Northern Ireland Protocol Bill: Bishop of Coventry raises concerns about trust in the UK

The Bishop of Coventry spoke in a debate on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill on 11th October 2022:

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts. I have no experience of living with the protocol and no expertise in the technicalities of the Bill. However, reflecting on it has sent me to Hannah Arendt’s seminal analysis of the human condition.

Arendt spoke of the unpredictability of human life that arises from, as she put it, the “basic unreliability” of human beings,

“who can never guarantee today who they will be tomorrow”;

this applies also to their successors. The remedy for unpredictability and unreliability, Arendt contended, is the faculty of promise making. Promises provide the stability that enables common life to be established and maintained in an uncertain future. As the wisdom of age-old liturgy puts it, they should be not entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but soberly and after serious thought.

The reaction to this Bill has been strong, at the root of which is a visceral sense that promises made and accepted in good faith are being unmade, and that the stability on which human community relies is being shaken. These roots go deeper. In my dealings over the Brexit years with European colleagues through Coventry’s many links, I saw how many of them felt that covenants to common life, upon which they had built their futures, were crumbling beneath them, and that the British could no longer be trusted.

I recognise the complexities of applying Arendt’s analysis to the Bill. There are many, of course, who regard the protocol as the undoing of promises made to the people of Northern Ireland over the generations, some enshrined in law and some in other agreements. However, I share concerns that the Bill risks not only reinforcing attitudes of distrust with European partners, including Ireland, just at the point in history where concerted action is needed between allies, but undermining our reputation in a world where future security and peace will rely on the capacity of states to make and keep their promises.

Is this not the time for a reconciliation of relationships, for the healing of the wounds of recent history, for rebuilding trust for the cause of peace? As we have heard, the new Government have shown they have seen that need and are ready to grasp that opportunity. The positive reactions of European leaders to the signals sent by the Conservative Party conference, the Prime Minister’s part in the European Political Community meeting and the public comments of the Northern Ireland Minister, together with the opening comments of the Minister today, show that the protocol gives a chance to reset the relationship between the UK and EU, rather than further disrupt it.

My hope is that the problems of the protocol—which I do not doubt—will be resolved in that spirit through constructive negotiation, and that trust in the good faith of the UK will be restored. My concern is that this Bill will threaten that good work.

I was moved by the Archbishop of Armagh’s sermon in Belfast Cathedral during our recent commemorations. With a diocese sitting in two jurisdictions, he knows something about the tensions between communities and how they have been heightened by the protocol. Conscious of Her Majesty’s part in reconciliation between the peoples, the archbishop said:

“Reconciliation is about the restoration of broken relationships, and the word should never be cheapened by pretending it is an easy thing to achieve. By and large in the work of reconciliation most of our victories will be achieved quietly and in private”.

Now is the opportune time for that quiet diplomacy, which will bear much fruit in public.


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