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Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Volume 820: debated on Thursday 7 April 2022

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they have taken to strengthen the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

My Lords, first, I thank all those who will be contributing to this short debate.

The affairs of Northern Ireland should be the subject of frequent discussion in both Houses of Parliament, yet the sad reality is that over much of the century that has elapsed since the establishment of Northern Ireland, with its own devolved institutions, Parliament has absolved itself from its obligation to think about how it can contribute to Northern Ireland’s welfare, except at times of crisis. The problem is summed up in a phrase that my noble friend Lord Empey often uses: “Devolve and forget.” The error is easily made, and constant vigilance is needed to avoid it.

Of course, it is most unlikely that excited voices will ever be heard on the streets of Belfast saying, “The House of Lords is discussing Northern Ireland today!” But our fellow country men and women are entitled to expect that their Parliament will be watching carefully over their interests, brimming with good will towards all who look for peace and stability in their community.

There is a particular inducement to seek a debate on Northern Ireland at this time: the knowledge that my noble friend Lord Caine will reply to it on behalf of the Government. My noble friend immersed himself in the affairs of Northern Ireland some 35 years ago and, marvellously, he shows no sign of wanting to withdraw from his immersion. He is the very embodiment of the strong union which is at the heart of the debate today.

My noble friend and his fellow Ministers need vigorous and steadfast support from their officials as they implement the commitment to strengthen the union given in the Conservative manifesto at the last election. There have been times when the Northern Ireland Office has seemed more interested in promoting good relations with the Irish Government than in working to make the union stronger. Is the energy of the Northern Ireland Office now firmly directed towards strengthening the union?

The hope of seeing the creation of a stronger union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland—to serve the interests of unionists and non-unionists alike more effectively—has been one of the themes of my life since I first started to think about Anglo-Irish relations as a whole, and Ulster’s place in them, as an undergraduate at Cambridge long, long ago. This hope was reinforced by working for Airey Neave in the years before his murder. The 43rd anniversary of his death occurred last week, on 30 March. No one has ever been punished for this crime; its perpetrator is said to be running a bar in Mallorca adorned with tatty republican materials. Airey Neave believed that Northern Ireland ought to be high on the political agenda throughout our country. I wonder if, even after all the years that have passed, that is a lesson which has been properly learned.

However, are supporters of the union really entitled to feel sure that they are right when they say that it is the only constitutional framework in which peace and stability can be secured? “Not so”, comes at once the retort from so many of those who are not unionists, and they are, of course, substantial in number. Throughout my lifetime, the belief that the substantial minority would inevitably become a majority has been rife in all parts of the United Kingdom. Firm predictions of the constitutional change that was bound to follow have been made since the 1960s. They can be found in official Whitehall files and in the private papers of British politicians of all parties. It came to be widely agreed that the life expectancy of the union was bound to be short. What was the point of working to secure its future when its dissolution was steadily approaching?

This deep-seated assumption rested on nothing more substantial than a high Catholic birth rate, but Catholics are by no means instinctive republicans, dedicated to the proposition that the union must be overthrown. Today, as a result of the Belfast agreement, an Irish identity can be given proper expression within Northern Ireland. Attitudes have become more complex. The 2011 census showed that no more than 25% of those from a Catholic background felt themselves to be exclusively Irish. This surely is a point of considerable significance. It indicates that there are many people beyond the ranks of avowed unionists who will accept the union—and, in doing so, strengthen it—if they can see that the balance of practical advantage is in its favour.

There is a great deal that the Government can do to make the practical balance of advantage more fully understood. Take the long list of economic and social commitments which the Government gave in the New Decade, New Approach document of January 2020. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker—like the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, a great friend of Northern Ireland—drew attention to their importance in a recent debate. They demonstrate in the most vivid way the practical benefits of the union and need to be effectively explained by Ministers in speeches in Northern Ireland.

The central preoccupation at the moment is, of course, the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. Will they be restored to full working order after the elections next month? The Government, I think, are under no illusion that, if that is to happen, the acute difficulties caused by the Northern Ireland protocol must be removed. But there are other difficulties. Nearly 25 years on, there must be a case for reviewing the Belfast agreement to prevent it weakening the union, which will happen if problems are allowed to fester. Senator George Mitchell himself, the central figure in the long negotiations which produced the agreement, believes that a review should be conducted.

To Airey Neave, what mattered in the political sphere in Northern Ireland was the effective provision of the great public services: education, health, housing, social services. All are jeopardised if devolution falters. Stormont is Northern Ireland’s upper tier of local government, as well as its devolved legislature. The disruption of devolution inflicts great damage on the public services, as we saw during the last period in which Stormont was suspended for so long. Why should the work of local government be thrown into total disarray if the devolved legislative powers cannot be exercised? In a strong union, arrangements ought to be made to provide continued democratic control of local government functions if devolution is in abeyance. The admirable sentiments

“we stand for a proud, confident, inclusive and modern unionism that affords equal respect to all traditions and parts of the community”,

which will be well known to my noble friend, appear in the 2019 Conservative manifesto. The object of this debate is to find out what is being done to put them into effect.

When I first met Airey Neave, he had on his desk a booklet entitled Do You Sincerely Want to Win? One of the names on the cover was that of Peter Lilley, now my noble friend Lord Lilley. The question remains relevant today. Do we sincerely want to win a secure and lasting peace for our fellow country men and women in Ulster? I contend that it needs to be built on the foundations of a strong union.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for initiating this debate. I suppose it will be no surprise to him that I take a different position. I make no apology for the fact that I am a democratic Irish nationalist and want to see a new, reconciled Ireland, that would be a shared space for all. The noble Lord referred to the Good Friday agreement, and I recognise that central to that is the principle of consent, which means that nothing can happen to the status of Northern Ireland until the people so decide. The person who would make that decision is the incumbent Secretary of State at that time.

I am particularly conscious that a couple of noble Lords in this debate were resident and involved directly in negotiations for the Good Friday agreement. My noble friend Lord Murphy was Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office at that time, while my colleague from the Northern Ireland Assembly, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, was then the chief negotiator for the Ulster Unionist Party. My colleagues in the SDLP were also actively involved.

I firmly believe in that reconciled new Ireland. It is about unifying the people in a shared, equal space, based on the principles of parity of esteem and respect for political difference, because there is, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, said, a substantial number of people in Northern Ireland who see themselves not as unionist but as Irish. We who declare ourselves as Irish have that aspiration but we recognise the fundamental concept of unity by consent.

I well recall that the SDLP had a policy document called Towards a New Ireland, which was written in 1972. Central to that was the issue of consent, which was fundamentally a new principle coming from democratic Irish nationalists that nothing can be done until the people so decide. It is still the same, and we were very pleased that it was enshrined in the Good Friday agreement.

The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, referred to other issues and to Airey Neave, who was his boss and the then shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I think. I recall his untimely murder. I come from a political tradition that totally rejected and abhorred violence, from wherever it came, because it was proved beyond reasonable doubt that violence never achieved anything on the island of Ireland. It simply resulted in more mayhem and destruction. The only way forward is political.

On the elections, I have been out knocking doors with my colleagues, and the cost-of-living crisis is perhaps the most important issue, along with health service waiting lists. However, we want to see the restoration of the political institutions and devolution. We want to see all the institutions working, so I come back to a fundamental point that we want to see the designation of joint First Ministers. That should have happened prior to the election because it would have de-sectarianised it. Can the Minister tell me, if not today then in writing, about progress towards such a designation?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, who not only is responsible for this debate but has loved the Province for so long. It is not always the easiest place to love so I am really grateful to him.

I will begin by making the core point about the protocol and the current destabilising effects of the protocol in Northern Ireland. A year ago now, Maroš Šefčovič wrote on behalf of the European Union to the noble Lord, Lord Frost, saying that the protocol was the only means of protecting the single market. I accept that the United Kingdom has a responsibility to protect the single market, although it has turned out, with grace periods and so on, that the threat may not be anything like as great as imagined in theory. He also said it was the only way to preserve the Good Friday agreement. The history of the past year has not dealt kindly with that remark. The Good Friday agreement is dead. All three strands are kaput, not merely in a crisis, but dead. It really has to be brought home that this is where we now actually are.

The crucial question now is did the EU mean it when it said in the withdrawal agreement that it was determined to maintain the Good Friday agreement in all its aspects or is this simply a responsibility of the UK Government? The UK Government have a responsibility under international law to maintain a prior international agreement from the time of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, that says that the UK Government have a responsibility to maintain the economic rights of the people of Northern Ireland and to deliver political solutions on the basis of equality of esteem.

At this point it is quite clear that the unionist community is ferociously alienated from the protocol. We have to discover where the EU really is on that. Some of the academic commentaries on the protocol, published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press, are saying that all the things in it that you might have thought would give comfort to the United Kingdom are actually meaningless and there is no comfort there at all. Does that include the commitment to maintain the Good Friday agreement and to work to preserve it? That requires substantial movement on the UK side. If it does not, the UK must say that it will live up to its obligations under the prior international agreement to maintain the GFA.

Briefly on the union, I will say something that may not go down terribly well with unionist opinion in Northern Ireland. It is very important not to fall guilty of a belief in the project of high unionism. It is dead. The Act of Union, what it says about trade, disappeared with the Government of Ireland Act 1920. One cannot imagine a world in which Irish nationalists do not exist, either in Northern Ireland or elsewhere on the island of Ireland. They took 26 countries out of the Act of Union. To take as an example the Second World War, in which Northern Ireland made a major contribution to the eventual British victory, there was no conscription in Northern Ireland because of the pressure of Irish nationalism. Margaret Thatcher’s Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 was affected by the pressure of Irish nationalism. Again and again, Northern Ireland has had to mutate due to the pressures that come from Irish nationalism, and the protocol is just the latest in a long line.

I read things saying that before the protocol we had equality of citizenship. There has not been equality of citizenship. The Labour Party does not organise in Northern Ireland. All these things pre-dated the protocol. The union survives only by being flexible. The part of the world that I now live in, County Antrim, has been represented in this Parliament for 222 years. The latest polling implies that it is going to be represented in this Parliament for decades to come, but it is up to the people of Northern Ireland to make what they can of that and not to chase the chimera of a perfect world in which nationalists do not exist and the changes that they have effected in British legislation do not exist. That is incompatible with any serious capacity to maintain the union.

The strength of the union lies in its flexibility. Its durability is related to its flexibility and therefore its ability to deal with many gritty compromises. The protocol is extremely unsatisfactory. The EU has to change its position. The UK has to win the argument that it has obligations to the people of Northern Ireland under its previous international agreement which must be upheld, but there will still be elements of the settlement which reflect the interests of Irish nationalists and the people of Ireland as a whole. This fantasy world that is now developing, where a pure, high union can be restored, having existed before the protocol, simply is not true. It is a delusion and a snare.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on securing this debate. He is one of the key pillars in this Parliament of people defending and promoting the union consistently and persistently. I put that on the record.

The question we are asked to deal with today is about what steps the Government have taken to strengthen the union. I think the steps taken are precious few and far between. My noble friend Lord Bew gave interesting context and referred to the protocol. Of course, there is a tendency from the days of bendy bananas to look upon the European Union as an alien force, but the fact is that the Prime Minister is Minister for the Union—that is in his formal title. He is the person who proposed what is now the protocol to the European Union on 2 October 2019. In his relatively short document, he put forward proposals to

“see regulatory checks applying between Great Britain and Northern Ireland”

talked about border inspection posts and said

“regulatory checks can be implemented at the boundary of the zone”—

which means at a port in Northern Ireland—

“as appropriate and in line with relevant EU law, minimising the potential for non-compliance.”

This was a proposal from the Minister for the Union, so the very core of the protocol was negotiated by the Minister for the Union with his colleagues. It has left the position where a part of this United Kingdom is almost condominium-style, as part of its everyday life is regulated and negotiated by a foreign power, the European Union, over which neither Stormont nor Westminster has any say or control. That is the legal position that was negotiated by the Minister for the Union.

I believe that urgent and radical changes are required, as my noble friend Lord Bew said, and that they are achievable. Already, people who set out to say that we should have rigorous implementation of the protocol have retreated from that position because it just did not make sense and the public just would not accept it. The vast majority of these unnecessary checks can now be removed, but mitigations to the protocol alone are not enough because there are constitutional downstream consequences of the fact that we are in a totally different sphere of influence for a very large part of our economic and social activities. Recent issues over tax, petrol duties and things highlighted that we have already lost control of them.

Mr Ben Habib made this point in an article:

“The Protocol prohibits the British government from truthfully claiming that the UK has taken back control of its laws”

and I believe that is correct. We cannot claim that, so what is required is a serious and urgent negotiation. I believe progress can be made. There are models out there that we can follow. I agree very much with my noble friend Lord Bew that the position with regard to the UK Government’s responsibilities to Northern Ireland are well established in national and international law. But there is an alternative out there, and that is where we should be going and putting serious proposals on the table.

My Lords, in my few remarks, I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for having brought this debate forward. Like him, I have been thinking about the problems of Ireland since my time at Cambridge but, unlike him, this is the first time I have ever spoken about them in your Lordships’ House. I want to comment from the perspective of the union as a whole, rather than Northern Ireland itself. I live in the north of England and have considerable Irish family links—mainly of the Anglo-Irish “Protestant with a horse” variety. I actually live within sight of Scotland, so the possibility of the break-up of our union is much closer to home than anything else, from that perspective.

If you look at a historical atlas, it is remarkable how the boundaries of countries change. There is nothing immutable about what exists now and our systems of governance. We are all subject to that and I do not believe there is an absolute best in these matters. Just as I believe that England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are all stronger and better places together, that relationship can exist only if there is a shared and accepted equilibrium between them. If that is lost then the union, whatever its legal form, is likely to go with it.

I am a supporter of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the union of which we are all part for as long as Northern Ireland wants. It contributes to our way of life and we all benefit; the reverse is true, too. Inherent in these arrangements is a recognition that there is a link, in more than a merely mechanical sense, and that we are all in it together in a real way. It is for this reason that part of the way to accommodate different systems and strains of different places, across our union, is to set them in a frame of devolved or federal administrations, according to variable geometry. This, interestingly, is accepted by the present UK Government acting in their capacity for local government reform in this country. The only real judgment that can be made is whether it works and is accepted.

In our country, for better or worse, the dominant element is England and its relationship with the other three nations is inevitably the most important. Clearly, the character of Northern Ireland’s general relationship with England, and Stormont’s with Westminster, is crucial. If these do not work to both sides’ satisfaction then, sooner or later, the arrangement collapses. A successful union cannot survive a complete falling apart internally.

I chair the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership and business in Cumbria, across a range of sectors, took a very big hit from Brexit and all the economic consequences it entailed. That was true elsewhere, as well. The withdrawal agreement, of which the Northern Ireland protocol is an integral part, saved us from the considerable additional economic damage and chaos of no deal. Yet at the same time, as we know, there were enormous shenanigans—if I can use that word—over the agreed border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. I was surprised by how damaging that appeared to be and had not appreciated how strong the commercial links were.

Nevertheless, to those affected it seemed gratuitous, since everyone in this country was being taken out of the single market and suffering the pain that, we were told, was in the national interest. This simply made it worse. To us, this looked like self-obsession to the exclusion of everything else. After all, as I said, we are all in it together and this looked like exceptionalism from those who already receive much more attention, resources and support than we do in Cumbria.

This perception of exceptionalism is perhaps the greatest threat to the union and unionism. After all, unionism in Northern Ireland has to be more than simply not being in the south. Every union has at least two parties and if our union is to survive, every component has to recognise that it is part of the same larger team. If not, it is finished. The point of being in the same team is that we are better off together.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for securing this very important debate. The economic and cultural ties that bond the various parts of this nation are unmatched. It is a historical fact that strong links across these isles and our open UK markets have brought huge benefits to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The case for advancing the union is as important as it is compelling. Growing together as a strong union of nations is in all our interests, now and long into the future.

In Northern Ireland, as in Scotland, we who value our historic shared bond are faced with a narrow-minded, separatist vision of the future that has only one aim in mind: to break apart every constitutional and political link with our friends and neighbours in the rest of the United Kingdom. This vision would have the people of Northern Ireland or Scotland fall through an economic trapdoor and into the wilderness, isolated from our closest friends and economic partners.

Here in your Lordships’ House and the other place, we have a duty to continue working together to protect and strengthen the United Kingdom and our shared British values, cultures and identities. I contend that there has never been a more important moment to discuss strengthening these bonds than right now. We are in uncertain times, with the backdrop of a border in the Irish Sea as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol. However, thankfully, we are in more peaceful times, and the sinister more than 40-year terrorist campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the union may have passed. But for long-term peace, prosperity and growth to continue, all parts of the United Kingdom must play an equal part in Britain’s future development. That must include Northern Ireland.

Since the beginning of the negotiations with the EU, my colleagues and I have warned that the EU has the potential to exert significant economic damage on one part of the United Kingdom, and thus our sovereignty. The arrangements in the Northern Ireland protocol have been a disaster. We have seen economic and trading barriers being erected between parts of this sovereign nation. Businesses are facing challenges they never imagined. This regrettable situation has ushered in new daily obstacles for many which never existed before. The protocol has also emboldened those who seek to divide us. I hope and trust that the Minister will agree with my assertion that the Northern Ireland protocol must be removed and consigned to the dustbin of history.

Being an equal part of a shared and integrated United Kingdom economy helps all parts of the UK deal with risks and share opportunities. Inside the union, we not only share a currency union, a language and common standards but are socially integrated too. Our strongest cultural bonds, interests, histories and values are the ones we share across this nation, but recent trading difficulties resulting from the protocol have highlighted the need for further steps to be taken to safeguard our sovereignty and economic union.

Plainly, much more work needs to be done to bring communities across the United Kingdom closer together. Our partnership of nations is a precious one. Everything that we have built together is the result of three centuries of mutual co-operation, work and prosperity. We must not allow these efforts to be carelessly weakened or damaged beyond repair. Collectively, we must move beyond any complacency that may have crept into discourse in recent years. Prosperity lies in further co-operation—in strengthening our links, not in legislating to put barriers between us or fanning the flames of separation. Does the Minister agree that each part of this nation should benefit equally from being part of a free and independent United Kingdom?

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for securing this important and timely debate. I recently had the privilege of chairing a lecture by the noble Lord at the Lloyd George Society in the National Liberal Club; I continue to be in awe of his level of historical knowledge and expertise.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, I have a varied set of connections with the union. As a Scot living on the Isle of Thanet in Kent, with an Irish passport because my father was born in County Fermanagh and a genuine and growing affection for Northern Ireland and its history, I am very much in favour of a strong union. But it must be a union that works for all its parts, based on respect and mutual understanding.

It is clear that Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol have put additional strain on relations between Belfast and London. Although this primarily affects the unionist community, it none the less sometimes seems as though the Government are neglecting the 55% in Northern Ireland who voted to remain and the majority who now just want the protocol to be made to work more effectively.

The Constitution Committee, of which I am currently a member, published a report in January this year entitled Respect and Co-operation: Building a Stronger Union for the 21st Century. It attempts to put the positive case for why our union still matters and is highly relevant in the light of many of the global challenges that face us today. It also strongly endorsed many of the Dunlop review’s recommendations on improving intergovernmental relations between the four nations of the UK. Can the Minister say what measures have been taken to implement the recommendations contained in the Dunlop review? Does he agree that on legacy issues, for example, it is vital that the Westminster Government engage fully and listen with respect to the views of all political parties in Northern Ireland?

The continued lack of a Northern Ireland Executive is clearly a matter of grave concern. Can the Minister give reassurances today that the Government are pursuing all possible measures to reinstate the Executive as soon as possible? I fear the continued absence of the Executive will do very little to strengthen Northern Ireland’s relation with the union.

To conclude, for the union to be strengthened and to continue to last, as I hope it will, we have to look to the future and not always back to the past. It is worth recalling that there is now a generation of younger people in Northern Ireland who have grown up since the Troubles—a generation who can watch “Derry Girls” as a historical comedy drama without having lived through those times themselves. This younger generation is more concerned about issues such as climate change than the divided history of Northern Ireland. The union has to adapt and develop to meet the very different challenges of the world today.

It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate and, as always, to listen to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, who opened it with great knowledge, as he always does. It has been a wise, informed and useful debate, held against the background of disease and war, and our leaving Europe—all difficult issues that have affected Northern Ireland. We need to reflect and think about the relevance of the Good Friday agreement in this new context, like the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, will recall that the agreement itself says that you can review it from time to time. It was reviewed in St Andrews with the agreement there and in other agreements, so it was not meant to be set in stone for 25 years. It was meant to ensure that, over the years, it would reflect society as it changed.

What is not changing, and cannot be changed, is the principle of consent. That is the absolute bedrock of what happened in Northern Ireland with all these different agreements. That is crucial: the people of Northern Ireland must decide their future themselves. It is not for the British Government or the Irish Government to decide; it is for the people of Northern Ireland.

As some of your Lordships will recall, the Labour Party’s policy until the late 1990s was for a united Ireland with consent. Tony Blair decided to change that, because you could not possibly act as a referee in the talks that came later if you were that one-sided— in that case, for a united Ireland. When Mo Mowlam, myself and others chaired the talks in Northern Ireland we decided to ensure that we were absolutely neutral in what we would say and do in that capacity.

In Wales, where I live and which I used to represent, I am a passionate unionist. I want the union to continue in Wales, Scotland and England. In Northern Ireland, it is a matter for the Northern Irish people to decide. At the same time, while Northern Ireland remains in the United Kingdom—who knows for how long that will be; the 1.8 million people in Northern Ireland must decide that for themselves—it must benefit from all the things the rest of the United Kingdom benefits from by being a member of it. Our National Health Service is just one example, but there are others too, which enormously benefit the people of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.

There has also been a change in landscape, of course. In 1998, when the Good Friday agreement was set up, the United Kingdom was very different from today. We now live in a devolved United Kingdom. Scotland and Wales are devolved, and there is a movement to try to ensure there is more devolution in England itself. The noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, came up with his report and my own party is holding a commission with Gordon Brown on the future of the union. All these things mean that change is likely to come about to reflect the new position of a devolved United Kingdom. That principle of devolution, and the benefits that come with it, must also apply to Northern Ireland, which should have a properly devolved government with all the advantages Scotland, Wales and possibly parts of England will have.

It has been an interesting debate, but if there is one message, it is the message of change. We live in very turbulent times, and once these elections are over, the two Governments, the political parties and all of us who are interested in Northern Ireland should re-examine and re-think the agreement to ensure that, without going against any of its principles, it reflects the world of a quarter of a century later.

My Lords, thanks to the brevity of those who have taken part in this debate, I seem to have rather more than the 12 minutes allotted to me. If the Committee will indulge me, I might stray slightly over that, but I will try to keep within the allotted time. I first thank all noble Lords who have participated in what has been an excellent debate, and I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Lexden for initiating it.

It was way back in the summer of 1987 that I received a letter from one Alistair B Cooke inviting me to interview for a position in the Conservative Research Department. Little did either of us imagine at the time that nearly 35 years later he, as Lord Lexden, would be tabling a Question for Short Debate in your Lordships’ House to which I, as a government Minister, would be replying.

I am quite certain that the only reason I was offered the post in 1987 was down to the fact that I volunteered the opinion during my interview that the most brilliant work ever written on Northern Ireland affairs was Lessons of Ulster by TE Utley. Little did I know at the time that my noble friend was a close personal friend of the great “Tory Seer” and his family, and he immediately concurred with my view—an opinion which, in both our cases, has not changed in subsequent years.

My noble friend referred to his time as an adviser to Airey Neave before the 1979 election and his role in drafting the Conservative manifesto of that year. I have long thought that had the scheme they devised in 1979 been implemented then, rather than sadly dying with the INLA bomb that murdered Airey Neave, the subsequent history of Northern Ireland might have been somewhat less tragic. It is fair to say that, over the years, I have benefited immeasurably from the knowledge and wisdom of my noble friend.

My noble friend’s Question asks what steps the Government have taken to strengthen the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I begin by restating to him in the clearest terms that this Government are steadfast in their commitment to maintaining and strengthening the union in accordance with the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. It follows that, unlike some of our predecessors, we will never be neutral in expressing our support for the union and Northern Ireland’s position within it. That has been a consistent message since we came to office in 2010. I add that this position is entirely compatible with the constitutional principles—including the consent principle referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick—contained in the Belfast agreement and its predecessor, the 1993 Downing Street declaration, in which I played a small part and which is often overlooked these days. In that context, I note the continuing substantial support of the people of Northern Ireland for its existing constitutional position.

This Government’s support for the union is not based on some romantic nostalgia for the past, although we were pleased last year to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland and recall some of the great things we have achieved together as one nation. Rather, our support for the union is motivated by the belief that the whole of the United Kingdom is stronger and more secure together, and that we can achieve more as a country united by common purpose and shared destiny than could ever be the case apart, as the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, touched on.

There can be no doubt, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and others reminded us today, that Northern Ireland benefits enormously from being part of the United Kingdom and an integral part of the world’s fifth largest economy. That enables significantly higher public spending per head than the UK average and levels of support that could not, in my opinion, be available under any other constitutional arrangement. It benefits from sharing in our great national institutions, such as the National Health Service, as we have seen more than ever over the past two years, during which Northern Ireland’s world-class doctors and nurses have played such an important and heroic role. Talking of great national institutions, I am pleased that Northern Ireland is fully involved in the national celebrations to mark the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen, who has always sought to use her influence to move forward the causes of peace and reconciliation, as I was privileged to witness at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast 10 years ago.

Of course, Northern Ireland also benefits from the influence wielded by a key military power in Europe, a member of NATO and permanent member of the UN Security Council. That still enables this United Kingdom to punch above our weight on the global stage, as we currently see in respect of our leading role in the global response to Russia for its illegal and brutal assault on Ukraine.

As the noble Lords, Lord Inglewood and Lord Browne of Belmont, reminded us, the union is not, and never has been, a one-way street or a purely transactional relationship between its constituent parts. That is why this Government value hugely the contribution that Northern Ireland and its people make to our collective national life across business, industry, politics, culture, sports, public service, the military and, of course, arts and culture. The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to “Derry Girls”. One downside of the debate taking place at this hour today is that I am denied the opportunity of attending the launch of the next series of “Derry Girls” this evening in Derry. However, if Northern Ireland therefore benefits from the union, it also adds considerably to the strength and richness of the whole United Kingdom, something which we would be very much poorer without.

It is also important to stress—here I pick up on some of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and my noble friend Lord Lexden—that the Government’s support for the union does not mean supporting just one part of the community. I assure noble Lords that this Government will always uphold their obligations to govern in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. Our ambition is to build a Northern Ireland that is inclusive, tolerant and outward looking; one where people are treated with equal respect, whatever their community background or ultimate political aspiration, and where difference is recognised and, as appropriate, celebrated, including through the legislation on identity and language that the Government are committed to introducing.

Central to our efforts to strengthen the union, therefore, are policies designed to make Northern Ireland a better place to live, work and raise a family, and to create a brighter future for all of its people. Last autumn’s Budget and spending review saw this Government provide a funding settlement of £15 billion a year—a record since devolution was established in 1998-99—while the Spring Statement contained a number of measures to help with the cost of living.

We have already allocated some £710 million of the £2 billion New Decade, New Approach financial package. In February, the Government published their levelling-up White Paper, setting out how we will achieve that ambition throughout all four parts of the United Kingdom. We are investing some £617 million through the four city and growth deals that cover the whole of Northern Ireland and, of course, government financial support throughout the pandemic helped to guarantee and sustain some 370,000 jobs in Northern Ireland.

It is this Government’s fundamental belief that the union is strongest when people see and feel its tangible benefits in their everyday lives, by delivering for people in every part of our country, and that is what we are striving to achieve. We also seek to strengthen the union by supporting political stability in Northern Ireland. As I have said on many occasions, this Government remain steadfast in their support for the Belfast agreement: for the constitutional principles it enshrines, the institutions it establishes and the rights that it guarantees for everyone.

We believe that inclusive power-sharing devolved government, with locally elected Ministers taking local decisions accountable to a local Assembly, remains the surest foundation for the governance of Northern Ireland and for political stability within that part of our United Kingdom. I assure noble Lords that, once the Assembly election in Northern Ireland on 5 May is over, we look forward to the formation of an Executive and a resumption of all the institutions established by the agreement, across all three strands of the agreement, at the earliest opportunity. This Government will do everything in their power to make this happen.

My noble friend Lord Lexden, the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Suttie, and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, referred to reforms and reviews of the institutions. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the agreement next year, we are prepared to look at practical changes that could be made to the operation of the institutions. However, we will not depart from the fundamental principles that underpin the agreement, including the principle of consent, to which the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, referred. These are non-negotiable. As noble Lords have pointed out, changes have been made to the original model that was developed in 1998 through the St Andrews, Stormont House and other agreements. I assure noble Lords that we are prepared to look at ways of improving the operation of the institutions.

In the light of the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and following the review carried out by my noble friend Lord Dunlop, we are also taking steps to strengthen intergovernmental co-operation across the UK. As an example, the interministerial group for education, which includes the UK Government and representatives from each of the devolved Administrations, met for the first time last month.

I am acutely conscious that the biggest danger to political stability in Northern Ireland, to devolved government and to the Belfast agreement itself, is, as a number of noble Lords pointed out, the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. As my noble friend Lord Empey and the noble Lord, Lord Bew, set out very powerfully, the protocol that was intended to preserve and protect the 1998 agreement in all its parts has now become an instrument for undermining it at the point when that landmark agreement marks its 24th anniversary in three days’ time.

We have always said that we will never take risks with the hard-gained relative peace and stability in Northern Ireland, which the 1998 agreement was instrumental in bringing about; that remains the case today. Although I have no doubt that the protocol was a difficult compromise, entered into in good faith against a particularly difficult political background, and which the Government have sought to operate with as light a touch and in as proportionate a way as possible, it is clear that the protocol cannot bear the weight of its own contradictions.

As a number of noble Lords have pointed out, the protocol states that Northern Ireland is in the UK customs territory, yet it imposes customs barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It states that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK internal market, yet people in Northern Ireland can no longer buy goods from the rest of the UK and there is significant trade diversion. It states that it respects the territorial integrity of the UK, yet it ensures that the UK Government can no longer make laws on an equal basis across the UK. As I have pointed out, it states that its fundamental purpose is to uphold the Belfast agreement, yet it is clear that it is undermining it.

The situation is unacceptable and unsustainable. As a Government, we cannot stand by and watch the progress of the last 24 years slip backwards. I cannot, of course, share any details of the current discussions; my department does not lead for the UK Government on them. I can, though, repeat what I said in the House last week that, although our clear preference is for these issues to be resolved through agreement with the EU, in the absence of any such agreement we will take whatever measures are necessary to deal with them. We will do so in the interests of peace and stability, the future of the Belfast agreement and the integrity of our United Kingdom. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, that all four parts of the United Kingdom should benefit equally from being a free and independent nation.

I am conscious of time. Constraints do not permit me to say more about, for example, the security situation and our efforts alongside the PSNI and other departments to keep people safe and secure. The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred briefly to legacy. We are still working on a package. The distance of time between the publication of the Command Paper last July and the fact we are still working on this is an indication that we are listening to the many views that have been put to us.

In conclusion, I hope that my remarks have underlined the determination of this Conservative and Unionist Government to strength the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We will achieve this by building a Northern Ireland where politics works, the economy grows, and society is more united.

Sitting suspended.