EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill: Archbishop of York speaks on amendment about Northern Ireland impact

york-170117-bOn Tuesday 7th March 2017, the House of Lords considered the Government’s EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill at Report stage and Third Reading. Labour Peer Lord Hain moved Amendment 5, seeking to ensure the Prime Minister give an undertaking to support the right of Northern Irish people to claim Irish citizenship as per the Belfast Agreement in negotiations following the triggering of Article 50. The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd and Rt Hon John Sentamu welcomed the probing amendment for raising awareness of the issue.

The Archbishop of York My Lords, it is a real delight to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames. When he was Archbishop of Armagh he invited me endless times to visit Northern Ireland, even during the terrible Troubles. As a result we ended up spending a lot of holidays in that particular part of Ireland. It is a very beautiful, wonderful place. The noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Reid, spoke with insight. I would like to follow in their footsteps on this wonderful probing amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, says he is not going to put to a vote.

I want to say three things. First, this amendment, as I understand it, touches on sensitivities that Brexit risks putting Northern Ireland’s peace process in jeopardy by not taking account of the fact that under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement citizens in Northern Ireland have a right to Irish citizenship and therefore EU citizenship. This makes Northern Ireland unique post Brexit as the only jurisdiction outside the EU where every person living there is legally entitled to be a citizen of the European Union, simply by applying for an Irish passport. While these considerations are high on the agenda in Dublin and Belfast, they are not receiving, as I understand it, the attention they deserve in London, Brussels or other EU capitals. The amendment seeks to reverse that situation, hence its probing nature.

Secondly, this issue and other matters relating to the impact of Brexit on UK-Irish relations were explored in a report published in December 2016 by the House of Lords European Union Committee. The committee concluded that the unique nature of UK-Irish relations needs a unique solution. It recommended that the best way to achieve this would be for the EU institutions and member states to invite the UK and Irish Governments to negotiate a draft bilateral agreement, involving and incorporating the views and interests of the Northern Ireland Executive, while keeping the EU itself fully informed. Such an agreement would then need to be agreed by the EU partners as a strand of the withdrawal agreement. I will be interested to know what the Minister will say about that.

Thirdly, this amendment does not go as far as the committee suggested but it holds that the right of the people of Northern Ireland to Irish and therefore EU citizenship should be upheld in any agreement negotiated following the triggering of Article 50. To me, that is important. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, reminded us of the importance of the border. There is no wall there but it is a border. It seems to me that the rights of those people need to be upheld otherwise we are going to put in jeopardy this wonderful act under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement that citizens in Northern Ireland have a right to Irish citizenship and therefore EU citizenship.

Lord McAvoy (Lab) …My Lords, I thank my noble friends Lord Hain and Lord Murphy of Torfaen for tabling the amendment, which gives us a chance further to emphasise the importance we place on the issue it deals with. It has been for the most part an extremely positive debate. Contributions from my noble friends Lord Murphy of Torfaen, Lord Reid of Cardowan and Lord Hain, as former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, have weighed heavily on the discussion, as well as the contributions of the right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who brought a commendable spirit of tolerance into what can be on occasions a tight subject.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office and Scotland Office (Lord Dunlop) (Con)…I also mention the eloquent contributions from, among others, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York.


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