Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Lord Browne of Belmont Portrait Lord Browne of Belmont (DUP)
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My Lords, first, I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister to his position. Having served for more than 30 years in the Northern Ireland Office, he is eminently qualified on these matters and has considerable understanding of the issues that the people of Northern Ireland face.

The Bill, though far from perfect, has my party’s support, as it goes some way towards delivering on items agreed in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. Due to the nature of institutions at Stormont, decision-making can be a slow process; a conversation about reform will perhaps be a debate for another time. Any coalition Government made up of parties with diametrically opposed political ideologies will always be challenging. Ultimately, it is about people’s willingness to get together to try to find a solution that works. In Northern Ireland agreements to date, consensus decision-making has been built in and seen as the priority over a simple majority system. In negotiations and in the daily operations of the Stormont institutions, consensus is essential in achieving successful outcomes.

On petitions of concern specifically, in the past there have been incidents where the mechanism has been misused. On other occasions, the tool has been used in a way that reflects the reality that on some key issues there is no consensus. In some instances where a petition of concern has been used, this is a clear indication that an issue has been pushed forward without any real agreement. For this reason, I support the provisions proposed in the Bill—namely, the idea of a 14-day cooling-off period for petitions of concern. Stability is required, and the 14-day period in this Bill is welcome, as it would allow a period for people to find agreement and a way forward.

The main objective of devolution was to give the people of Northern Ireland a say on legislation that affects their lives; it allows them directly to elect their decision-makers and hold them accountable. When dealing with issues related to Northern Ireland, we must be mindful of this. If significant amendments or changes to agreements are planned, or new legislation is introduced, the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives must have a say. In our deliberations, we must seek to respect the devolution principle and the principle of consent which underpins it, rather than attempting to breach it.

We cannot discuss the real-time realities of Northern Ireland at this time without acknowledging the threats presented economically and constitutionally by the Northern Ireland protocol. Northern Ireland’s representatives and the rights of the people they represent are being undermined by the protocol and the imposition of its Irish Sea border. With the latest comments from the CEO of Marks & Spencer, and previous comments from other leading supermarkets regarding trade in Northern Ireland, the negative effect on the import of goods from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland is there for all to see. Regrettably, policymakers in Brussels and elsewhere are either blind to or ignorant of this.

I hope for practical solutions, which would see the removal of the Irish Sea border and the integrity of the UK’s internal market fully restored. However, inaction cannot be allowed to cripple businesses in Northern Ireland. Many small and medium-sized businesses rely on the supply chain from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and the present uncertainty is destroying livelihoods in many instances. Those who support the protocol are not only calling for the long-term integrity of the UK internal market to be put into serious question but prioritising the 23% of Northern Ireland’s trade that is with the EU over the 77% of the trade that is with the rest of the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The volume of domestic trade between all parts of the UK highlights the importance of finding a workable, long-term solution that protects everyone. What we have at present is unsustainable. The uncertainty caused by the protocol breeds instability, which in turn can unfortunately lead to hostility. The people of Northern Ireland have suffered enough.

When we discuss the institutions of government, we look at the agreements on which they are built. The most fundamental pillar of the Belfast agreement and subsequent peace agreements is the principle of consent; Northern Ireland’s devolved settlement is based on that. However, the protocol has set that principle aside and undermined the very institutions that we are seeking to improve.

Many people in Northern Ireland feel that these regulations, which have been imposed upon them, run contrary to everything that they understand about democracy and the democratic principles that underpin Northern Ireland’s society. The people of Northern Ireland did not consent to spending more for goods, waiting longer for medicines or becoming second-class citizens within this United Kingdom.

It is regrettable that after so much progress in our society, in our politics and in Northern Ireland’s economic attractiveness on the global stage, this protocol risks taking us backwards. Does the Minister agree that we need to see a workable solution to this issue soon, and can he confirm whether it is the Government’s intention to set a deadline for the end of these negotiations with the EU?

It is quite clear that invoking Article 16 is rapidly becoming a necessary response. I support the Bill and I trust that it will go some way towards achieving stability in Northern Ireland.