On 9th November 2020 the House of Lords debated and voted on the Government’s UK Internal Market Bill during its Committee stage. A cross-party group of Peers had tabled motions that all the clauses of Part 5 of the Bill, which covered Northern Ireland, international law, and executive powers, should not remain in the Bill. These successfully passed by large majorities across two votes.
The Archbishop of Canterbury had also sponsored an amendment with Lord Eames that Ministers report on the effect of the Bill’s provisions on peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, which he spoke to during the debate:
The Archbishop of Canterbury [V]: My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 161*, to which I have added my name, alongside the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. The previous speeches have all been both moving and deeply eloquent, and I shall therefore be very brief.
As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, so powerfully explained, the purpose of our amendment is simply to put on the record a concern that this Bill in its current form fails to take into account the sensitivities and complexities of Northern Ireland, and could have unintended and serious consequences for peace and reconciliation. The noble and right reverend Lord spent 20 years as Archbishop of Armagh, between 1986 and 2006, and the force of his words was most remarkable. He has experience of everything from the funerals in small churchyards of those caught up in the Troubles through to negotiations behind the scenes for the Belfast agreement. He speaks with the integrity and authority that those 20 years have earned him, and I trust that the House will listen carefully.
One thing must remain certain in a time of turmoil and uncertainty, and it is the inestimable value of peace. The process of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland did not end with the Belfast agreement, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said. It remains an ongoing process that requires work, and awareness from leaders that almost every decision taken and word spoken in relation to Northern Ireland will have an impact. This Bill must show that it is sensitive to these circumstances.
I will conclude by saying something about the amendments in the names of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and others, including my right reverend friend the Bishop of Leeds. I will not add much, as the words of the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne, were absolutely convincing and extremely clear. I also associate myself with his important tribute to Lord Sacks, whom we will miss terribly in this House.
At Second Reading, I stated that the primary purpose of this House was to amend and improve legislation, not to derail it. But I was wrong in saying that. There is an even more primary function, which the noble Lord, Lord Howard, set out very clearly. It is to defend the rule of law and to protect the balances of power and peace in our union. The amendments put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the wish that this part is excised from the Bill, will therefore have my unqualified support.
I hope that the Government will reflect on the strength of feeling, depth of experience, and wisdom of expertise shown in the debate on these clauses, and will push not for their reinstatement but for their replacement with others that better guarantee that the rule of law, peace, and the balances of power are upheld within our United Kingdom. As the noble Lord, Lord Howard, said, this is not a return to old arguments about Brexit. That debate is long gone and long finished. Like many who were on the other side from him, I now fully accept that the decision has been taken democratically and am entirely supportive of pursuing it.
This is about the fundamental values we stand and live by as a nation, now and in the years to come.
THE LORD ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY
BARONESS RITCHIE OF DOWNPATRICK
161 Page 36, line 43, at end insert—
“(2A) Before the power conferred by subsection (1) is exercised, the Secretary of State must publish a statement on the impact that the proposed exercise of the power is likely to have on the process of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.”
The speech delivered by Lord Eames, introducing his amendment:
Lord Eames (CB) [V]: My Lords, I am privileged to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and I find myself in support of his comments on the wider ambit of the Bill. I share his reservations coming, as I do, from one of the devolved parts of the United Kingdom. I speak to the amendment that is in my name and that of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and the noble Lord, Lord Hain. I thank each of them for their support.
This amendment has two purposes, and I stress that in light of the remarks by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I aim first to provide a degree of protection for a devolved nation, Northern Ireland, should the Bill progress in its present form. Secondly, I am to allow a statement on the record on the vulnerable nature of the peace process in Northern Ireland in the face of the present nature of the Bill. Those two phrases justify my approach: its present form and the present nature of the Bill.
This amendment places a duty on the Secretary of State to take account of the effects of any exercise of authority conveyed by the Bill on the peace process and progress of reconciliation in Northern Ireland. As the Bill stands, there is potential for unintended consequence on the sensitivities of community peace and harmony in Northern Ireland. Brexit is already asking searching questions of that sensitivity. Issues of internal trade arrangements—north-south and east-west in the United Kingdom—are raising questions that have the potential to threaten the hard-earned progress of community understanding and stability in Northern Ireland, but it is still a tender plant.
We have heard frequent reference in your Lordships’ Chamber to the Good Friday or Belfast agreement on Northern Ireland. That is how it should be. That agreement was a turning point in the troubled history of Northern Ireland. It was an episode of immense significance, but it was an episode. The peace process is not just one episode; it is an ongoing daily process, involving ordinary men and women in their lives, how they do business with and relate to each other and, above all else, how they address their fears. It depends on building bridges across traditional divisions. At times, it lurches from mistakes to just temporary success. Constantly lurking in the background is the threat of violence and terrorism. In the Bill is the potential to threaten the stability of Northern Ireland. That threat, as much as it lies in what the Bill questions of the devolved settlement, raises issues of the Northern Ireland peace process. There are issues for Scotland and Wales which, although not as sensitive as those on reconciliation in Northern Ireland, are equally about community stability.
I ask your Lordships to also consider my amendment in the wider context of the Bill. The decisions implemented by the Bill will have a profound effect on the future of the countries of the United Kingdom and the relationship between them, for the Bill represents a profound shift in how trading relationships within the UK will be regulated and governed in the years ahead. This will not be a return to the trade structure that was in place before the UK entered the EU; rather, it is the construction of a system to replace one that had emerged through careful negotiation over decades.
There is in the Bill a weakening of the principles and effect of devolved policy-making, a constitutional significance already noted by the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd. If the Bill reaches the statute book without the consent and understanding of the devolved legislatures, which would occur if safeguards such as those in my amendment are ignored, then trust and good will among the devolved nations will be eroded. But there has been frequent reference in our debates to how, as it stands, the Bill offers the opportunity for a government Minister to break international law.
My amendment is worded with that opportunity in mind. Those of us who feel a moral responsibility to protect and encourage the process in Northern Ireland are particularly alarmed by that possibility. In particular, we feel that the Good Friday agreement, an international agreement that cements and underpins peace and stability within and between the United Kingdom and Ireland, is under threat. A recent article in the Financial Times by the current Anglican primates of the United Kingdom included these words:
“If carefully negotiated terms are not honoured and laws can be ‘legally’ broken, on what foundations does our democracy stand?”
I speak to noble Lords, through this amendment, with deep personal feeling. My professional life was lived out during the days and nights of the Troubles. I have seen suffering and hurt. I have seen the highest that human nature can reach and the lowest to which it can descend. I have seen suffering. I have presided over funerals and seen the tears of young people. I have no alternative but, with moral justification, to defend the peace process and what is being slowly but surely achieved in my native land. I therefore beg leave to propose this amendment.
Further references were made to the amendment during the debate:
Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Non-Afl) [V]: My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. I remind your Lordships’ House that the most reverend Primate and I walked through Downpatrick, along with many others, on St Patrick’s Day some five years ago, as a symbol of reconciliation, because the national saint of Ireland is the very embodiment of partnership, working together and reconciliation—those very issues the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, has already referred to.
I do not support borders on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea, and I share many of the concerns of my unionist colleagues and want minimal friction on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland. But I support the aims of those noble Lords, ably put forward this evening by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who seek to remove the offending clauses in Part 5 which deal with the Northern Ireland protocol on the basis that they break international law. In fact, the Northern Ireland protocol was, as I said earlier, established to protect the Good Friday agreement, prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland and assist with the process of reconciliation and north-south economic co-operation. That view was clearly articulated by the Anglican primates, who stated in their letter of some weeks ago to the Financial Times that the UK negotiated the Northern Ireland protocol with the EU
“to protect the 1998 Agreement in all its dimensions.”
To further cite those primates,
“One year on, in this bill, the UK government is not only preparing to break the protocol, but also to breach a fundamental tenet of the agreement: namely by limiting the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights in Northern Ireland law.”
The purpose of Amendment 161 is to ensure the protection of the principle of reconciliation, which is at the very core of the Good Friday agreement. Another contributory factor is the need to work on the healing process, which has been painfully slow…
Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown (DUP): ..I recently read with interest that several right reverend Prelates and other bishops wrote to the Prime Minister stating that this legislation would set a disastrous precedent and that:
“If carefully negotiated terms are not honoured and laws can be ‘legally’ broken, on what foundations does our democracy stand?”
I found that somewhat interesting, because several times in this debate I have heard about “moral responsibility” and “morality”, and how this is “immoral”. I must remind this House that I stood here some months ago where, whenever we talked about the moral issue of same-sex marriage, the Benches of the right reverend Prelates were empty. Whenever we discussed the moral issue of the most liberal abortion laws that were forced on the people of Northern Ireland against their democratically expressed will, where was morality talked about then? I do not know of any letters being written to the Prime Minister on the importance of this moral imperative.
We know that those changes were made to placate Sinn Féin as a pay-off to get them back into the Northern Ireland Assembly. When we talk about such issues, I would like such letters to be written to the Prime Minister in the midst of our present national crisis with Covid-19 to encourage him to call for a national day of repentance and prayer, acknowledging our need of God’s help and deliverance in our time of great distress, as I did in March at the beginning of the pandemic…
Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Lab):…The noble Lords, Lord Howard of Lympne, Lord Empey and Lord Pannick, the noble and learned Lords, Lord Clarke of Nottingham, Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Lord Judge, the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick and Lady Bennett, all Labour’s Members, all the Lib Dems, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury constitute, by any standards, a pretty broad church—broader than you normally see in this House.
Sadly, none of them is Marcus Rashford and therefore guaranteed to get a U-turn. Nevertheless, they are a powerful group and all say the same thing: first, pull back from making the United Kingdom an international law-breaker; and secondly, do not threaten to break the Northern Ireland protocol, which ensures an open border on the island of Ireland and promotes peace through the Good Friday agreement…
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con):… Before coming to the main argument, let me address briefly amendments in this group which would fall if the clauses in Part 5 are removed by your Lordships. First to fall will be Amendment 161, tabled by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames. I am grateful for having been able to discuss these issues with both the noble and right reverend Lord and the right reverend Primate. Their amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish a statement on the impact on peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland before regulations on export declarations and other exit procedures under Clause 44 can be made. As I have just underlined, central to any exercise of those powers would be our aim to ensure that the political and economic integrity of our whole United Kingdom is maintained, and that the Belfast agreement and successor agreements and the gains of the peace process are protected in all potential circumstances.
Above all, I so agree with the most reverend Primate and the right reverend Prelate that we must ensure that the delicate balance between all communities in Northern Ireland is maintained and the UK Government pursue policies for sustained economic growth and stability in Northern Ireland—the best route to sustaining peace, as the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, just reminded us. The statement that these have always been, and will remain, the Government’s priorities applies to all clauses of this Bill, not just Clause 44. Therefore, the Government do not consider it is necessary for this further step to be introduced, but we fully appreciate and endorse the motives and concerns of the opposers so powerfully spoken to by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames…