of Thrones” and “The Northman” among others, has already contributed £1 billion to the Northern Irish economy. There is a fintech sector, a cyber-security sector and an engineering sector going from strength to strength in the Northern Ireland of today. Those sectors are creating thousands of highly skilled jobs, with Belfast now ranked as one of the top 25 tech cities in the world.
In the years since the agreement was signed, Northern Ireland has also taken positive steps towards greater reconciliation. I pay tribute to the work of community organisations, faith groups and individuals, and to all who have tried to foster that reconciliation, respect and mutual understanding in Northern Ireland in the journey to the agreement and over the past 25 years.
In the list that he is rightly setting out, will the Secretary of State recognise the particular contribution that very many women in Northern Ireland, across the communities, have made in leading the dialogue, repairing their communities and building relationships of trust?
Yes, I will. Further into my speech, I might well mention just one or two of the remarkable women who have done exactly as the Chairman of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs says.
The fact that Northern Ireland now has a locally accountable police force demonstrates the huge progress that Northern Ireland has made. However, events such as the abhorrent shooting of DCI John Caldwell illustrate a point that hon. Members have already raised in interventions: that the peace that Northern Ireland now enjoys and that we have all worked so hard for cannot and must not be taken for granted. Yesterday, I made the announcement that the Northern Ireland-related terrorism threat level has been increased by MI5 from substantial to severe. Coming ahead of the agreement’s 25th anniversary, that news is particularly disappointing. However, it does not detract from the fact that Northern Ireland remains markedly more peaceful and reconciled than it was in 1998. That is a testament to the people of Northern Ireland, as well as to the PSNI and the security services that do so much to keep us all safe.
May I put on the record my thanks to the Secretary of State for what he says about the PSNI? In the past two weeks, my constituency and that of the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) have been subjected to a lot of violence, including attacks on houses, discrimination and the intimidation of people who have had to move out. It is only a matter of time before that level of violence spills over into injury or death. The PSNI are the people in the middle who are keeping us safe. Our special thanks should go to the officer in charge of our area, Superintendent Johnston McDowell, and to all his police officers, who are doing a grand job of policing to the best of their ability. We should all be supporting them, because they are the people who are filling the gap.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; I completely concur with his statement. We should also pay tribute to Chief Constable Simon Byrne, who has introduced community policing across Northern Ireland. Community policing is something that we are all used to in England, Scotland and Wales, but it is a different way of policing—a better way of policing—in Northern Ireland, and it is definitely helping across all communities. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s words and would add to them.
As we approach the agreement’s anniversary, we must acknowledge that there is more to be done to realise other aspects of the agreement’s ambition for a society that is reconciled with the past and able to look to the future. We must never let the progress that we have seen allow us to be complacent about the challenges of the future. We are investing in the development of integrated education so that more children can be educated together. We look forward, rather than back to a divided past.
It is also our duty to tell the agreement’s story so that the next generation may appreciate Northern Ireland’s remarkable journey and build a more prosperous future. That is why, as part of our programme to mark the anniversary, we have launched the first phase of a pioneering educational package. The package has been developed by the National Archives for parents and teachers across the United Kingdom to use in assemblies and the classroom, thereby enabling this vital story to be told.
I would like to acknowledge the contribution that Members across this House, Members of the other place and those elsewhere made to the journey to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement 25 years ago and have made to Northern Ireland. No single party, Government, individual or organisation owned the journey to that agreement or owns the journey of Northern Ireland since. From the famous speech by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, in November 1990 that announced that the United Kingdom had
“no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”,
to the 1993 Downing Street declaration between John Major and Albert Reynolds that provided a pathway to a negotiated settlement on the basis of the principle of consent, it is clear that the agreement was unlocked through the achievement, bravery and dedication of a great many people in politics, public life, religion, civil society and community over many, many years.
Last week I was privileged, along with other Members, to attend a reception at Speaker’s House where I met three inspirational Members of the Youth Parliament in Northern Ireland: Izzy Fitzpatrick, Ryan Kearney and Lauren Bond. I think that all who heard Lauren will agree that she made a barnstorming speech. She spoke powerfully about her future in her nation and, notably, about the forgotten role of women in the peace process, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare). I hope I can begin to put that right today.
From one of my predecessors as Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, who enabled the Tony Blair Government to secure the Belfast agreement in April 1998 through an unrelenting bravery, a disarming personal touch and an unstoppable belief in the potential of peace, to the Women’s Coalition and people such as Monica McWilliams—a signatory to the multi-party agreement—women played a pioneering role, and rightly insisted that their voices be heard in the peace process. Pat Hume, a consummate diplomat, endured risks and threats to get people talking, and established warm relations with families of Unionist politicians, including Daphne Trimble, who later served in the two human rights bodies created by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It is clear that the full story of the agreement cannot be told without acknowledging the contributions of those and other brave and visionary women.
As we approach the 25th anniversary of that agreement, I am also aware that we will do so without some of its other architects—not least Lord Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist party and the first of Northern Ireland’s First Ministers, and John Hume, the long-time advocate of civil rights through dialogue, campaigning and peaceful protest, alongside whom I had the pleasure of serving for five years in the European Parliament. They succeeded not just because they worked tirelessly, but because they took risks. In the face of opposition and, at times, threats, they pursued their vision of what they thought Northern Ireland could be. Northern Ireland is poorer without their leadership, but they serve as examples to generations of political leaders now and to come of what politics can do.
Others, too, took risks along the way to secure the gains of the past 25 years. The leadership of Sinn Féin, particularly Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, persuaded republicanism that its future lay in the ballot box, and in 2007 the late Reverend Ian Paisley—with whom, again, I served for five years in the European Parliament —led his party into power sharing. I note the contribution of Lord Alderdice—whose party provided a powerful voice for those who were not part of either of Northern Ireland’s two traditions—to the securing of widespread engagement with the peace process; and, obviously, we recognise the role of the Progressive Unionist party, and particularly the late David Ervine, in providing clear representation for loyalism. I know that I have omitted many other names involved in the journey to the agreement, but I also know that the whole House, including the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), will join me today in recognising their collective achievement.
If this anniversary can remind us all of one thing, it should be that progress did not come easily. It took decades of tireless work, leadership and steadfast commitment. Most important, it required the willingness of people to work across divides, sometimes with others with whom it had hitherto been unimaginable to work. The lessons from the leaders of 1998 will, I hope, prove instructive for all of us who have the honour of following in their footsteps. I know that Northern Ireland is on a path to a better, brighter and more prosperous future over the coming 25 years, thanks to the foundation of peace and stability that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement provides.
We are creating a platform for that more prosperous future by investing in the people of Northern Ireland, giving them the skills that they need to succeed and harnessing their entrepreneurial spirit. Only last month the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) announced £18.9 million of funding to boost the fantastic cyber-security sector in Northern Ireland. Together with more than £600 million of UK Government investment in city and growth deals for every part of Northern Ireland, those funds will ensure that the Northern Ireland of the next 25 years will be a byword for the cutting-edge technology and innovation for which it is already becoming known. We have addressed the issues caused by the Northern Ireland protocol by agreeing the Windsor framework, which fundamentally amends the old protocol. It protects the economic rights of the people of Northern Ireland, and provides us with the basis to move forward together as one United Kingdom. We, as the UK Government, will continue to support and invest in Northern Ireland to make it an even better place in which to live, work and start a business in the years to come.
The 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is an historic moment for Northern Ireland, for the whole United Kingdom, and for Ireland. It is a milestone that will be heralded in this country, and in the countries whose contribution to the peace process made the agreement’s success possible. Today’s debate affords us all an opportunity to recognise this remarkable achievement, and to reaffirm our commitment to protecting and upholding the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and supporting Northern Ireland’s journey in the 25 years to come in order to build a more perfect peace. I commend the motion to the House.
It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State, who made a thoughtful, considered and important speech from which we can all benefit. Let me also thank him for putting forward the debate in Government time: that is much appreciated by Members throughout the House.
Issues that affect Northern Ireland are often bipartisan, and I think the spirit of today’s debate should reflect that approach. Tony Blair, for example, was always keen —and still is—to stress the extraordinary work done by John Major before him to provide a platform for the peace process that was to follow. This debate should allow us time to recognise them, and the other giants who worked on the agreement. There are many lessons we can learn from them today.
Twenty-five years is a very significant milestone. An entire generation has grown up since the people of Northern Ireland chose an end to violence. The Secretary of State referred to the event in Speaker’s House attended by representatives of the Youth Parliament from across Northern Ireland: they were not just a credit to young people in Northern Ireland, or to the Youth Parliament; they were a credit to all of us.
As the conflict recedes into the distance, it might be easy to forget how much real progress has been made in that time. This is a real blessing. Children growing up today in Northern Ireland have not experienced and will not experience the routine violence that scarred communities for so long. However, we can never forget that more than 3,500 people lost their lives in that part of our United Kingdom. People and communities were exhausted by the conflict. It is one of the Labour party’s proudest legacies that we, in government, were able to seize the moment and find a way forward. In April 1998, leaders from across political divides and communities decided that a new future was possible. That future was only there to grasp because a generation believed in their hearts that radical change was not just possible, but was deliverable in that moment.
We believe that the agreement, and the agreements that followed, have made Northern Ireland a better place, and we stand by them. A quarter of a century has gone by, and while the agreement has challenges, they should not distract from what it has delivered. As a result of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, people in Northern Ireland are now masters of their own destiny. The fact that that achievement was delivered through democratic means, not violence, partly explains why it endures and inspires reverence to this day. The rights and identities of all parts of communities are protected, whether they choose to define themselves as British, Irish or both. People overwhelmingly voted for the agreement, giving it a lasting democratic legitimacy.
The peace that the agreement has brought is possible only thanks to the work of the police and security services, which defend it every single day. I pay tribute to the work of the PSNI in particular. We have all seen the news this week that the terror threat in Northern Ireland has been raised. What we must acknowledge is that police officers have been the focus of recent attacks by dissident republicans. Those groups are opposed to the Good Friday agreement. They attack the police because they want to intimidate those who protect its achievements, institutions and legacy. Those who carry out that violence are disgusted by the peace and stability achieved since 1998, because signs of a healthy, forward-moving society are also markers of their irrelevance to the better, prosperous future that Northern Irish people desire for themselves. They do not have any political or public support and they will not succeed. I hope the Secretary of State will give the PSNI all the support it needs as it faces down those who want to turn back the clock on this era of peace and progress.
Looking back on the agreement also offers us a guide for how to keep progress moving forward into the future. There are key lessons to be learnt that will make Northern Ireland more prosperous and make its politics work better. In reflecting on the lessons from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, there are five key principles that we can apply today.
First, leadership matters. Tony Blair made Northern Ireland a priority in opposition and from day one as premier. It was no accident that the first visit he took as Prime Minister was to Belfast. The destination he wanted to reach was clear. It was, in his words:
“to see in place a fair political settlement in Northern Ireland—one that lasts, because it is based on the will and consent of the people”.
That leadership from the then Prime Minister would not have made a difference if there were not so many others ready to lead their communities, too. All of them had to say uncomfortable things to their followers. In many cases, people did not want to hear what the path forwards was. John Hume and David Trimble deserved the Nobel peace prize for guiding their movements towards peace, but there were countless others who took risks for the reward of the agreement.
In the days after my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), the leader of my party, appointed me as shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I was inundated with messages from people wishing me the best in a position that they considered to be very special. Almost all those well-wishers ended their messages by telling me that they were the person who did something to make the Good Friday agreement possible. In the 15 to 16 months since then, I have had the chance to reflect on the Good Friday agreement, grow into the job, meet people and gain experience. I can now say that each and every person who felt that they were the one who made peace possible was correct, because without every one of them making an enormous contribution in their own way, peace would not have been possible. It could not have been done by one person; it had to be done by legions of people, all acting together.
In our party, we are deeply proud of Mo Mowlam for the personal lengths to which she would go to nudge people forward towards peace. With the strength of her character, the uniqueness of her personality, she disrupted in a good way—only Mo could have weaponised a wig—and when she did, it pierced intransigence and could energise a room that was sinking towards stalemate.
Secondly, we should treat Northern Ireland and its people as a valued part of our Union. Our ambitions for Northern Ireland should match those that we have for the rest of the United Kingdom. When devolution is up and running again, it should not mean disengagement from Westminster. It is deeply worrying that power sharing has collapsed for so much of the last 25 years. The solution is to ensure that parties always have, and feel that they have, more agency from participating in Stormont than from being outside of it. No party should ever have to collapse it to get noticed.
One of the last things the Executive agreed was an ambitious energy strategy, which would see Northern Ireland make huge strides towards net zero. In the Labour party, we have a vision for a future where Northern Ireland is a key part of our green prosperity plan. For example, 50% of electricity in Northern Ireland already comes from renewables. There is the potential for much more after offshore wind farms are introduced, and much more sustainable energy production. The gains from the green transition will be felt across our country, and Northern Ireland is uniquely situated to be a place of pioneers. I talked to American businesses recently, and their eyes lit up when I mentioned the hydrogen buses that run in Belfast and are exported to other cities across Europe and beyond. All those green opportunities in Northern Ireland can be seized only if there is a stable devolved Government in place.
The third principle is to nurture a strong, trusting, instinctive relationship between the UK and Irish Governments. The relationship between the UK and Ireland reached a point where Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were comfortable constantly working together in 1998. They could compromise without the fear that either would collapse the process for political gain. As guarantors, the UK and Irish Governments will always have to be in dialogue over how the agreement is functioning.
The fourth principle is to build respect among all communities. Westminster must be a voice for all of Northern Ireland, not just one part geographically, culturally or politically. The last Labour Government made progress because they positioned the UK as an honest broker for Northern Ireland. The aspirations of the Unionist and nationalist communities are both legitimate. Of course, one of the biggest changes since the agreement is the number of people who do not identify as either community.
There are also the victims of the troubles, who in many ways were left out of the agreement at the time. The UK Government owe them a great deal for the dignity they have shown in accepting a peace process that came too late for their loved ones. We can only move forward in reconciliation with their support.
The final lesson is to always persevere when talks stalls. Despite moments of extreme challenge and difficulty throughout the peace process, the UK Government never walked away. I recently read a brilliant article by Jonathan Stephens, who was an official in the Northern Ireland Office at the time of the peace talks and later became permanent secretary at the Department. In it, he highlighted the importance of process in Northern Ireland, and how the process of the Good Friday negotiations could be applied to the recent framework negotiations on the protocol:
“A better process should involve…Northern Ireland parties as core participants alongside the UK government and the EU. Exclusively bilateral negotiations which keep out…representatives of the people of Northern Ireland will not deliver an outcome which is owned within Northern Ireland. However sensible, any outcome from such a narrow process risks being seen as an external solution imposed on Northern Ireland.”
Of course, the framework is not going to be renegotiated, but the Government can clearly work with the Northern Ireland parties to help them to have a sense of ownership of it.
I have spoken about what we can learn from the agreement, but there are also contradictions in the current Northern Ireland policy that I would like the Secretary of State to address, if at all possible, because we need to learn the lessons of the last 25 years and apply them going forward. All the actions that the Government have taken on the protocol have been based on the argument that they listen to communities in Northern Ireland and address their concerns. That is an obligation as a sovereign Government for Northern Ireland. However, when it comes to the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, the Government seem happy to ignore that very same obligation. If the legacy Bill is passed into UK law while being opposed by all Northern Ireland parties and all victims groups, from all communities, it will damage the settlement created by the Good Friday agreement.
In summing up, I want to mention the influence that the Good Friday agreement has way beyond our country, too. It carries huge weight with our allies, especially those in the United States of America, who feel a personal connection to it. Unionists, nationalists and non-aligned parties were all present at a White House reception just a couple of weeks ago, which simply does not happen for any other devolved Administration in the world. Communities in conflict across the globe still look to the Good Friday agreement as proof and inspiration that peace is possible. I am hopeful that, in the next 25 years, people around the world will look to this agreement and see that it has led to prosperity, too.
On this important anniversary, we have heard two wonderfully warm and heartfelt speeches from the Front Benches. It is sometimes not said but, as anybody who knows a shadow Secretary of State or a Secretary of State will know, these jobs always take a toll on people’s lives, and the Northern Ireland jobs certainly do. The passion and commitment to Northern Ireland of the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State have shone through this afternoon, as they do in the work of the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). This House and the country owe the four of them an enormous debt of thanks and gratitude.
I have often wondered whether it was by chance—by happenstance, if you will—that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was concluded, after so many false starts, attempts, negotiations and tries, at the end of Holy Week and on the cusp of the joy of the Easter story. I actually think not, but I think the timing of the conclusion of those discussions had an impact. The days of Lent 1998, like any day of any Lent, reminded us of the hard graft, of the promises made and broken, of the hopes dashed and then revived.
Although the Good Friday agreement is seen as an early triumph of Sir Tony Blair, and rightly so, the seeds were planted and much of the heavy ploughing was undertaken, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reminded the House, by Sir John Major’s Government in the relationship he struck with the Taoiseach. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has heard from both former premiers in our inquiry on the Good Friday agreement, and their deep understanding and enduring affection for the people of Northern Ireland, and their commitment to that process, again shone through.
Returning to my Lenten theme, without turning my speech into some sort of homily, the horror of the Passion reminds us of the horror of the troubles and the bloody history that those working on the agreement were striving to bring to a conclusion. The horror of the Passion, represented by the troubles, was replaced with the joy of the Easter story, serving as a monument to the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness, transfiguring Northern Irish society through the agreement itself.
We know that there are many in Northern Ireland who sincerely and proudly profess a faith. I pray that this year’s Easter story, against the backdrop of a non-functioning Stormont, will lead them to move forward with delivery, just as they did in the Lent and Easter of 1998.
We need to remind ourselves that there was nothing inevitable about success. Up until the 59th minute of the 11th hour, it could all have collapsed. As the Secretary of State said, the political bravery, courage and leadership of the parties in Northern Ireland, in the Republic and in this place combined to get the agreement over the line.
It is a worrying learning point from the Committee’s inquiry that former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair and John Major all said that they very much doubt that the Good Friday agreement would have come to pass had social media existed in 1998. It is worrying that, as people retreat to their self-built echo chambers on social media, the bravery and leadership of politicians is being curtailed. I think, as does anybody who follows it, that brave political leadership and courage are as vital today as they were back in 1998.
We need to remind ourselves that this is not just an island of Ireland story or commemoration but is relevant to all our islands. The troubles that were unleashed brought mayhem and death that also shattered lives on the mainland, and we should never forget Brighton, Manchester, Warrington and the Baltic Exchange, to name just a few. This is such an important story in our nation’s history.
I am pleased to hear what the Secretary of State said about education. We now have, thank God, several generations who learned about the troubles as history. John Major told a funny story at the end of our session. He had been in a lift in the States, and some young female students were nudging each other. One of them plucked up enough courage to say, “Excuse me, is it you?” Of course, there is only one answer to that question, and Sir John Major said, “Yes, it is.” They said, “Yes, we thought it was. We are learning about you in history.” We must make sure that today’s young understand not just the what of the Good Friday agreement and the hope that it brings, but the why. Why did so many people go to so much trouble to bring a period of bloody history on these islands to a conclusion? We must make sure everyone understands that because, if we do not, people will not understand the price of peace.
Peace is a process, not an event. It is iterative and organic, not set in tablets of stone. As the Stormont House and St Andrews agreements indicate, it is capable of change and adaptation. But let us never forget that the Good Friday agreement is always the foundation stone on which any subsequent agreement and evolution is built. If we forget, we take it for granted. And if we take it for granted, we devalue the massive political and personal contributions made by so many people to get Northern Ireland to where it is today.
Let us look at the strands. I think east-west is going well. We had a shaky, testing time, but Dublin-Westminster relations are improving, and the Committee’s visit to Dublin last week is testament to that. The Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister are held in high regard and growing affection by our Irish friends, which can only point to good things for future dialogue between the two premiers, which the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) mentioned. In the absence of the side conversations that often take place at Commission meetings and other EU gatherings, such dialogue is of ever greater importance.
It is unfortunate that north-south relations have atrophied and need to be resurrected. While respecting and recognising the two distinct geopolitical entities that make up the island of Ireland, we all know there is so much that can be done collaboratively, north-south, on the economy, the environment, tourism and energy—the shadow Secretary of State mentioned energy—to name but a few, to make life better for everyone. There is no weakness, no giving ground, if women and men of good will who want to see their communities do well, irrespective of whether they live in Northern Ireland or the Republic, are coming together, in this multilateral, international world in which we live, pulling in the same direction, in a common endeavour. It was always an aspiration, but an aspiration box that was opened as a result of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
Let me say a word or two about devolution. It is probably wise to say that, for the Government of Tony Blair—I entirely take the point the shadow Minister made about an ongoing commitment—international events that came shortly thereafter meant there was a bit of a temptation to devolve and forget. The taproots of devolution are deeply sunk, Mr Deputy Speaker, in your and my native Wales, and very deeply sunk in Edinburgh. The devolution plant in a Northern Ireland context is still a very tender specimen. It needs the guarantors—I am not saying that they should come in as a sort of domineering mothership—to be actively engaged in helping the parties to evolve and develop devolution. Direct rule has wisely been taken off the table by the Secretary of State, as has joint authority. Those are not options on the table, which can leave only devolution and Stormont.
I mentioned that this is a process. The ability to collapse the Assembly by veto or fiat needs to be calmly looked at an appropriate time, but I do not think that time is very far down the track. Sinn Féin collapsed it; it was wrong to do so. The DUP has collapsed it; it was wrong to do so, too. “Whataboutery” and two wrongs still do not make a right when it comes to the functioning of devolution. There has never been a good time to collapse the Assembly by veto, but to do so now is most certainly unjustifiable, in a post-covid, Ukraine-affected, cost of living crisis period. We need to see the same level of courage and commitment to wider public service—rather than narrow political service—that we saw in 1998 come to the fore. We need that to be resurrected.
We all understand the pivotal underpinning importance of consent in order to maintain that fine balance. We must continue in that tradition, but we need to reflect, in a grown-up, political way, across the parties, on how we deal with the growing of “the other” across the communities. We need to think about that. The approach of collapsing institutions is not within our UK tradition of public service. We need to see our Northern Irish political leaders recommit to and reaffirm the prospect of hope that the Good Friday agreement delivered. The public are no longer interested in political process; they want outcomes and they deserve them.
We meet to mark, reflect on and, yes, celebrate the Good Friday agreement, notwithstanding the circumstances of the increase in the security warning, the absence of Stormont and the shooting of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell. We all wish we were doing so with everything functioning and more progress on the process. Some of the keyboard warriors, the scared agitators, those who feel threatened by the Good Friday agreement, and those who demanded the hardest Brexit in a vague hope that it would restore some tension between north and south and some sense of difference, are going to be frustrated. Doubtless they will be asking why all the fuss is being made here and in the coming weeks on the island of Ireland to celebrate this important event. To do so is to fundamentally miss the point, as they always do. The celebrations here today and across the island in the coming weeks mark and cherish what the human spirit, even when scarred by decades of mistrust and hatred, can achieve. They applaud the leadership, courage and vision of those men and women who said, “Enough is enough. No more. We can’t go on like this.” They came together and committed to drain the hearts of bitterness and refresh their souls with hope and determination to create better days ahead.
Let those who need to do so, as we approach the end of the Lenten season of 2023, resurrect that spirit and recommit to do the same. As we prepare to light a new Paschal candle, let us also relight the spirit of courage and determination. Let us reaffirm the progress that has been made and that still needs to be made. Let us never take it for granted. Let us always commemorate, celebrate and rejoice in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
This is the second debate in which I have participated in Westminster this week on the theme of the 25th anniversary of events. A debate was held a couple of days ago in Westminster Hall on the 25th anniversary of Welsh devolution, and it has been something of start for me to realise that I no longer measure my involvement in party politics in years or decades, but do so in increments of quarter centuries and even more.
However, it has been an incredible privilege to listen to the contributions we have heard so far today and I very much look forward to those to come. It was also a great privilege to attend the last session of the British- Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Belfast just a few weeks ago. It was a special session convened to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement.
As part of that session, which was held in the magnificent debating Chamber at Stormont, it was fantastic to hear from some of the figures who played a key role in bringing about the agreement. We heard from the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern; Sir John Holmes, who served as the principal private secretary to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair; Baron Murphy of Torfaen, who was a Minister of State when the Good Friday agreement was signed and went on to serve as Secretary of State.
We were also party to a fantastic panel discussion involving members of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition—Kate Fearon, Bronagh Hinds, Dr Avila Kilmurray and Jane Morrice, who were all ably chaired by the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth). Hearing their insights about the work that was done individually and collectively in communities to bring people to a space where, irrespective of the tradition people had come from, they could sign up to the principles of this and move forward to put Northern Ireland on a better path was truly inspirational. It was fascinating to hear that and to hear about the work that was done to make sure that the Good Friday agreement could not only come about, but take root and take effect. I found that a very valuable transfusion of knowledge from the generation of politicians and officials who had been there on the ground at the time to the cohort of politicians who have been charged with taking an interest, moving things on and creating the political environment in which we hope relations can continue to move forward in a positive direction in our own time.
We know what the key parts of the agreement were and all that flowed from them. We saw the establishment of new institutions, such as the Northern Irish Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive and the North South Ministerial Council. It led the way to the decommissioning under the supervision of General de Chastelain. Much to the angst, anxiety and pain of many, it saw prisoner release as part of that process. It also saw the British Government committing to incorporating the European convention on human rights into the law of Northern Ireland and established the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. I have no doubt that, all through that, a number of untidy compromises needed to be made and there were a lot of concessions that must have tasted quite bitter at the time. It required tremendous movement on all sides, from historical, and perhaps even established and comfortable, positions. I certainly do not underestimate the personal toll that the leadership that was required to effect those positional changes must have taken on the participants.
It is also very difficult to overestimate the wider importance of the Good Friday agreement and the role that it played not only in the peace process in Northern Ireland, but in inspiring others in contested polities and areas around the world in providing an example of how progress can be made. The DNA underpinning the agreement is that of a recognition of the need for equality and depolarisation, mutual respect, and respect for the civil rights and religious liberties of everyone in the community.
The hon. Gentleman is right to recognise the contribution that politicians from all sides made in Northern Ireland, but some of the good qualities that were shown then were also exercised in South Africa, with the beginnings of a peace that brought together divided communities that were so far apart. That was also an example for South Africa as it moved forward, as it has been for other countries, some of which have been more successful than others. South Africa is an example of where Northern Ireland’s specific knowledge was used to its benefit.
I thank the hon. Member for sharing that insight. South Africa is indeed one of the examples that we could have chosen, but I am sure that Northern Ireland serves as an inspiration elsewhere and to many others in terms of how contested political status can be worked through. Perhaps most important of all, it reinforced the principle of consent—that the UK had no selfish or strategic interest in Northern Ireland and that the people of Northern Ireland had the absolute right to choose their own constitutional future, which in turn was recognised by the Irish Government removing their territorial claim on Northern Ireland from the Republic’s constitution. It represented a stepping back from some of the comforting certainties and absolutes that had dominated the discussion on the future of Northern Ireland to open up a space where, yes, identity still mattered—how could it not?—but where that political space could be shared more easily and where people’s birthright to identify and to be accepted as British or Irish, or even both, and to hold citizenship for both states could be a reality. As the late great John Hume said, it also allowed Northern Ireland the chance to take the gun out of Irish politics.
In this 25th anniversary year, it is inevitable that there will be a focus on the strand 1 institutions. Certainly, I have expressed on more than one occasion my own disappointment that the North South Ministerial Council remains in abeyance, that Stormont is not sitting at a time when political direction from that Government and from politicians directly elected by the people of Northern Ireland is needed, arguably, more than it has ever been, given some of the challenges that are faced by the people of Northern Ireland on day-to-day issues of public sector delivery. But there are still many positives to take from the place that we are at.
Although I have lived through the history of the Good Friday agreement in my lifetime, it is inevitably from the prism of a viewpoint from Scotland, rather than from the perspective of somebody who has lived in Northern Ireland. Although I am wary of making too many comparisons and observations, on my visits to Northern Ireland since taking up the spokespersonship, I have been struck by the differences between what we used to see in grainy television footage from years gone by and the reality of modern Northern Ireland on the ground, the prosperity and vibrancy across Northern Ireland.
That prosperity is undeniable, both on the ground and in the statistics. Again, how could it not be? The reason for this is well captured in a report by the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, which noted that the Good Friday agreement had brought about
“a growing impact on stability and certainty, both in Ireland and in Britain, and a positive impact on economic growth and investment.”
OCO Global noted in a recent report:
“Exports have more than doubled since 1998, with GDP per capita growth exceeding most other parts of the UK.”
So there is little doubt that the peace dividend has brought a prosperity dividend. As we have heard from earlier contributions and interventions, it is perhaps easy, particularly for those who have not lived through the past quarter century and have no direct memory of the troubles, to take some of the advances of that period for granted.
For all the prosperity, we still see signs of a divided society today—a society that is more divided that we would wish it to be, whatever strides forward have been taken. We can see it from the prosperity of central Belfast: the peace walls that still snake their way out through the communities around the centre. We can see that physical segregation. We can see the segregation that continues in schools and in housing. For all that Northern Ireland has firmly embraced peace, we have had a salutary reminder this week, with the raising of the level of the terrorist threat, that there are elements in Northern Irish society that remain and prosper in the shadows of criminality, who would not hesitate to return to violence and intimidation to advance their agendas, given the opportunity.
The future is very much better now than it was 25 years ago. There was optimism then. Perhaps in the 25 years, the optimism has not lived up to the levels of optimism we had, but there can be absolutely no doubt that Northern Ireland is a society transformed from then. The future is still something to be written. Agreements evolve and develop and circumstances change. There is no bigger circumstance than Brexit, which has caused significant turbulence in British-Irish relationships, particularly in Northern Ireland. It damaged trust, and much needs to be done to restore that trust. That requires mature leadership, and the effective operation of the strand 1 institutions can very much play a part in that.
It was inevitable that the circumstance of Brexit would force a reappraisal among people of these islands, particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland, about the political relationships that they would wish to have and the future to which they aspire. As that happens, it is very important to go back to the key element of the Good Friday agreement and to respect the principle of consent—just as those who brought the Good Friday agreement into existence a quarter of a century ago recognised that it had to be at the heart of progress in Northern Ireland.
My friend and colleague, the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), said that I might be called first. I did not expect to be called first, but this is pretty near the beginning, so thank you for that, Mr Deputy Speaker.
First, may I say a big thank you to all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions? They have been measured and careful. Mine will be the same, although there are some things that I need to say in relation to where we were at that time, and where we got to as the process moved forward.
The hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) referred to his 25 years of experience. I have a confession to make: I started out in 1985 as a councillor. I did 26 years as a councillor and 12 years as an MLA, and I have done 13 years as an MP. I think it is the start of my 39th year as an elected representative in May. When the hon. Gentleman gets to that point, he will have met his target. Have I matched the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn)? I suspect that I may not be anywhere near his achievements—but that is by the way.
Definitely not. I would not ask the hon. Gentleman to endure that—that would be too much of a challenge.
I say this very gently: I never cease to be amazed by people suggesting that the DUP is or was opposed to the Good Friday agreement. I want put that on the record, because it is important to do so. The reason for that suggestion is undoubtedly the fact that we did not support the Good Friday agreement in 1998. The events of the last 25 years cannot be collapsed into an appreciation of a world frozen in time in 1998. Not one year but 25 years have passed, and if we want to build on the Good Friday agreement to promote peace for the next 25 years, we must never lose sight of that fact.
Although that suggestion no doubt fits the caricatures through which many prefer to operate, the truth is that the DUP was never completely opposed to the Good Friday agreement. The agreement always contained significant elements that we supported, such as power sharing and cross-community consent. I understand exactly how the communities came together and brought that forward: two completely opposing traditions had to find a methodology through which we could agree on a democratic process and move forward.
Before I go into any more detail, I want to put on the record my thanks to all those people who served. The Secretary of State rightly referred to the contribution and service of the police officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the PSNI, and the soldiers of the Ulster Defence Regiment. I declare an interest, since I served in that regiment for three years and served 11 and a half years as a territorial soldier, so I was a part-timer for 14 and a half years. Their sacrifices and contributions were so significant to moving the peace process forward so that we could find a future that we can, hopefully, agree on for our children and our grandchildren. I have three boys, all married, and six grandchildren. I want my legacy to my six grandchildren to be a future where they can get on together, live in harmony and have equal rights with everyone. That is my choice.
The Good Friday agreement always contained significant elements that we supported, and I have referred to power sharing and cross-community consent. The reason the DUP could not support the Good Friday agreement in 1998 was that it involved the release of murderers from prison back into the community, where they could live alongside the families of those they had murdered. I know there are MPs in this House—I am one of them—who represent constituencies where people have been released from prison, causing great angst to people in the community, and those MPs have reflected that in the House. The Home Secretary has responded many times to questions that I and others have asked about that, so hon. Members can understand why we suffered angst over it at the time.
The Good Friday agreement also involved welcoming the political wing of the IRA into government at a time when the IRA had not decommissioned its weapons. Those were two critical issues for us at the time—two things to which the Democratic Unionist party could not and would not reconcile itself—and a large proportion of the population of Northern Ireland shared those concerns.
However, let me make it clear now that that did not mean we did not support the rest of the Good Friday agreement. Nor did it mean that we were unwilling to fight for the rest of the agreement. That commitment resulted in the seminal St Andrews agreement process, which we in the DUP thought—and I think the Government accepted—made the Good Friday agreement process even better, because it addressed the issue of decommissioning, which helped the democratic process to move forward.
The truth is that the Good Friday agreement, amended by the St Andrews agreement, lays a foundation for a stronger and better future. I believe that very strongly and so does our party. It forms the foundation for everything we have done in government since 2007 when, for the first time, we agreed to power sharing—an agreement that opened the door to a period of relative stability in the governance of Northern Ireland until 2017.
I was an MLA at the time, and I was very pleased to support my leader, Dr Paisley. I am glad that the Secretary of State referred to him, by the way, because we need to remember all the architects who made the process move forward, and he was one of them. Perhaps not everybody in our party had the same confidence that we had in 2007, but we went ahead with the process and, as it went forward, those who perhaps were not 100% convinced began to feel that the process was one to pursue and support.
The lesson that we can take from the 10-year period of relative stability from 2007 to 2017 is that it is only possible to make progress when we fashion an environment that both Unionists and nationalists can buy into. That is the whole secret of this process; it is the secret of where we are going and what we need to aim for. The journey from 1998 to 2007 was worth it because it created an arrangement that rose to that challenge.
If we want to secure a positive future from the vantage point of today—we can always look back with great knowledge, because we know what happened—we must recognise that, tragically, the delicate balance of our politics has been destabilised by the EU creating an imperative for the construction of a new arrangement that Unionists cannot buy into. Yet as I look to the future, I am very clear that the greatest threat to peace arises from the threat to the Good Friday agreement. We should be in no doubt that the threat is now acute.
If the United Kingdom is to honour its treaty obligations in the Good Friday agreement, they must be respected in domestic legislation. How, then, are the key commitments in that agreement given expression in UK law? I will refer to three Good Friday agreement commitments that are particularly important for Unionists. I want to put them on the record in a constructive fashion to lay out the scene and make a case.
The first is the principle of consent. That is given effect by the following text in the treaty:
“While a substantial section of the people in Northern Ireland share the legitimate wish of a majority of the people of the island of Ireland for a united Ireland, the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly…Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish; and…it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people”.
That is as clear as can be, and there should not be any issue. That commitment is clear and prohibits any change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland that involves a shift away from government by the UK towards more government by the Republic of Ireland, save with the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
People say that national opinion polls are not always entirely accurate. Well, there can be a variation of 3% either way. I will quote two polls just to put on the record the feelings of the people of Northern Ireland today. A national opinion poll in The Times in August last year indicated that about 50% of people in Northern Ireland wanted to stay in the United Kingdom and 27% wanted to go with a united Ireland, while the other 23% were non-aligned voters. The Belfast Telegraph did a similar poll on the non-aligned voters, and it found that 53% of those people wanted to stay within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The point that I am making is that the vast majority of people—be they big “U” Unionists or small “u” unionists —want to stay within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We believe that that is very important.
It was understood by the Unionist community that that protection was translated into domestic law—in section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998—and it was on that basis that we signed up to the Good Friday agreement, including the DUP from 2007. When the protocol was introduced, it effected a significant change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, partly suspending article VI of the Act of Union to protect the integrity of a new legal regime in Northern Ireland, made for and by a polity of which Northern Ireland is not a part and in whose legislature it has no representation. Specifically, the people of Northern Ireland found themselves subject to laws in 300 areas that would be made for them by a legislature representing the Republic of Ireland, in which they had no representation. Unionists went to court to get that struck down on the basis of the consent protection in the Good Friday agreement, as a significant change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, involving a shift in governance for some purposes from the UK towards the Republic of Ireland, had been effected without any attempt to secure prior sanction from the majority of the population. That was a significant change, and one that concerns us.
Government lawyers responded by arguing that the relevant domestic legislation had not given effect to the Good Friday agreement consent provision that prevents any change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, save with the consent of the majority of the population. Instead, they argued that the relevant legislation—section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998—prevents one specific change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, save with the consent of the majority of the population: the complete departure of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom to join the Republic of Ireland. The Court agreed with the Government lawyers.
The second protection that has now been ignored is the principle of cross-community consent. The relevant cross-community consent provisions in the Good Friday agreement commit the state parties to
“arrangements to ensure key decisions are taken on a cross-community basis”.
That was translated effectively into section 42 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that these protections no longer apply in relation to article 18 votes on the protocol by the Assembly because section 42 has to be read subject to section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. There have been completely disingenuous attempts to argue that this is acceptable because the agreement only requires cross-community consent for Stormont decisions if they pertain to devolved matters. That makes no sense at all and is terribly disappointing.
The principle that there can be no majority votes in Stormont when one community objects is not an innovation of the Good Friday agreement—it is a basic convention of Stormont politics of the past that goes back way beyond 1998 to 1972. The Parliament of Northern Ireland that operated from 1921 until 1971 did so on a majority basis, which was believed to have been a contributing factor to the outbreak of the troubles from 1969. I would subscribe that some of the ways that politics were done in those days contributed to the problems. When the UK Government intervened to terminate the Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1972, they sought to replace it with a power-sharing arrangement, and from 31 March 1972, it has been a principle of Northern Ireland governance that governance through Stormont must operate on the basis of non-majoritarianism.
The Good Friday agreement is not significant for limiting the application of that convention, to say that henceforth, from 1998, it is okay for majority decisions to be made from Stormont so long as they are not on devolved matters. Instead, its significance arises from its affirmation of the central importance of the convention that decisions from Stormont must be made on a cross-community basis if either community requires it.
The political problems flowing from the Supreme Court judgment are huge, and I want to put them on record. I welcome the fact that we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the agreement, but our reasons for being objective at that time were the two conditions that we sought relating to our concern over the release of prisoners and the holding of arms, as decommissioning had not taken place. One can only begin to appreciate the difficulty when one has regard for the nature of the majority decision that is proposed by article 18 of the protocol. The provision on cross-community consent is not invoked all the time; many votes at Stormont are on a majority basis. The point of the cross-community provision is that if ever either community feels that a measure brought before Stormont constitutes an existential threat to it, that community can be protected by invoking its right to use the cross-community consent mechanism. Mindful of that, we must ask, does the removal of the cross-community consent of article 18 matter that much?
The article 18 vote, which could happen any time from 1 November 2024, will not just be controversial but will be more controversial that any majority vote of the Parliament of Northern Ireland from 1921 to 1971. It brings a constitutional change not within Northern Ireland but between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, effecting a transfer of governance from the UK towards the Republic of Ireland, as laws that were once made by the UK are made in a context that does not involve the United Kingdom but does involve the Republic of Ireland. The proposal is that next year, rather than moving forward, we will unfortunately move back not simply to the early 1970s, which would be bad enough, but to an even more difficult time that has not yet been experienced. That would be catastrophic and cannot be allowed to happen.
The third protection of the Good Friday agreement that is of particular importance for Unionists is the commitment by the state parties to uphold the right of the people of Northern Ireland to
“pursue democratically national and political aspirations”.
That right has to be understood from the point when it was embraced in 1998-99, when the people of Northern Ireland had the right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations by standing for election to make all the laws to which they were subject. The protocol and the Windsor framework terminate this because they create a situation in which the people of Northern Ireland can no longer pursue democratically national and political aspirations in relation to 300 areas of law to which we are subject. So far, 640 laws have been imposed in relation to which our Good Friday agreement right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations has been taken away. These are now made for us by a polity of which we are not a member and in whose legislature we have no representation.
It is very striking that as we approach the 25th anniversary of the agreement, with the desire of many to celebrate— and it is right to celebrate it—the greatest attacks on the agreement are taking place right now. Some of the parties that were fully supportive of it seem to be pointing their fingers and asking questions. Going forward, these matters cannot be papered over. We must remember that progress in Northern Ireland has only ever occurred when it has been possible to fashion a framework that both Unionists and nationalists can buy into. I say it again: that was the secret of the process in 1998. That was the secret of the process in 2007, and it is the secret of the process today in 2023. It was the secret behind the 10 years of stability between 2007 and 2017, and its demise—especially since 2021—is entirely the result of ignoring the reality.
I finish with this: the UK Government now have a choice. I for one hope that they will learn the lessons of the 2007 to 2017 period, and will ensure going forward that the Good Friday agreement, amended by the St Andrews agreement, is upheld and not ignored. If they do not, then for many in Northern Ireland and for myself, I fear for the future of Northern Ireland.
It is a privilege to take part in this debate: what we may lack in numbers has been more than made up for by the quality of all the speeches we have heard thus far. Maybe it is a sign that we have taken what was achieved 25 years ago for granted, but I agree with at least two speakers who have said that we should never, ever, ever do that.
It is an occasion to say thank you, and many people have been thanked. There are two people who have not been mentioned so far: Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald. The 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement was hugely significant in the series of events that led up to what happened 25 years ago, because it embraced the legacy of the history that has bound Ireland and Britain together. It put to rest the idea that what was happening in Northern Ireland was a trouble in just a part of the United Kingdom that had no relationship to what had gone on over 800 years, from the original Norman invasion and the claim of the English kings to the land of Ireland, and the way in which the Irish people were denied their land, their voice, their language, their culture and their political representation during the course of those 800 bloody years.
John Major, of course, also helped to lay the foundation, and Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and Mo Mowlam have been mentioned already. We should add George Mitchell, as well as Jonathan Powell, who probably spent more time than anyone else on the shuttle from London to Belfast, back and forth to help lay the groundwork. As the Secretary of State said, countless other people—many others, some of whom have been mentioned—contributed to this unique moment.
I grew up in London. I watched the reporting of the troubles on the television and I read about it in the newspapers, and I will be frank: like many people, I despaired at what I was seeing. If you lived in London during the 1970s and 1980s and you got on the underground, you would look around the carriage to try to see if there were any bags that did not appear to belong to anyone who was travelling. For as long as I live, I will never forget the only time that I have heard a bomb go off. I was in bed, and it was this sound—you might think it is a bang, but as I heard it, it was a kind of deep thump. It appeared to be so close that I got out of bed, got dressed and went down to Kensington High Street, which is where I was living at the time. I thought that it must have been there; it turned out that it was two and a half miles away, but the sound had travelled through the night air.
If someone had said to me at that precise moment, “I know you may be despairing, Hilary, and look at all of this violence, but at some point in the future, the man who in opposition to the agreement that Margaret Thatcher signed famously stood up and said, ‘Never! Never! Never! Never!’ and a former leader of the provisional IRA will sit side by side with each other as the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of a power-sharing Government”, I would probably have said to that person, “I would love to live to see that, but I do not suppose I will.” But I did—we did. That tells us how extraordinary that moment was.
What was achieved in the run-up to the event we are celebrating was astonishing. It was inspirational and full of hope. I trust there is nobody in the country who has not watched the last episode of “Derry Girls”. I think the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) has referred to it in a previous speech. I watched that episode—anyone who did was profoundly moved—and I wept, I will be frank, because it conveyed the sense of hope that that process had brought to pass. For those who have not watched it, it is set against the background of the run-up to the referendum that took place in May in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. The episode just crystallised that sense of hope that the agreement gave to the people of both those places.
Having taken that step, those entrusted with political responsibility in Northern Ireland have a duty—I use that word advisedly—to make the institutions work. We have seen how one side and then the other has walked away, because they are capable of doing so, collapsing the institutions. I understand the reasons, perhaps more so in the latter case than in the former, in what began I think as a row over the renewable heat incentive in Northern Ireland. It was actually about other things—the Irish language Act, the honouring of agreements that had been entered into and so on—but there is a great responsibility from the legacy to make those institutions work, because the agreement has given something so precious to the people of Northern Ireland, which is not absolute peace, but peace that is so much better than what had happened before.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made reference to service, I was sitting here calculating. I served 20 years as a councillor and have served nearly 24 years here in this House, so I am heading for 44 years as an elected representative. We get elected, and I think the public expects us to turn up and do our job. Why do we work so hard to get elected if we are not going to turn up and do our job? There is also a responsibility on others not to do anything that will undermine what was achieved 25 years ago. That is why the Windsor framework was so important. The parties to the negotiations finally realised that as well as dealing with relations between Britain and the EU going forward, something very special was at stake.
The last point I want to make is about the lessons. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) made a terrific contribution from the Front Bench and reflected on some of those lessons. The first is that peace is built step by step. In thanking a whole load of people, one is going back in history over a long time. There are so many stages one could mention, but one is the sheer brilliance of the decommissioning process. If we think about it, the Provisional IRA was not under any circumstances going to hand over its weapons to the British Army it had been fighting. So great minds thought, “How the hell are we going to deal with this?” Someone came up with a brilliant idea: “What if we get someone independent and trusted, such as General de Chastelain?”—he has been referred to and should also be thanked—“and he will go to the places where the weapons have been put beyond use? He will come back and tell all of us, ‘Yes, I have seen them, they are there. They are not capable of being used any more.’” That was true for the weapons of the provisionals and of the loyalists.
When we are trying to build confidence step-by-step, the side that has experienced the violence of the other says, “They say they have given up, but how do I know?” There was a deep well of distrust, pain and bitterness because of all the lives that had been lost as a result of violence on all sides, yet that is how that part of the process was achieved.
The second lesson is persistence. All of those who did their bit over the years did not give up. I say to the Chair of the Select Committee, who reflected on what I think Tony Blair said about if Twitter had existed, that Twitter is not the real world, although we sometimes think it is. When we are looking for feedback on what we have been saying and we go on Twitter, there are plenty of people who will give us their opinion, but it is not the real world. Holding to a belief you have and your determination to achieve it is very important.
The third lesson is courage, which has been touched on. In conflicts and when people feel a wrong has been done, it is actually much easier to sit there and say, “I’m the victim, and you are my oppressor”, but then go around to the other side of the table—the mythical table—and the person there says, “No, no. I am the victim, and you are the oppressor.” We should reflect on the degree of courage that was required on the Unionist side—David Trimble and others—to say to the Unionist community, “You know what, they’re nearly half of the population, and we’re going to have to share power with them.” We should also reflect on the courage it took on the Provisional IRA side—Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams—to say, “You know what, lads, we cannot bomb Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom.” Those were two very courageous things to have said and steps to have taken at great personal risk, but without them, this would not have happened. The other lesson there is that nobody can want peace more than the parties to the conflict themselves—nobody. The outside involvement, with the efforts of the Americans and others, was hugely important, but in the end the parties to the conflict have to recognise that the game is up and that they have to compromise in the interests of peace. Of course, there is also leadership, because it is leadership that enables courage to turn into achievement.
This is one of the legacies of the Good Friday agreement. There is a wonderful organisation called Forward Thinking, which some Members in the House may know. It works in the middle east to try to build discussion and relationships between the parties to the conflict there. One of the things it does is bring people to Northern Ireland and the Republic; it says, “Sit down and listen to what people who were in effect fighting each other 25 years and more ago can tell you about how they transformed the lives of the people in their community by showing persistence, courage and political leadership.”
The final thing I want to say is that it is in many ways easy to say no, and it is sometimes really difficult to say yes, yet when we do so, just look at what can be achieved. That, I think for all of us, is the true legacy of that miraculous Good Friday 25 years ago.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). Following on from the two previous speakers, I can offer only 30 years of continuous service in elected office. [Interruption.] I am on a slippery slope.
I may be the only person in this debate who was actually present in the room when the Good Friday agreement was concluded, so perhaps I can give some of the inside track on what happened. I suppose the most relevant thing to say is that we have named this agreement the Good Friday agreement. Officially, it is the Belfast agreement, but around the world it is known as the Good Friday agreement. That largely came about by accident, because the deadline was set for 5 o’clock on the previous day—the Thursday. Members know what we are like with deadlines in Northern Ireland, but if everything had gone to time, this would have been called the Holy Thursday or the Maundy Thursday agreement, which perhaps does not have quite the same ring to it. Given some of the narrative we have had over the past 25 years, I am not quite sure whether the Judas Iscariot moment would have added to the notions of betrayal we have had from some limited quarters in those 25 years.
What happened was that the officials essentially stopped the clock for 24 hours and pretended everything was going to plan. With true civil service efficiency, however, the catering contract was only booked until 5 o’clock on the Thursday, so the delegates were deprived of food and water for the final 24 hours, although I believe some people did sneak out. At that time we were just starting to benefit from the introduction of 24 hour supermarkets in Northern Ireland, and some people did smuggle in supplies at 4 o’clock in the morning. That was the final drive towards getting this over the line, but of course, as has been alluded to, there are many other people who did the hard graft in getting us to that point. I thank the Secretary of State for commenting on my party’s role, in particular that of Lord Alderdice, our leader then.
Mention has rightly been made of those from the various Governments, but I will single out one person who made an enormous personal sacrifice in that week: the then Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. It is not widely known that his mother died at the start of that week, but he stuck with the negotiations, given their importance, and only briefly went back down to Dublin for her funeral before returning to ensure that the talks got over the line.
I will try to be measured in my comments as today is not an occasion to get into some of the deep political discussions we are currently having, although I will allude to them, I hope in a calm way. It is important to acknowledge our successes. The agreement was essentially about the three-stranded process—the internal governance of Northern Ireland and the north-south and east-west aspects—alongside the principle of consent, which is crucial for the constitutional issue, equality and human rights, and reform of policing and criminal justice. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, some people had to accept some difficult things, while others, I say with respect, decided to take a different view around issues such as the early release of prisoners.
The agreement is now the de facto constitution of Northern Ireland. When Northern Ireland was founded in 1921 there was a certain degree of controversy, and there were difficult periods during most of the existence of the previous Stormont Parliament. There was lack of equality in Northern Ireland; equally, Northern Ireland was not recognised by large sections of the nationalist community. The trade-off was, for the first time, in effect, that the nationalist section of the community accepted the legitimacy of Northern Ireland, alongside the Irish Government removing articles 2 and 3 of their constitution, in return for power sharing and equality. There was recognition of the principle of consent that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK until and unless the majority decide otherwise. That is in essence the Good Friday agreement.
Considerable progress has been made over the past 25 years. We have a much more peaceful society now, but it is important that we recognise that that is now qualified because of the threat from both dissident republicans and loyalist paramilitaries. There is also continued paramilitary organised crime activity and control of communities. We are also a much more prosperous society than in the 1990s and earlier. If anyone who visited Northern Ireland in the ’70s and ’80s were to return now, they would be struck by the huge transformation, but that must also be qualified: while many have had new, life-changing opportunities, large sections of the population have still been left behind, with a lack of opportunity to transform their lives, and we must be seized of that.
We have also seen huge diversity in two key respects. First, a lot of people have come to Northern Ireland from other parts of the world. They have made it their home and been made very welcome. Secondly, there has been a change in conceptions of identity—a number of speakers have alluded to that—and how people see themselves. People have moved away from traditional notions of identity, in particular the two communities model. That has been seen through the growth of my party, but there are many other factors as well. It is particularly notable among young people.
There is unfinished business around victims and legacy— I will not dwell on that point today; we will debate it in due course in this Chamber—and on what needs to be done to address the Bill of Rights aspect of the agreement. We have seen large steps forward on reconciliation and moves towards a shared and integrated society, but we are not there entirely just yet. We still have large patterns of segregation in our society. Our children are still largely educated separately and too many people live in what are deemed to be single-identity areas. We have seen some progress on integrated schools and mixed housing in recent years, but there is a lot more to do. And of course, we have the current political instability, with the absence of the institutions. It is worth noting that over the past 25 years the institutions have been operational for only 60% of the time. They have been down for 40% of that time, which is not really tenable in what we would like to see as a functioning, stable democracy.
I will not dwell too much on Brexit, but it is relevant to the debate. I often say that Northern Ireland can only really work through sharing and interdependence. For that, we have needed open free borders to balance north-south and east-west flows, alongside internal power sharing. Brexit poses a challenge in that regard. There is no perfect solution to mitigating its impact, but I believe that the original protocol provided a soft landing for us. I welcome the Windsor framework in providing an even softer landing for Northern Ireland from those particular challenges. There are still no guarantees that it will work for Northern Ireland. We have to keep ploughing on and address ongoing issues as they come along, but I believe we are now in a much better place.
We need to be very conscious of the impact of what the Government may do in due course on the European convention on human rights. Even if they remain a party to the Council of Europe in that respect, if barriers are put up to people accessing their rights under the convention, that will run contrary to the agreement itself. It is worth stressing that human rights have been crucial to the reform of policing and criminal justice.
Sadly, as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement we do not have functioning institutions. My party has consistently called for reform. When I say consistently, I am going right back to 1998. We strongly supported the Good Friday agreement as a new start for Northern Ireland, but even at the time we were conscious of the, shall we say, rather rigorous form of power sharing—or consociationism, to give it its formal academic term—and the system of designations, whereby people had to sign in as either a Unionist or nationalist, or by default become “another”. My identity, according to the agreement, is “another”, rather than any positive affirmation.
The agreement does allow for reform. It can and should evolve to take account of changed circumstances. Reform can take place in any context, but it is particularly vital now, with the institutions down. It remains to be seen if and when they will be restored over the coming weeks or months, or ever, depending on how we analyse the current situation. Some people will make the case that reform cannot take place in the absence of stable functioning institutions. I would say that, instead, we perhaps need to have reform first in order to get stable functioning political institutions. We can return to that tension on another occasion. In a similar way, people talk about the need to take forward reform by consensus, but if we are talking about trying to challenge the current vetoes that certain parties have and we give them a veto over the process of removing their vetoes, how likely are they to give up those vetoes? There has to be a role for the two Governments to try to drive that process forward.
There are three areas of reform that I wish to highlight. The first is on the system of designations. We need to move away from that towards a system of weighted majority on key decision making that still provides cross-community protection, but without locking ourselves into the rigorous notion of identity, which sometimes can become a bit of a straitjacket. We should move towards some form of voluntary coalition, or a coalition of the willing, where parties move in and out of government. Again, putting in place a threshold of support to ensure that any Government are cross-community in their nature would be more in keeping with how coalition Governments are formed in other places around the world. Before we even get to that type of governance, in the event of a blockage on the current restoration of the Executive, a much more limited reform could be put in place if a party decides not to take up the place of either First Minister or Deputy First Minister, to let the next party—at present my own party, but that is not the motivation—take office and see if they can establish a Government of sorts. Northern Ireland badly needs its Government restored.
Finally, I want to talk about a quarter of a century of prosperity. People have rightly said that the past 25 years have been about the consolidation of peace. We have made huge strides in that regard, but Northern Ireland is still not living up to its potential in respect of prosperity. We first need to ensure that we have political stability. We must also make sure that we invest in the various drivers of the economy and in particular skills. We have the potential, under the Windsor framework, to become a focal point of inward investment, given our advantages of dual market access. We need to make sure that that becomes a reality. I do not envy the Secretary of State’s job in that regard. A budget has to be struck for Northern Ireland in the very near future to give certainty to Government Departments. But at present, we are talking about a burning platform, and a cycle of cuts. If that is not arrested, we will look towards decline.
In that context, my party is keen to have a conversation with the Government about some form of public service transformation fund or prosperity fund for Northern Ireland, to try to break this vicious cycle. There has been a history of generous packages from the UK Government that have not been, shall we say, fully taken advantage of or have been squandered in different ways. We must learn why that has happened. We must recognise that any generosity from the Treasury to give Northern Ireland the chance to build on the past 25 years will need to come with quite strict conditions.
At present, I do not see any way forward to break through that cycle, to do proper investment, to save and transform public services, to invest in skills and to take advantage of opportunities, unless we have that particular helping hand. I appreciate that that is difficult, particularly in the current public expenditure climate, but I encourage the Government to give that serious consideration. That is difficult if there is no clear indication among the parties that they are on the brink of restoring the Assembly, but as and when that move begins, I hope that the Government will be a willing partner. The ball should be in the court of the parties to come up with a coherent plan. I am up for that challenge, along with my colleagues.
The Good Friday agreement is one of the greatest achievements of a Labour Government. I am proud to stand here today to celebrate the 25th anniversary of that historic moment when communities came together and took a leap of faith for a better future.
I would like to reflect on the particular role that women played in the peace process. For centuries, women in Northern Ireland have been crossing divides and coming together for the greater good. Nowhere was that more prevalent than during the troubles. During that time, extraordinary women stood up for peace. Those women came from fundamentally different backgrounds, but their aim was always clear.
Among the titans of the Northern Ireland women’s movement is May Blood, Baroness Blood of Blackwatertown, who sadly passed away last autumn. May left a huge legacy, from her tireless campaigning for workers’ rights to her work in building peace in Northern Ireland. She helped to set up the cross-community Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition in 1996 and was a tireless campaigner for integrated education. May went on to become the first woman from Northern Ireland to be appointed to the House of Lords, and my party was honoured that May sat as a Labour peer.
Another significant figure in the peace process is Pat Hume, who over decades worked side by side with her husband, John Hume, one of the architects of the peace process. Pat ran John’s constituency office from the early days of the civil rights movement, through the troubles and the Good Friday agreement, until John retired in 2005. Pat was his backbone and his trusted adviser. Today, the John and Pat Hume Foundation recognises the critical role that Pat played alongside John, and reflects their legacy by working to support and inspire leadership for peaceful change.
As a woman in the Labour party, and as a north-east MP, I could not stand here without paying tribute to the former Member of Parliament for Redcar and one of the Secretary of State’s predecessors, my friend and colleague Mo Mowlam. Mo was a giant of the Labour movement and a friend to everyone on the island of Ireland who stands on the side of peace. I am so glad to be able to say that I had the privilege of meeting and working with Mo as one of our north-east MPs. I remember well her inimitable, no-nonsense style when she met Unison members in the north-east.
Appointed Secretary of State on Labour’s victory in 1997, she would go on to play a fundamental role in bringing about the agreement, with a no-nonsense approach that brought everyone into the discussion, regardless of belief. She managed to break through in a way that none of her predecessors, all of them men, had been able to do.
Of course, to say that Mo made such progress simply because she was a woman would be to downplay the tremendous skills and determination that she brought to the role. However, as a woman, her actions had greater reverberations. When she walked into the notorious Maze prison in 1998, just by stepping through the door, she showed how serious she was about bringing peace to Northern Ireland. On that visit, she was able to achieve exactly what she had gone in to do.
Mo managed to achieve all of that while living with her illness. It is a testament to her that her name is still so deeply associated with the Good Friday agreement, 25 years after it was signed and 18 years since she died. It is quite right that that is the case.
The greatest legacy of Mo, Pat Hume, May Blood and the countless other women who fought for peace is not simply peace itself. It is the prosperity, progress and confidence of Northern Ireland today. Mo once said:
“People working together can overcome many obstacles, often within themselves, and together can make the world a better place.”
I hope that in this place and in Northern Ireland all communities will continue to channel that to deliver the bright future Northern Ireland deserves. I was so glad to hear from the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State about Lauren Bond, a Member of the Youth Parliament, who will continue the role of women in the contribution to peace in Northern Ireland in the future.
It is a real honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). I would like to read out something that Mo Mowlam said about another civic group that was instrumental in the peace process, the Quakers. In a speech at Friends House in London in 2002, she said:
“They did an incredible amount in a house where everyone knew they could be trusted. I wouldn’t have been able to talk to such a cross-section of people except for being able to meet in that house. They told me who to listen to. Without them my life would have been much tougher than it was.”
We have heard so many contributions today from Members across the House. Success has many fathers, but I think we all remember where we were at that moment in history: the Good Friday agreement in 1998. That was the period when I joined the Labour party, because it was a very exciting time for us on the progressive side of politics. It was a time of great hope, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said. We all remember that sense, as the weather warmed up and the spring came, of moving towards something positive. After that came the decommissioning process—it was exciting to see strong men handing in weapons—followed by the investment in public services, the good-quality policing and then the private investment coming in.
As many hon. Members have mentioned, we know that there is also a certain fragility, so it is quite pleasing that this debate comes just one week after we walked through the Division Lobby to support the Windsor framework. It also comes just before the April anniversary and the visit by President Biden, which will perhaps echo the phone calls that President Clinton made to encourage the parties and recall that momentous occasion.
Senator Mitchell, whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central mentioned, said:
“I believe there’s no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. They’re created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how hateful, no matter how hurtful, peace can prevail.”
It is down to the people of Northern Ireland that that has happened, so this is a very special anniversary. Those of us who watched the agreement happen and wanted it to happen hope that we also played a role.
I want to touch on a point that has been very present in today’s debate, which is about process. There is a sense —as you will recognise, Mr Deputy Speaker, as a great supporter of the peace process in Cyprus—that it is never concluded. Hon. Members have spoken today of ongoing fears. The security threat assessment is “severe”. The legacies remain. Certain individuals in a conflict situation will always be invested in non-peaceful survival. Some people will want to go back to the period of the troubles. We think of the tragic death of the journalist, Lyra: when such a young person is affected, it really brings it home that we are not there yet.
I want also to speak briefly about the local environment, having come through local government myself. I will not go through how many years I was in local government—it is not as many as for some colleagues—but we know the importance of the local. I was pleased in 2019 to be part of the decriminalisation of abortion for women in Northern Ireland, but I also recognise that that can only be truly meaningful in a public services context when legislators in Stormont make it a 100% reality. There is still so much work to be getting on with.
I commend the work of educationists to bring in a truly integrated education service. It will be in future generations that we see the fruits of the labour of this generation. I ask the Secretary of State to set out his views on whether a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, which has been discussed over the years, will be taken forward in the near future. Does he think that there is a future for that idea? What is his personal assessment?
What is the Secretary of State’s view on clashes on the European convention on human rights, given that that is a live debate in our own Chamber, and given that the convention is an integral part of the Good Friday agreement? I think that in both parts of Ireland, there is a sense that a modernisation is occurring, and I would say that some of that is due to the influence of friends in Europe. European friends have often asked me what is happening to people in Ireland, and much of their negotiation with the UK has been about their desire to see progress on securing the peace in the two bits of Ireland.
I hope that the Secretary of State will reflect on those questions. It is always good to have an anniversary, but it is also always good to be forward-looking and to issue challenges for progress towards a more peaceful and rights-based future for the people in the wonderful place that is Northern Ireland.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. I also welcome the comments of the Secretary of State, as well as those of the respective Front Benchers and the many other Members, from both traditions and from none, who have put their points so thoughtfully and succinctly.
I would hope that this House is united in wanting to protect the legacy of the Northern Ireland peace process. A return to sectarian violence is surely unthinkable, although I heed the warnings of the Secretary of State and others that we ought not to take peace for granted. We should not be complacent. I hope we can recommit ourselves to ensuring that the institutions established under the Good Friday agreement are able to work, but to protect the legacy of the agreement we must ensure not only that the political institutions work, but that they uphold civil rights, justice and essential freedoms.
I will focus my remarks on the issues faced by journalists and the free press in Northern Ireland. Let me first refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and also mention that I am honoured to be the co-chair of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group. The NUJ represents journalists, photographers and other media professionals in both the UK and the Republic.
The democratic process in Northern Ireland, like that in all democratic nations, depends on the ability of local and national media to report what is going on in our communities. We have seen that recently following the BBC’s threat to undermine Radio Foyle’s much-loved breakfast show—an issue that has been raised in previous debates by the hon. Members for North Down (Stephen Farry) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The outcry from listeners led to journalists’ balloting for strike action. That strength of feeling, along with the local connection, is a particular feature of local radio, which makes it one of our most trusted news sources.
I was interested by what the Secretary of State said about the discussion he had with John Major. John Major had, I think, suggested that if social media had existed 25 years ago, the Good Friday agreement might not have been possible. Honest, locally sourced and locally relevant news matters more than ever. While journalists everywhere are called on to report fairly, without fear or favour, to be a news journalist in Northern Ireland still requires real courage. That is an attribute that several Members have referred to, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). Every journalist who does this work deserves the admiration of the House.
The Good Friday agreement has not stopped the continued violence or serious threats that journalists sadly experience for simply doing their jobs. Often, the threats come from paramilitaries or associated criminal gangs. One of the most egregious examples was the killing of Sunday World journalist Martin O’Hagan, who was shot and murdered in cold blood in 2001 while walking back from a night out in Lurgan with his wife, who sadly passed away just last year, some 21 years later, with the killers still not having been brought to justice. This is despite a former soldier—
I am grateful for your advice, Mr Deputy Speaker. I did seek advice from the Speaker’s Office in relation to the references that I was going to make, but I will adhere to your updated advice.
I am not going to comment on the case but, from speaking to BBC Northern Ireland’s “Spotlight” programme, it is clear that there are indications that the police service has more than a good idea of those who are responsible. Despite more than two decades having elapsed, the family, friends and colleagues of Martin O’Hagan are still waiting and calling for justice to be served. In my view—and, I think, in the view of the majority of right hon. and hon. Members—we cannot allow journalists in Northern Ireland, or anywhere in our country, to be intimidated and murdered with impunity. To date, the British Government have sadly resisted calls from the National Union of Journalists and others to launch a fresh, independent inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the killing. I would like, respectfully, to reiterate that request to the Secretary of State today, because it is the only way that the disturbing questions raised by the case can be answered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) referred to the case of Lyra McKee, who was shot dead in 2019 while reporting on the Creggan riots. Our thoughts and prayers remain with her partner, family and colleagues, who continue to mourn her loss. I will not mention the details of the case, because I understand that the sub judice rules preclude me from doing that, and as you rightly point out, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is an ongoing case and two individuals are currently on trial charged with murder. However, I think it will be in order if I quote the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, Michelle Stanistreet, and join her in paying tribute to Lyra’s life:
“Whilst Lyra’s life and career was cruelly cut short, her legacy lives on. Lyra’s spirit and passion for journalism inspires our collective campaigning to thwart those who seek to undermine the vital function that journalism plays in our society, and through our commitment to ensure that journalists are able to go about their work safely, free from attack, intimidation and harassment.”
The NUJ has welcomed the British Government’s initiative in setting up the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, which brings together representatives of the Government, journalism, policing, prosecution services and civil society to work in collaboration to ensure that journalists in the UK can operate free from threats and violence. However, we must also call out the intimidation of journalists by the state and the police. I am speaking here about the wrongful arrest of investigative journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey. Disappointingly, those arrests were carried out by officers from my force, Durham police. Trevor and Barry produced an award-winning documentary, “No Stone Unturned”, about the Loughinisland massacre towards the end of the troubles. The two journalists brought a successful judicial review challenging the legality of the search warrants that were issued. This led to the Police Service of Northern Ireland deleting copies of the records obtained from their mobile phones and laptops, as well as to a substantial award in damages.
The police’s investigation of Trevor and Barry was flawed. I recall meeting Trevor and Barry here in the Palace of Westminster. A photograph was taken of our meeting, which led to an unprofessional and abusive call to my constituency office by a senior Durham police officer involved in the investigation, who would go on to discredit himself further with emails attacking the courts and the Lord Chief Justice.
Finally, the journalist Patricia Devlin, who has written for the Sunday World and other publications, was subjected to a vile campaign of intimidation and abuse, including a social media message threatening her baby. Her name was later chillingly spray-painted on a wall, along with graffiti depicting the crosshairs of a gun target. Following a manifestly inadequate investigation, Patricia made a complaint to the police ombudsman, after which the PSNI reinvestigated the crime and tracked down the identity of the social media user responsible. However, the prosecuting authorities decided not to proceed to trial. Although I cannot make any inferences about the specific circumstances of this case, I express the concern of journalists, particularly those in Northern Ireland, and their trade union that there are far too many incidents in which the perpetrator is known to the authorities but, to protect undercover intelligence assets, victims are denied justice and protection.
I hope we can protect the legacy of the Good Friday agreement by recommitting ourselves to both its terms and its spirit. I ask the House and the Government to do everything possible to uphold the civil rights, justice and essential freedoms that all our communities deserve to enjoy.
It gives me great pleasure to wind up this debate for the official Opposition as a Labour MP, as we acknowledge the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—one of the greatest achievements of any Labour Government and perhaps one of the greatest achievements of any British Government during the second half of the 20th century.
Voices from both sides of the House have recognised the work of our predecessors. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), the shadow Secretary of State, said, this place must be a voice for all of Northern Ireland, which is why it is so important that all our voices have come together today.
As a female voice in the shadow Northern Ireland team, I associate myself with the eloquent remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) about the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and former Member for Redcar, Mo Mowlam. Whenever I have discussed the Belfast/Good Friday agreement on my visits to Northern Ireland, Mo’s name has been quick to come up, and always in a positive light. Eighteen years since her passing, she continues to define Labour’s commitment to the agreement and to Northern Ireland as a whole.
During my visits to Northern Ireland, I have met people who well remember the darkest days of the troubles, as well as the young adults and children who never had to live through them. I have spoken to people from both communities and all walks of life, but the common denominator is that none takes peace for granted. That is testament to the hard work and strength of everyone who played a role in securing the agreement, whether or not their signature is at the bottom of the page. The troubles may be in the past, but the significance of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is still shaping lives today.
The hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, spoke about the “bravery” of politicians being needed today as much as it was 25 years ago. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) spoke about “persistence”. Those two words have shone through today, as we have heard about the bravery and persistence of our leaders in the past and their brilliance in bringing together communities.
I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who highlighted the women of the peace process. It made me think back to the anniversary celebrations at Speaker’s House, which many of us have spoken about today. The finest contribution of that evening, as we have all agreed—I know that the present company will not mind my saying this—came from its only female speaker, Lauren Bond, the Member of the Youth Parliament for North Antrim. She said she was shocked to find out during her school history lessons that women “didn’t exist” until the 2000s. I hope that as we look to the next 25 years that can and will change.
Over the next 25 years, I hope we can change the narrative on Northern Ireland. Too often, it is seen as a place over the sea that we do not learn about or care about, but we should and we have to. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement provides so much that the rest of us can learn from, in how we got from the troubles to that historic day in 1998. Northern Ireland has so much to offer—what an absolutely brilliant place it is. It has the friendliest people I have met, present company excepted—[Laughter.] I have seen some of the most spectacular scenery there and heard some of the most fascinating and amazing stories there, as shadow Minister—I am not just talking about those from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for his 39 years as an elected representative, as well as for his love of his wife, his family and his grandchildren, and of Dolly Parton!
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), who has also been there to see at first hand the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. I pay tribute to his 30 years in politics. As he has said, it would be naive to pretend that there are not issues that still need addressing in Northern Ireland. As a result of some of today’s contributions, I do not think any of us are under the illusion that this agreement fixed everything. However, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was about more than just the issues that were there before 10 April 1998. The agreement looks to the future and legacy is a huge part of it. It was never there just to draw a line under years of fighting and forget about them. Those involved in securing it recognised that this would be an ongoing process.
An embodiment of that legacy aspect is shown in what I have seen in the integrated schools I have visited. Those establishments are enacting change just by existing. I made a recent visit to Oakgrove Integrated College, where I met the then acting principal, now principal, John Harkin. He is an incredible man, and the young people I met there were also incredible. They asked me to light the peace candle. When I did so, I spoke to him about the impact of the troubles outside Northern Ireland. I spoke about my constituent Robert Davies and the impact of his death; he was shot at Lichfield City station while he was training in the Army. Having those conversations and talking about the impact on the community of Pontarddulais, and on his parents, family and friends, was very important for me, as the local Member of Parliament, but it was also important for those at the college to hear about the family. So I welcome the commitment the Secretary of State made in his opening speech to invest in the expansion of integrated education, because I believe it is the way forward.
All of us here today, those of us who have a political connection to Northern Ireland, those who are from Northern Ireland or those who simply have a love for it, have a responsibility to keep the Belfast/Good Friday agreement moving forward. We need to support those who live with the trauma of their experiences of the troubles. We need to promote cross-community engagement. We need to ensure that the children of today and of the future know what it took to bring peace, and that they know that further progress and change are within their grasp. It is the Government’s duty to invest in the young people, because they are the future of Northern Ireland.
I wish to end my contribution with a quote from Mo Mowlam’s book, which has already been used by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). It is a quote that aptly sums up the peace process and one that we should also apply to our work today.
“People working together can overcome many obstacles, often within themselves, and by doing so can make the world a better place.”
With the leave of the House, I will take this opportunity to say thank you to right hon. and hon. Members for their many and varied contributions to this debate. Indeed, I feel blessed to have listened to them. This House is at its best when it comes together in a spirit of bipartisanship, and, today, we have seen so much support, so many good speeches and so much experience—113 years’ experience in three speakers alone. I wish to thank them all for their contributions.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, reminded us about the all-island nature of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I can say to him that we do remain committed to that and to all its three strands. Indeed, one of the Prime Minister’s first engagements as Prime Minister was in Blackpool at the British Irish Council, which was established under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I think he was the first British Prime Minister to attend that summit for well over a decade to demonstrate how seriously this Government are taking all the institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
The hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) reminded us how the Belfast/Good Friday agreement has been instructive and, to this day, continues to have value to those involved in peace processes across the globe. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) gave us the benefits of his experience—he might just have passed his apprenticeship. I thank him for his speech, its contents and the way that he delivered it. I know that we need to have a long conversation, but I am absolutely sure that we will get there in the end.
The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) spoke with true emotion and sincerity. I have learned many a lesson from him in my time in this place. Indeed, he was the speaker immediately after my maiden speech in this House, and I have always tried to take his advice from that speech—well, at least some of it. It was a pleasure to listen to him today. The elements of the lessons that he distilled about the step-by-step nature of peace and not giving up were unbelievably wise words.
The hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) knows that we are involved in negotiations to get Stormont up and running, but I am not convinced that starving people in the last 24 hours of that is the right way forward this time. But he has experience of the negotiations, and he is a wise man; he knows what he is talking about. He, too, gave an excellent speech, and I will talk a bit about reform in a moment. The hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) talked about the women, especially Mo Mowlam, behind the peace process. I thank her for her excellent speech and I am so glad that other Members also raised the women behind the agreement. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) mentioned that success has many fathers. I think the complete quote ends, “but failure is an orphan”, although we should add to it that success, especially in this case, also has many mothers. It was good to be reminded of that in her speech.
The hon. Lady asked me a couple of questions, and I will certainly try to answer at least one of them. I completely understand that the ECHR is integral to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The Prime Minister has said that we will honour the international obligations that we have made. I hope the hon. Lady and the House will see, as the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill travels through its remaining stages in the other place and when it gets here, that my overall aim is to ensure that that Bill, whose compliance with the ECHR is currently questionable, will be compliant. The proof will be in the pudding as those amendments come forward.
The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) brought a different angle to the debate. I know Northern Ireland is a very difficult place to operate as a journalist, but it has a brilliant tradition of journalism; some of the greatest have come from Northern Ireland and, indeed, I believe it has a vibrant journalistic democracy in itself. I welcome what he said about the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists and I understand the points that he made about the case.
I wish to say thank you in particular to the hon. Members for Hove (Peter Kyle) and for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), not only for their thoughtful remarks about the agreement, the journey to it and the importance of protecting it and upholding it, but equally for their wise counsel and advice and the way that we can work across the Chamber. I hope we demonstrate that we do that, because we have the same ambition here: to honour this agreement, to mark it well and to ensure that we learn and move forward positively with it.
As I mentioned in my opening remarks, the agreement was unlocked through the achievement, bravery and dedication of a great many people over many years. We managed to name some of them, but there are many that we failed to name. I would like to think that over the course of the next few weeks, as we go to many different occasions to mark 10 April 1998, they will all get a mention—or at least that we can bow our heads in deference to those who travelled that journey to get to peace and sign that agreement.
The hon. Member for North Down talked about the need for reform of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and some of its institutions. I can quite understand where he is coming from, and why voices in Northern Ireland and his party are reflecting on the current institutional arrangements and how they work, but he will forgive me if my primary focus at this time is the restoration of those institutions.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I believe the Windsor framework delivers stability for the people of Northern Ireland, protects Northern Ireland’s place in the Union and preserves the balance in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It also provides the Northern Ireland Assembly with a powerful say. It is now up to the parties in Northern Ireland to decide how they want to move forward together to create a better future for the nation. The Government remain open to hearing reform proposals that are consistent with the core principles in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and command support across the communities.
The hon. Member for Strangford would expect me to say this, but he raised some points relating to Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, and I am very clear that the United Kingdom Government are proud of Northern Ireland and its place in our Union, and we will do all we can to support it. Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK as long as its people wish it to be, on the basis of the principle of consent, which he quite rightly highlighted in his speech.
I am delighted that we all, right hon. and hon. Members of this House, have had the opportunity today to share reflections on and recollections of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, so close to its 25th anniversary on 10 April. This is a truly historic moment in Northern Ireland’s story. It is not hyperbole to say that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement has had a transformational impact on Northern Ireland, ending 30 years of armed conflict, ushering in an era of stability and prosperity, supporting progress towards reconciliation and so much more.
As we look forward to the coming 25 years, the UK Government are committed to the agreement in all respects, to marking this anniversary sensitively and to ensuring that Northern Ireland benefits from an even more prosperous and more reconciled future. I know that ambition is shared by all sides of the House, as we have seen very clearly in this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the 25th anniversary of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.