Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL] Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Northern Ireland Office
Lord Browne of Belmont Portrait Lord Browne of Belmont (DUP)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, first, I add my condemnation of the vile footage regarding the McAreavey family, which was wrong and hurtful.

I speak against the backdrop of an ongoing political crisis in Northern Ireland. Regrettably, this is not the first time I have uttered that phrase in your Lordships’ House. Although Northern Ireland has seen much progress in recent years, there has now been a considerable period of uncertainty, in large part due to the issues regarding the Northern Ireland protocol. It is challenging to discuss any new legislation on Northern Ireland without first acknowledging and discussing the impact of the protocol and how we have arrived at this point. Beyond costing the Northern Ireland economy £100,000 per hour, the protocol has driven up haulage costs between Great Britain and Northern Ireland by 27%. It has facilitated a divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom by virtue of a border in the Irish Sea.

I welcome recent comments and proposed action from Her Majesty’s Government, who have now accepted the very real harm the protocol is doing. I will support all attempts to find solutions to the protocol through negotiation and through legislation which respects Northern Ireland’s position as an integral part of the United Kingdom. I will also support new legislation which enhances and protects the integrity of the United Kingdom’s single economic market.

As regards the Bill, my party, the Democratic Unionist Party, originally re-entered the Executive in 2020 based on the agreement reached called New Decade, New Approach. That agreement included a range of measures dealing with various issues and respecting different cultures and identities. However, at the heart of New Decade, New Approach was a commitment to safeguard and protect Northern Ireland’s place within the internal UK market. To legislate on one or two parts of this agreement without urgently addressing this key element would be to approach New Decade, New Approach in an unbalanced fashion. That would not be the way to prioritise support for the Belfast agreement and its institutions.

We all want a devolved Government who deliver for everyone in Northern Ireland and who can build on stable foundations for the future. I believe in devolved, fair and workable government. For a Government to work in the long term, they must be based on the foundations of mutual respect. The Democratic Unionist Party indicated clearly in 2017 that it could not support legislation for Irish on a basis that would elevate the Irish language above English or reduce career opportunities for those who do not speak the language. Although those overt provisions are not included in the Bill, there exists a clear imbalance in status granted under the proposals to Irish and Ulster Scots.

My party has made it clear that we do not object to people speaking in the Irish language or having their children educated in the Irish language if that is their wish. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Executive have in the past contributed many millions of pounds in funding towards the promotion of and education in the Irish language. We have, however, objected to, and do object to, the politicisation of any language which means that these issues have, regrettably, at times, seemed to be divisive.

Looking at some of the specific proposals in the Bill, there seems to be no reciprocal requirement for public authorities to provide an action plan on how they will fulfil their obligations to the Ulster-British tradition, whereas this is required in respect of Irish language best practice standards. It is unclear from the Bill whether the office of identity and cultural expression would be able to fund single-identity projects, and it would be preferable if that was specifically referenced in the Bill.

In order to maintain the confidence that unionists have in the Government on this Bill, it is crucial that the Government deliver on the parallel provisions in New Decade, New Approach on the Armed Forces Act and on rolling out the Armed Forces covenant across all parts of the United Kingdom. In dealing with all these issues, there must be fairness and equality in delivering for all people, regardless of their community background or tradition, and based on the principles of equality, fairness, respect and consent. Respect and consent are key words in all this, and all this can be achieved if there is the will.

I am sure there will be additional opportunities to scrutinise the details of the Bill and move any necessary amendments in Committee. Her Majesty’s Government must be balanced when addressing these issues, and must take into account the concerns and views of the unionist community as well as the concerns of others. To date, the concerns of others have been addressed. As a unionist, I value and cherish my British identity and respect all those who value and cherish their Irish identity. All the pro-union supporters in Northern Ireland ask in return is that others respect their values, too.