UK Internal Market Bill: Archbishop warns of consequences for Northern Ireland peace and UK reputation if international law is broken

On 19th and 20th October the House of Lords considered the Government’s UK Internal Market Bill at its Second Reading. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke in the debate, repeating the concerns he and his fellow UK Anglican Primates had raised about the rule of law, devolution and the Northern Ireland peace process, in an open letter published that day by the Financial Times:

The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, I look forward to hearing, here and online, the contributions to come, especially the maiden speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, and the noble Lord, Lord Sarfraz.

I also concur totally with the powerful and remarkable speech by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. What we are called to do above all in this country, deeply embedded in our Christian culture and history, is to act justly and honestly. We cannot do so if we openly speak of breaking a treaty under international law, reached properly, on which peace in part of the UK relies. My distinguished former colleague Sentamu, who paid with beatings for his defence of law and justice in Uganda would have spoken trenchantly. I regret his absence.

There are some who claim that I and my colleagues who wrote in the FT this morning are misinformed. But the letter—and this intervention—followed the lead of those who have spent their lives seeking peace in Ireland. Peace is surely something of which religious leaders should speak. We also listened to the Select Committee on the Constitution, to all five living former Prime Ministers, two former Conservative leaders, and distinguished judges, including former Presidents of the Supreme Court and the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, to name but a few.

This country has different characteristics and needs in its regions and nations. They must be reflected in all our relationships if the union is to survive.

There is no watertight door in relationships between economics and constitutional issues. They overflow from one into the other. The timing of anything that the UK Parliament or Government do in Northern Ireland is always especially significant to relationships. It is particularly so at present. The revived Assembly is scarcely a year old; 2021 is the centenary of the establishment of Stormont and the creation of the border. Much progress has been made since the 1990s in building confidence and peace, yet it is clear from many visits in the last few years, and clear to anyone who listens, that the tensions continue. Peace and reconciliation need continual reinforcement and continual progress. I will therefore be seeking to work with others for amendments which ensure that the process of peace and reconciliation is pursued and that powers exercised under this Bill, when it becomes law, involve consultation amidst the immense complexities of Northern Ireland. I hope we may act on a cross-party basis.

Politics, if it is to draw out the best of us, must be more than just the exercise of binaries, of raw majority power unleashed; it exists to seek truth, to bring diverse peoples together in healthy relationships. Our reputation as a nation, our profoundly good and powerful influence and example, which I know from experience around ​the world, will suffer great harm if law-breaking is pursued—greater harm than this Bill seeks to prevent. In the Church of England, we are all too clearly aware of the shame that comes with failing morally. Let us not make the same mistake at national level. This House exists to amend and improve legislation, not to derail it, and that must be our urgent aim now.

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Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab):

…the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, with church leaders from across the four nations, writes in today’s FT of the grave responsibility of Peers, given that the Bill…

“will profoundly affect the future of our countries and the relationships between them”…

…We do not concur with the Government’s assertion that

“the Bill … is not constitutional but economic”.

Rather, we agree with the Archbishops that

“the effect on devolved policymaking is of constitutional significance”.


The Earl of Kinnoull (Non-Afl)…My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the most reverend Primate, and I congratulate him and his most reverend colleagues on their very welcome letter today, with which I, too, wholeheartedly agree.


Lord Lilley (Con): As a non-lawyer, I enter this arena like a Christian facing a pride of angry legal lions. This is made worse by the fact that they have already captured my own archbishop.


Lord Bruce of Bennachie (LD): When five archbishops are motivated to put their anxieties into print, it is time for the Government to recognise that this hastily concocted and ill thought-out Bill is not fit for purpose, whatever the purpose is meant to be.


Baroness Noakes (Con): I regret the highly political intervention today by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and his fellow Anglican primates. Disestablishment is starting to look rather attractive.


Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con): I cannot tell the House how disappointed I was to see the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury putting his name, together with other senior Anglican bishops, to a letter in today’s FT headlined “Internal market bill undermines the strength of our union”. Those who wish to break up Britain will be much encouraged by their efforts.​


Lord Howell of Guildford (Con): As to the rule of law clauses which have so greatly disturbed your Lordships, and disturbed the legal profession, and indeed many of my good friends, including my noble friend Lord Howard, and now the Archbishops as well, I am a little less worried than some of my colleagues.


Baroness Ludford (LD): The Irish equality and human rights commissions from north and south, as well as the Anglican Primates, have expressed deep concern that the Irish protocol to the withdrawal agreement might be breached, and the human rights and equality provisions of the Good Friday agreement overridden.


Baroness Quin (Lab): Both inside and outside Parliament, we have had concerns expressed by eminent lawyers, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, by the report of the Bingham Centre, and indeed in the letter—with which I strongly agree—that the Archbishops have published in today’s Financial Times.


The Duke of Wellington (CB): My Lords, it is a privilege to speak in this debate, but I notice that only a handful of noble Lords appear to support the Bill as presently drafted. I want to put on record that I very much welcome the intervention of the most reverend Primate and the letter signed today by the Archbishops.


Lord McNally (LD): In his speech today, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury made it clear that we are an unelected second Chamber with a mainly advisory and revisory role, but along with those responsibilities is another power, rarely used but very important.


Lord Barwell (Con): The opposition of this House, of five former Prime Ministers and of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury is what Number 10 wanted: it wanted to demonstrate to the European Union the extent to which it was prepared to take a different approach from all previous Governments.


Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Con): This is the first debate I have taken part in where I have had the opportunity for a dinner break and the chance to discuss with colleagues how the Bill is progressing. One remarked, interestingly, that you know the Government are in trouble when they are condemned by a former Lord Chief Justice and the Archbishop of Canterbury before the debate has barely got going. However, maybe something can be salvaged in this debate.


Lord Jay of Ewelme (CB): I have read the reports of the EU Committee and the Constitution Committee, and the Bingham Centre’s analysis of the Bill, and I agree with every word of the letter from the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and his colleagues. It is clear that Clauses 44, 45 and 47 would constitute a breach of international law and, as the Bingham Centre’s report makes clear:

“A breach of the rule of international law is still a breach of the Rule of Law.”


Lord Faulkner of Worcester (Lab): I want to emphasise that this is not a rerun of earlier Brexit debates. If anyone is in any ​doubt about that, one need listen only to the powerful speech by the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne, earlier today. And this is despite the intemperate attack by some Conservative MPs on the most reverend Primate and his fellow archbishops for daring to have a letter published in the Financial Times today.


Baroness Altmann (Con): I cannot, in all good conscience, support the measures in the Bill, particularly Part 5 but much else, too. I am afraid that I will have to vote, on every occasion, against the Government’s intention to break international law. I congratulate the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury on his brave intervention, and I join other noble Lords in warning about the potential of the Bill, as presented to this House, to pave the way to authoritarian rule.


Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD): We are now watching right-wing Republicans bend America’s written constitution until it is close to breaking. We have even seen the embittered partisanship of American politics spilling over into this debate in the attack by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, on the Bishops who are addressing the moral dimensions of the Bill. We should not allow our increasingly authoritarian Government to bend the conventions of our own unwritten constitution any further.


Lord Fox (LD): This Bill transcends legal affront—and here we should thank the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, in his speech, set out a moral case against this part of the Bill. As he put it:

“Our reputation as a nation, our profoundly good and powerful influence and example … will suffer great harm if law-breaking is pursued”.—[Official Report, 19/10/20; cols. 1293-4.]