Lord Trimble debates involving the Scotland Office during the 2017-2019 Parliament

Wed 17th Jul 2019
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
Lords Chamber

Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Mon 15th Jul 2019
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Wed 10th Jul 2019
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Tue 19th Mar 2019
Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Tue 30th Oct 2018
Tue 30th Oct 2018
Wed 2nd May 2018
European Union (Withdrawal) Bill
Lords Chamber

Report: 5th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Wednesday 17th July 2019

(4 years, 11 months ago)

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Lord Eames Portrait Lord Eames
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My Lords, throughout this evening, in all our debates and the important decisions that have been taken according to our custom and the way we work, there has been, like in a theatre, a backcloth to everything we have done. I believe that even at this late stage, referring to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, we need to put on record what has been clearly exposed tonight: that we have been rushing through matters of supreme importance to the country from which I come. Our representatives feel very deeply that the questions being asked tonight, although they cover very important issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, were not what we were really questioning. What we were really questioning tonight was the theory of devolution, which from its infancy was geared to give us, within the United Kingdom, the local relevance and integrity that we hoped would emerge. So, in supporting the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, at this late stage, I suggest to the long-suffering Minister that he take back that which I refer to as the tapestry, which in fact surrounds everything we have experienced in the Chamber today. What is being asked about devolution, and how can we correct it?

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, turning back to look at the Bill, one should remember what its purpose is. It was to put provisions in place to enable an Executive to be formed. Under existing legislation, there is a period of time in which that has to happen. It is then a question of prolonging that time. Essentially, the Bill was providing more time for this.

There was no surprise about that. This is the fourth or fifth time that there has been a need to provide legislation. People knew that this was going to come and, from the way in which the talks are taking place between the parties in Northern Ireland, they would have had a fair idea of the likelihood of carrying this legislation. There was nothing urgent about it. Nothing surprising had to be done. There was the possibility of putting the legislation into motion at an earlier stage. If someone then came along and tried to hang additional things on it, there would be time to consider them properly.

We have not had the chance to do that. When one considers the matters that have been looked at today, and compares that to what would have happened if, instead of being a Bill relating to Northern Ireland, it was a Bill relating to Scotland or England, would it have been handled with the same speed, without looking carefully at what the problems might be? There was no serious concentration. We had a Committee stage, but it did not function as a normal Committee, as we can see by the limited number of things that were mentioned.

It was not proper legislation and there was no justification for handling it in that way. With more time, we might have had better debates and been able to tease out some of the things that were causing even the Minister difficulty to work out. Noble Lords will notice that what I am saying has been said repeatedly by Committees of this House: this procedure is flawed and ought not to be followed again. I wonder if there will be any change or if we will just plough on, hoping that an Assembly or Executive are formed and scrambling at the last minute to put them together.

In the course of this debate, noble Lords have referred to devolution and their desire to see it restored in Northern Ireland. If devolution does function again, it would mean that our 90 Assembly Members would be able to return to Stormont to discuss and debate things and consider what they are doing. However, they cannot do that as things stand. Assembly Members themselves cannot form the Administration. Legislation would need to be enacted if Westminster wanted immediately to bring the Assembly into existence for some limited purpose. Some of us have suggested doing that, but I have not seen any willingness on the part of the Government to encourage the Assembly to function even on limited matters.

A very limited consultation is suggested here. It says that the Secretary of State must,

“consult individually members of the Northern Ireland Assembly”.

That is set out in a very bare way. Nobody has talked about the details of the consultation or how thorough it would be. It simply refers to speaking to Members of the Assembly and to considering and reporting on their views. That is a very small step to take in finding things out. I do not know what the outcome will be. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, spoke vigorously earlier about the changes of views that he has detected. If that is the case, no doubt it would be reflected in the views that Assembly Members would give to the Secretary of State if she phoned them up and asked them what they think. It would be an easy step to take and it might help to restore some of those Members’ self-respect. People do not appreciate just how traumatic their situation is: they were elected to serve in an Assembly but are unable to do so, and they have nothing else besides general activities to turn their hand to because they have no way of influencing the powers that be.

This is a modest measure to try to get a degree of consultation. Of course, the Minister spoke earlier about consultations on particular matters being conducted over several months. In that timescale, he could easily get in touch with the 90 Assembly Members, see what their views are and let us know. That would be a good step forward, coming as it does at the end of the evening.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Monday 15th July 2019

(4 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, I rise to support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Cormack for the reasons that he gave in moving it. It is very wise to give more time for this. I notice that he is suggesting 13 January instead of 31 October, which gives a couple of extra months, but I rather like the idea of putting down 10 April and reminding people that it is the anniversary of the making of that agreement, which, when it was mooted, was agreed to by referenda with substantial majorities. The effect of that has not gone away. It is generally assumed in Northern Ireland that that agreement provides the basis for the local Administration.

Unfortunately, others are trying to undermine the agreement. Indeed, the worst of those trying to undermine the agreement—thankfully, at the moment it looks as though they will be unsuccessful—are the European Union, the Irish Government and our own Government. That is precisely what they are doing. I shall not go into great detail, although I can do so. I have been scribbling on this subject and something might emerge shortly, so I shall not start at this stage. We are not into a filibuster yet but, if the need comes, I am prepared to engage at some length on what I have just said. Putting in the date that reminds people of the agreement might, I hope, be an incentive to those who should be working to restore the Administration so that we have no further need of this legislation. We know that, because of the length of the hiatus in the institutions, the hope is not all that great, but it is worth reminding people of this and perhaps giving somebody’s conscience a prick ever so slightly on the subject.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O’Loan (CB)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who, as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is one of the architects of the Good Friday agreement. I pay tribute to him for his tireless work for peace in Northern Ireland over so many years.

I am pleased to support the amendment to the Bill moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The final, real purpose of the Bill is to prevent an election to enable more time for the talks to take place. All these dates will do is to make further accommodation. The amendment is not inconsistent with the main purpose of the Bill.

I spoke at Second Reading, and since then thousands have told me of their concern. I will speak more of that later. If the Bill could pass to give effect to its original purpose, it would be better to extend the period because, apart from anything else, at present Northern Ireland is on holiday. For example, I was trying to call the Minister through the Northern Ireland Office this morning, but all the numbers seemed not to work. I could not get anyone, and my suspicion is that this is a public holiday in Northern Ireland and that is why I was unable to get him. That tells you something about rushing a Bill that will make such a profound constitutional change through your Lordships’ House this week. The talks seem to have been very difficult, but they are being conducted by the Government. They have been facilitated and enabled by the Government, and the Minister has told us how committed they are to these talks and the future creation of a Northern Ireland Executive, which would allow the Assembly to go back and give us a functioning Government. They are vital to our future. They are, in the context of Brexit, critical to the peace process and to the peace, stability and economic prosperity of the United Kingdom. I am very pleased to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Lord again brings his experience to the debate. We cannot keep funding futility, however that manages to manifest itself. There will be consequences if we cannot move these matters forward, and they need to be felt by those who are affected directly inside those rooms. I will take away the noble Lord’s point and think it over.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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My apologies for interrupting the Minister, but following on from what has just been said about salaries for people who are not doing what they should be doing, could that principle not be extended to the other end of the building? It would have a significant effect if it were, because for a certain party that does not send its Members to carry out their tasks in this building, that money is then diffused into the funding of that organisation as a whole. It would bring significant pressure to bear if we were to apply that principle to the other end of the building, and we would see quite significant movement as a result.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Lord takes me into even deeper waters—and we are only in the first half hour of what may well be a long day. I understand the point he makes, of course; I appreciate exactly what he is saying. But that may be a discussion for another time. If he will allow me, I shall return to the amendment in hand.

With some regret, I say to my noble friend Lord Cormack that I hope he will understand that I am asking him to withdraw the amendment, not because it is not necessary to have time, but because we need to balance out that time—the carrot—with the stick of a deadline. We need to make sure that we are making progress to allow for the necessary secondary steps—an election to take place and so forth—in good time. Otherwise we will reach ever more frequent deadlines and anniversaries relating to the absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland, which the people of Northern Ireland can, unfortunately, little bear.

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What will happen at the end of the day if direct rule has to be imposed? I easily guess we would then fall in line with what our colleagues in another place said, but I believe passionately that, if we move too precipitately, we endanger the very thing we are all protesting that we want to safeguard: namely, devolution. On that basis, and with those strong feelings, I commend these amendments to your Lordships’ House. I beg to move.
Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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My Lords, looking at Amendment 10, the key thing I see is,

“offering a consultation with the people of Northern Ireland if no Executive has been established”,

by the date mentioned. It is really indefensible that we sit here acquiescing in the continued non-existence of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

I understand why my noble friend has put this amendment forward. I am slightly uncomfortable that the amendment is a bit passive—

“if no Executive has been established”.

One should really do more than just say, “We will do this if it happens, but we don’t appear to be doing much else to keep things going”. I know there is a talks process under way from time to time, and sometimes I hear people saying that they are very close and that things are going well. I very much hope that that is the case, but we have been here before and had negotiations that were getting very close—then some gentlemen whom we rarely see or hear anything from send their messages in and the landscape shifts considerably.

In an earlier debate, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, referred to the fact that this is not just a matter of interest to Her Majesty’s Government but that another Government are involved. That brings back to mind the agreement we made nearly 22 years ago. That agreement had two elements to it: the multi-party talks, which happily came to a positive conclusion, and the agreement between Her Majesty’s Government and the Irish Government, which finds expression in legislation passed by this House. In that very short agreement, which I think had only two or three clauses, the first clause—the important one—contained a solemn undertaking by Her Majesty’s Government and the Irish Government to support the product of the multi-party talks; in other words, to support the steps we took towards the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and to support the Assembly itself.

I draw the attention of Her Majesty’s Government to the fact that they have an obligation to support the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not think they are discharging that obligation. It is true that you have to proceed via agreement with the parties, but one must go further than saying, “We’ll leave it up to the parties”. That is not supporting it.

Since this unhappy situation came about, a number of Members of this House have made proposals from time to time about what could be done. I did that several times myself until I started wondering what the point was of trying to work up something that gives another way forward if there is no sign of any support coming from the sources from which it should come. Unfortunately, where there is an obligation on Her Majesty’s Government to support an Assembly—and, by extension, to support those trying to bring it about, even though that means going a roundabout route and applying pressure to various parties—there should really be more consideration from them about their obligation and how and when they will implement it.

Amendment 18 says that regulations,

“must be introduced if no Executive has been established”.

I know it is a bit premature to try to work out at this stage what the form of those regulations would be, but, if there is a legal obligation on the Government to introduce some regulations at that point, that is to be welcomed, as it might help accelerate the rather anaemic processes that are going on at the moment.

These are suggestions to think about, but I bring the Committee’s attention back to the fact that that agreement was made on the basis that there would be good faith from the Government in implementing it. They responded by making a solemn undertaking. I now invite them to fulfil it.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
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My Lords, I cannot endorse the words of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, too strongly. He is absolutely right. Consultation is essential if Northern Ireland is to have any sense that there was integrity in the intentions of the Government in what they have done in the past.

As I have told noble Lords, over the weekend I received 15,000 signatories to my letter to the Prime Minister; I keep getting texts, and the number seems to be rising by a thousand an hour. There is another side to this that I do not think noble Lords are aware of. Given that Northern Ireland voted not to leave the European Union, if we move towards Brexit and we simultaneously move to direct rule, many of the unionists in Northern Ireland—my noble colleagues may contradict me—would reject that. They will want a Northern Ireland Assembly; we are capable of governing ourselves in these devolved matters.

I know from what is written that the nationalist people of Northern Ireland would reject it utterly. For them, it would be the end of the Good Friday agreement; it would be the end of support from the British Government for the institutions of the Good Friday agreement; it would imperil our peace process. Equally, it would create a construct within which the reunification of Ireland would become rapidly more likely. If Northern Ireland is not allowed to govern itself and space is not made for the talks which need to take place, direct rule, which has been a very bad thing for Northern Ireland, will inevitably follow.

I say to noble Lords with a heavy heart that, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said on Wednesday, they are walking on very sacred ground as they contemplate these issues. It is not just about abortion; it is about the whole devolved settlement, the integrity of government and the future peace and prosperity of all four parts of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Lord Trimble Excerpts
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Wednesday 10th July 2019

(4 years, 11 months ago)

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Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, this is a Bill that we have seen many times before and we understand the reasons for it.

I am sorry; I intended to start by paying tribute to Sir Anthony Hart, who I knew well in my university days. He made a very significant contribution to the law in Northern Ireland and I would like to join those who have offered condolences to his family.

The Minister was quite brief in opening this debate, and I can understand why. Like the rest of us, he is not really clear about what has happened or what is likely to happen. We are in a very unusual situation. Unfortunately, this House and the other place have been going steadily downhill for the last year or two. We now see the sort of shenanigans that are going to be introduced here, the way they were in the other place. We can expect Amendment 14—the one that the Government won—to be reintroduced here. It will be interesting to see what the approach will be in this House. I would not like to predict what the situation will be.

I understand a lot of the chagrin that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, feels about this matter. However, he was sailing close at some points to blaming the Government for this shambles, when it was not the Government’s fault. They tried to prevent some of the amendments that were tabled and were successful in some areas. We do not know what the Government are going to do next week; I am sure that the Minister cannot give us an answer at the moment. However, we see that the processes in this House are being hijacked, partly by the clique in the Commons which is trying to prevent us leaving the European Union. That is not something of which they should be proud. There are also other issues which have been mentioned with regard to abortion and same-sex marriage. Those are delicate matters. I have found myself taking a particular position with regard to same-sex marriage, which was forced upon me when my elder daughter got married to her girlfriend. I cannot change that, and I cannot now go around saying that I am opposed to it because I acquiesced to it. There we are.

With regard to abortion, I find it rather curious. I know that there are strong feelings on that issue as well. People say the law this and the law that, and various campaigns are trying to urge Parliament to extend legislation to Northern Ireland, but I find that people are not looking closely at what the law is. The law on abortion in Northern Ireland is partly on statute but most of it flows from common law, from the Bourne case of 1939. People say that abortion is banned in Northern Ireland. It is not; abortion is legal in Northern Ireland. I see heads shaking on the other side of the Chamber but they are wrongly shaken. I think there is only one situation that is not covered. There is a gap with regard to foetal abnormality, and I think that is the only point where the law in Northern Ireland diverges from the law here.

I mentioned the Bourne case. I decided that I would go and look at it again because it has been many years since I have read it. In 1939, a 14 year-old girl who had been raped by five soldiers and became pregnant afterwards was obviously distraught about her situation. She found a surgeon in a London hospital who was prepared to conduct an abortion, and then the legal system came into effect. The legal decision that flows from that—it actually flows from Section 59 of the 1861 Act—is the beginning of the law on abortion in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The judge’s interpretation of that, having regard also to the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, was that a person who procures an abortion in good faith for the purpose of preserving the life of the woman is not guilty of an offence. When we talk about preserving the life of the woman, the key part of the judgment states that,

“those words ought to be construed in a reasonable sense, and, if the doctor is of the opinion, on reasonable grounds and with adequate knowledge, that the probable consequence of the continuance of the pregnancy will be to make the woman a physical or mental wreck … the doctor who, under those circumstances and in that honest belief, operates, is operating for the purpose of preserving the life of the mother”.

That is the law in Northern Ireland. It is also the guts of the Abortion Act 1967. The key passage in the provisions in that Act, setting out the circumstances where abortion can be carried out, is,

“and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman”.

Those are virtually the same terms as in the Bourne case. Those who want a campaign to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland are talking only about whether the law is going to be enshrined in legislation or enshrined in case law; the substance is the same. So there is no necessity for what the Commons did yesterday, and what they did has not advanced the case that some persons obviously want to advance. As I heard from behind me, the way that the Commons behaved is going to make it more difficult to deal with the situation.

I have dealt with two of the matters for which the proceedings have been hijacked. The other, of course, comes back to Amendment 14, as I mentioned, which purports to be something that is going to block a no-deal departure from the EU. We do not know what is going to happen. Amendment 14 was not actually carried last night but the elements around that amendment are there. Indeed, Dominic Grieve said in last night’s debate that without Amendment 14 he thinks he can still achieve the same objective, but we will see as and when that happens.

I want to say something about this no deal business. I do not know whether people have a good, clear, evidence-based reason to support the contention that leaving the European Union on WTO terms is a disaster. I do not see any evidence for that at all. We will see when the time comes. I think that a few days after we leave the European Union there will be a lot of red faces in this building, but I will leave it at that.

There may be something beneficial in all this. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, referred to when Sinn Féin pulled the plug on the Northern Ireland Assembly. At that time, one of the factors in its mind was that it thought it could exploit Brexit in order to get an electoral boost in southern Ireland. It has not worked. A very encouraging, little-known fact is that Sinn Féin lost half its seats in the local elections in the south just a short time ago. In the opinion polls, it is going down sharply. The Irish Taoiseach also thought he could gain politically from causing an issue over Brexit, but the situation is not looking so good. Consequentially, getting Brexit finished, and finished quickly, will help people to focus on other serious issues and there will be a better chance of restoring the Assembly in that context. We should hope for that to come quickly and smoothly and then we can all settle down to do some serious work.

Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Bill

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 19th March 2019

(5 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Mackay of Clashfern Portrait Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Con)
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My Lords, this is undoubtedly an extremely complicated situation, but I think the principle is that when a member of the public makes an investment in a government scheme, that member of the public is entitled to trust the terms on which the scheme was launched. Therefore there can be no doubt that those who invested in the scheme, relying on the Government’s statement of what was involved, are entitled to be protected by the Government from any failure on their part to meet the terms on which the scheme was set up. That rule applies to the United Kingdom Government, but also to the Governments of the devolved Administrations. That is the basic principle which cannot be set aside by any legislation that we may pass here, although the ultimate terms of the performance obligation are a matter that we cannot determine here, for various reasons that have been given. The principle seems to me absolutely clear and sound.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, I think we have just heard a contribution that settles the issue to a large extent and indicates what should be done by the Government when the various reports become available. I say “the various reports” because there are two. There is the statutory inquiry conducted by Patrick Coghlin and the inquiry to be held by the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee. But there is no overlap here: the first looks to the past and how the scheme was framed and administered, whereas I hope the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee report will be more focused on the future and how one sorts out the problem beneficially for people. I am a bit worried to see the DUP nodding their heads at this stage; I will not say anything more in case I am accused of being political about the matter, which of course I am not.

The only other point I make is to thank the Government and the Chief Whip for giving us this evening to discuss this matter. It has been commented earlier, and on earlier legislation, that the way legislation is handled here during the regrettable absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly is not itself satisfactory. It was heart-warming to see the spontaneous revolt on the Floor of this House last week against the provisions to rush through this legislation in a way that would not have enabled us to discuss it in the way we have this evening. I am glad the Chief Whip listened and gave us the time, and I also thank the many noble Lords who have come in to listen to this discussion. That too is heart-warming for us.

Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointment Functions) Regulations 2019

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Monday 18th February 2019

(5 years, 4 months ago)

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Lord Wigley Portrait Lord Wigley (PC)
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My Lords, these questions go beyond the direct area of Northern Ireland, although obviously that is the greatest priority. They affect the workings of the intergovernmental mechanisms that bring Wales, Scotland and England together as well. There is a danger of that dimension picking up its own momentum and of Northern Ireland not being adequately involved. I hope that that will also be borne in mind as we try to make progress on these matters.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, I support what the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said. I agree entirely with the comments of the noble Lord opposite, but I want to open up something that touches slightly on what he said—and I am afraid that in doing this, I may add to the list of things that the Minister has to consider.

I noticed that in his introduction the Minister made reference to the Belfast agreement. The Belfast agreement is in a very difficult situation at the moment, because the Government’s withdrawal agreement takes the heart out of the Belfast agreement and rips it to pieces. To give detail on that, I draw Members’ attention to a paper that may be on the Policy Exchange website this afternoon, but which will be generally available quite soon thereafter, by Graham Gudgin, who has gone in detail through the ways in which the withdrawal agreement destroys the Belfast agreement—it is as strong as that. That will also impact on the possibility of doing something through the mechanisms of the agreement for consultation between the Government and the people of Northern Ireland and bringing in other parties. This is another matter which cannot be left in abeyance. Does the Minister have any thoughts about what the Government can do to restore the health of the Belfast agreement?

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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My Lords, on Thursday last, my noble friend came to the Dispatch Box and gave another interim Statement, saying that he hoped before long to come back with definitive pronouncements. I asked him specifically about two issues. First, if we cannot have the Executive restored, which we would all like, surely the Assembly, which has been elected and the Members of which are still paid, could meet. There is no insuperable obstacle; my noble friend Lord Trimble has made this point on several previous occasions and is nodding now.

The other point I referred to was the appointment of what my noble friend referred to as a “facilitator”—I do not much like the word—who would be impartial and would preside over the meeting of interested parties. We must recognise the fact referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, I think: namely, that the very existence of a pact between the Government and the DUP means that there is a perception that the Government are not as even-handed as I am personally convinced that they are. That is a problem.

My noble friend referred to my next point last Thursday and I bring him back to it. We are having a series of holding Statements and measures such as the one this afternoon—I endorse what my noble friend Lord Lexden asked: what are the criteria?—but there comes a point, and it is coming very soon, when a real initiative must be taken by the Secretary of State to try to get the Assembly functioning and the power-sharing Executive restored. It is now more than 20 years—almost 21 years, I must get my maths right—since the Belfast agreement: an historic agreement which gave great comfort and joy to many people and which, for a time, worked extremely well. We are now teetering on the brink of the imposition of direct rule—and we must face up to that, because we cannot go on like this.

No one in his or her right mind wants the reimposition of direct rule, with all the problems and regression implicit in it. So I beg my noble friend to add a little, when he comes to respond, to what he said on Thursday last. We all admire him—I am one of those who believe that if he had been put in charge, things might have moved at a slightly faster pace—but we want him to tell us something that will give real, positive encouragement and will amount to a promise of a true initiative taken, I very much hope, before 26 March.

Northern Ireland: Devolved Government

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Thursday 24th January 2019

(5 years, 5 months ago)

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The time of active consideration is drawing to a close. We now need to move forward on this matter. A facilitator will be an aspect we need to take forward. We are now talking about a matter of weeks to try to achieve this. I welcome the comments from the noble Lord behind me, because we need to have everyone in that room. This is now the time, but we are talking about weeks.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, is the problem not that you cannot bring in an arbitrator unless the parties agree to it? It is very obvious that one party is not willing to do that. Consequently, it is time for the Government to go to other procedures, not even to wait until then. If the Government take some action to enable the Assembly, or Assembly Members, to meet to discuss local services, that would be a step forward and would put pressure on Sinn Féin to come in.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My noble friend will recall that, when we last discussed this, one aspect of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act was to give stronger guidance to the civil servants, and we have done that. However, the point he raises remains valid. An independent arbiter cannot solve all the problems. The problems will ultimately have to be solved by the politicians in Northern Ireland. As I said in answer to questions earlier, we are now talking about a matter of weeks, not months or years.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, I have a lot of sympathy with the suggestion made by the noble Lord that we could have benefited from a procedure that allowed a more thorough examination of the legislation. However, we are where we are, and we are dealing with legislation which at the moment has to be acknowledged to be necessary. It is necessary because, for a long time now, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been vulnerable to a judicial review, and while that has not matured, she does need the provision that is in here to protect her against that.

Another factor that has been mentioned is with regard to doubt over the capacity of civil servants to take decisions in these matters, and here I just do not understand the problem. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 is quite clear: Section 8 puts executive powers in departments. Very clearly, the devolution is to departments. We could have a long argument about how this came about, because it flies against normal British practice, but this happened. There are hypotheses about it, but I am not going to go into the question of how it came about; I am simply saying that is the law, and that is the law that civil servants are exercising. Civil servants may find it embarrassing, but the law is as it is in the 1920 Act.

Clause 4 has been referred to, and I agree with a lot of the negative comments made with regard to it, but I have to say there is again another misunderstanding of what the law is. With regard to the law in Northern Ireland, the only substantive difference between the law in Northern Ireland and the law in England and Wales on abortion is the question of foetal abnormality. On all other matters the law is the same, in terms of the substance of the law. What is different is that the law in England is in statute law, but in Northern Ireland it is in common law: judicial decisions, including the Bourne decision in 1938. The problem then lies with the lack of a clear process and a way of proceeding. It is all very well to say, “Go and see your GP and he should arrange an abortion for you”. I do not think that that happens very often, but that is basically what should happen under our law. Rather than people having to go to England and spend thousands of pounds, they should be able to go to their GPs. Unfortunately, some doctors do not display the courage or constancy that is required. A further problem has been that various people put the health service under pressure to produce guidelines, which resulted in the Civil Service producing guidelines that were overly cautious and narrower than the law. Those guidelines should be dumped and we should have a clearer understanding of the law. Again, I do not want to spend too long on this point, although it has to be made. I am afraid that I disagree with some noble Lords—indeed, some noble Lords who are highly learned in the law—but I am confident that the situation is as I have stated it.

We should focus on the political problem in trying to resolve the difficulties. I agree with a lot of what my noble friend Lord Empey said. He gave a very clear description of the problems and of the way in which, unfortunately, the Government have not been able to progress matters in the way that we would like. However, that is understandable as we have so much on our plates at the moment. I can well understand someone saying to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, “Don’t bring me any new problems”. I am sure that that is the sort of thing that is being said there, but it is unfortunate that we do not have a viable political process to bring about a restoration of devolution.

There would be difficulties with that, because it is quite clear that Sinn Féin does not want to see Stormont restored. We need to find a process analogous to that which happened way back in 1997, when Tony Blair became Prime Minister and made his first speech outside London, in Belfast, in which he said to the republican movement, “A settlement train is coming. I want you to be on the train, but it will be going with or without you”. That put pressure on Sinn Féin to come into the process. We now need to find a way of exerting that kind of pressure on Sinn Féin to get things moving, because it will not move without pressure. One likes to think that, once Brexit is resolved, it might be prepared to look at things, but I am beginning to have doubts about whether it will really want to do that.

So the question is: how do we exert the necessary pressure? I have put forward proposals on these matters on previous occasions, but nothing has happened, probably because those proposals were too ambitious. This time, I am going to the opposite extreme and will table an amendment later today which is as cautious as I can make it. In fact, I cannot think of anything that could be more cautious than what I am about to propose, but it might start something moving, which is what we need to happen.

Finally, there have been a number of unkind comments, particularly in the debate in the other place, about Northern Ireland MLAs drawing salaries when there is no Assembly for them to participate in. That is not their fault—unless they are Sinn Féin Members, in which case I think they have to bear some responsibility. They are trying to do their best in their own way, and I shall give a little plug for my own MLA in Lisburn, Robbie Butler. One of the things he is doing to try to keep politics alive is that normally, on a weekly basis, he transmits videos that deal with various issues, and they are very effective. In September, he issued a video on suicide awareness and it has had 34,000 viewings, which is incredible in the current context. I declare an interest in this matter. It is not just that Robbie is my MLA; he has had the good sense to employ my son in his office. I mention that to show that MLAs are doing the best that can be expected of them in the present circumstances. However, it is our responsibility, and particularly the Government’s responsibility, to put them back into the circumstances they ought to be in—in a functioning Assembly.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill

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Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis
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My Lords, in moving Amendment 10 I shall speak also to Amendment 11. The intent of these amendments, although they had to be drafted in a more complex way, is very simple: if the Northern Ireland Assembly has not legislated for equal marriage and abortion rights in Northern Ireland by next May, equal marriage and abortion should, by the authority of this Parliament, be made legal in Northern Ireland next May.

I do not intend at this late hour to press this matter to a vote, but my first comment is that I believe, based on the balance of parliamentary opinion in this House and the other House, that if the Northern Ireland Assembly does not move to address these basic issues of civil rights over the next year or so, Parliament will be left with little choice but to act in this manner. Particularly on the basis of the vote held in the House of Commons last week, where there was a majority of 100 in favour of Stella Creasy’s amendment, the intent of which was clearly that abortion and equal marriage should be legalised, although it is not possible to do it through this Bill, I believe that it is the very clear view of the House of Commons that it would move pretty swiftly in that direction if the Northern Ireland Assembly does not.

Clearly, this needs to be reconciled, if possible, with devolution. The right way to do that is to give the opportunity for a new Executive to be formed in Northern Ireland and for the Northern Ireland Assembly to consider this issue, in the expectation that Northern Ireland will not remain the only part of the British Isles where equal marriage and abortion rights are not recognised. It is my belief, however—and I can only express my view—that if the Northern Ireland Assembly is not prepared to act in that regard, the Parliament of the United Kingdom will be obliged to do so in due course. Sending that message out from this House is quite an important signal to politicians in Northern Ireland that there is really not an option for Northern Ireland to continue for any long period of time to deny what many of us would regard as fundamental human rights.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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I have a simple point. I am sorry to repeat myself from earlier on today, but abortion is legal in Northern Ireland. There is only one small point of difference in the law between Northern Ireland and England and Wales. Therefore, to talk about denial or otherwise is wrong: it is not a matter of law. The problems lie elsewhere.

Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis
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My Lords, your Lordships will be very open to different ways of resolving this issue, but it is a fact at the moment that some 28 women a week travel from Northern Ireland to Great Britain for the purpose of having an abortion, because it is not possible to access these services in Northern Ireland. So whether it is theoretically legal or not, women in Northern Ireland are not able to access these services at the moment, so to all intents and purposes abortion is not available to them.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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That is a different matter.

Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis
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It is not a different matter in terms of the impact on the women affected. This is surely the fundamental issue.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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The solution must be in Northern Ireland.

Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis
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I am entirely open to the solutions being found in Northern Ireland, but if those solutions are not found, the only course open to this Parliament is to change the law. The reason that I speak in such direct terms is that it is very important to be able to offer assurances to the people of Northern Ireland themselves that this Parliament is not prepared to allow this abuse of civil rights to continue for any substantial further period. That appears to be in line with majority opinion in Northern Ireland itself. An Amnesty International poll taken earlier this year showed that 65% of people in Northern Ireland think that abortion should be decriminalised and 66% think that Westminster should act in the absence of the Assembly.

--- Later in debate ---
Moved by
13B: Clause 3, page 3, line 11, at end insert—
“(4A) If the Secretary of State deems it in the public interest for a senior officer of a Northern Ireland department to exercise a function or functions of that department during the period for forming an Executive, the Secretary of State may summon the Northern Ireland Assembly to debate the issue.(4B) A debate under subsection (4A) may not extend beyond four hours.”
Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to stand after sitting for so long. Amendment 13B, in my name, is grouped with two amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, but I see no overlap between the two. The noble Lord’s amendments relate to the early stages of the process, when the Secretary of State has to formulate and issue guidance, whereas I look beyond that to what the operation might be.

From the point when the Assembly collapsed, I turned my mind to ways in which we might get it going again or find some way of substituting, or other ways of carrying out what Northern Ireland needs. I still feel that the suggestion of the Welsh model was quite good, but it became clear that it was far too much for the Northern Ireland Office to digest and that my rather ambitious proposals would not get anywhere. I have therefore gone to the other extreme and drafted something as short and simple as can be, but which would give the opportunity for a significant step forward.

The amendment takes off from the provisions in the Bill whereby senior officials in the Northern Ireland Administration can exercise, if they think it is in the public interest, the powers that they have under the legislation, which goes right back to the 1920 Act. I took that and added to it a proposal that the Secretary of State may, where she or he is satisfied that it is in the public interest, summon the Northern Ireland Assembly to debate the issues that they have in mind. This is entirely discretionary on the part of the Secretary of State. It does not compel her to take any particular action but gives her the opportunity to bring the Northern Ireland Assembly together to discuss how the powers referred to in this legislation are carried out. That would be beneficial to the Northern Ireland Office and to the Government. They would then have the opportunity to discuss what they are doing, or to see other people discussing what they are doing at some length and, I hope, with some degree of careful examination of the matter. This would improve the quality of what has been done and, as I say, would give the opportunity to move in that way. I will not go into this in detail, but a serious debate by the elected representatives is bound to add something to the quality of the Administration and is worth having.

There is also a political aspect to this, because if we had this implemented—again, it is entirely at the discretion of the Secretary of State; I am not saying that she must do this, and it could be that it is not operated—by bringing the Northern Ireland Assembly together, we would be taking a concrete step towards it coming back as it should. It adds something to the discussions that the Government may be having in trying to persuade the parties to sort out their differences and then return to the Administration. By having it in operation, even if only for a few hours on particular issues, we would make it clear that it is possible that the Assembly can work again, and will work again. Having got that initial first step, it will be easier, I hope, to take other steps beyond that.

This is a very modest amendment and I shall not press it to a vote. It is purely discretionary; nobody is obliged to do anything with regard to it. I shall not spin out the discussion any further. I think the best thing I can do for the House tonight is to sit down and let things take their course. I beg to move.

Lord Alderdice Portrait Lord Alderdice
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My Lords, there is one reason why I would support the amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has put forward: from the beginning, the element of the Northern Ireland institutions that worked rather well was the Assembly itself. When it came to the Executive functioning, that was much more contentious and difficult, but the Assembly functioned rather well. The idea of finding ways in which the Assembly could start to meet again, to debate issues of some substance that would increase, to some extent, the accountability of the Government side—be it civil servants or others—is a good one. To simply bring the Assembly back together for one occasion to debate a contentious issue would potentially be damaging because the old splits would re-emerge. To come together on a number of occasions to debate issues that are not necessarily of high contention but are nevertheless important seems to me a good idea. Whether one follows the very specific proposal in this amendment, or some of the other ideas that the creative mind of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has produced over the last little while, the principle is important and merits exploration by the Government. To that extent, I support the amendment.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, in my head I have a New Yorker cartoon of a very elegant gentleman with a cat on the floor next to its litter tray. The gentleman is pointing and saying, “Never think outside the box”.

We do need to think afresh—Amendment 13B from the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, and the other amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, do have certain impediments. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to the question of the Speaker and the question of cross-party consent being one of those impediments. I do not want to end this evening’s discussion on that negative statement. Let me take away some of the ideas that have been expressed tonight. Let me think and reflect on them in discussion with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and let us see if we can live up to that statement of “thinking outside the box”. On that basis, I hope that noble Lords will not press their amendments.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 13B withdrawn.

Good Friday Agreement: Impact of Brexit

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Thursday 11th October 2018

(5 years, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Browne. I was looking forward to his speech but unfortunately ended up slightly disappointed. I had expected a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the DUP’s encounter with European officials yesterday. I am afraid that I shall have to fall back on my imagination in that respect.

I wish to draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, to one point. I will not take up any other points with regard to him because I have only seven minutes. It is that what he calls the Good Friday agreement—the Belfast agreement—does make reference to partition. It recognises the existence of partition and its legitimacy—it uses that word. The partition exists not just generally; there is a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for tax, VAT, currency, excise duty and security matters. All these matters are managed using technologies, without infrastructure at the physical border. With regard to that physical border, we have been assured by the CEO of HMRC and the head of the Irish Revenue that there will be no need for new customs facilities on the border. So I suggest that this issue has been somewhat overstated.

There is a matter of significance. We are now getting down to the European Union’s primary concern, which is that there might be an impact on the single market if there are insufficient checks on the borders in Ireland, because goods could come into the single market without complying with EU standards or tariffs. That is a genuine concern that can be met.

Cross-border trade on the island of Ireland mostly comprises regular shipments of the same goods. This repetitive trade is well suited to the established technical solutions and simplified customs procedures already available. Larger companies might take advantage of what are called trusted trader-type schemes. I recall a Member of this House saying to us in this context that he regularly brings ships into port in Southampton with 20,000 to 30,000 containers on them and there are no problems. The goods are all cleared as they are put into the containers. That is on a scale much greater than that of the transfers in Ireland, but it works smoothly.

Large companies might take advantage of these arrangements, but for all companies the requirements for additional declarations can be incorporated into existing systems used for VAT returns. For agricultural products, which is the key problem, the Government should agree equivalence between EU and UK regulations since EU and UK standards are virtually identical and will remain identical. This goes back to agricultural arrangements on what are called biosecurity matters. That all goes back to Stormont and the old Parliament, where we agreed to have the same standards of animal hygiene on both sides of the border. So all these things can be done without there being any significant problem.

However, a problem has arisen. Way back last December, in dealing with this, the Government indicated a willingness for continuing alignment on various matters with the EU, but the original draft of that paper was quite limited to those cross-border bodies that came into existence as a result of the Good Friday agreement.

There is a good reason for having it. Of those cross-border bodies, the one with the largest employment is Waterways Ireland, which employs more than 400 people, some in Northern Ireland and some in the Republic. They have to have the same contracts; there has to be uniformity in the arrangements under which they are dealing. That exists and it would not be a problem—but there was included in that agreement in December a reference to a backstop if in fact the alignment was not altogether satisfactory. I am inclined here to borrow a phrase from my noble friend Lord Lawson, who says that instead of saying “backstop” we should actually say “back-stab”, because that is what it has turned into. It has been exaggerated beyond the legitimate use that was there in the original draft last December and it has now been extended in such a way that it is going to cause enormous difficulties, which were touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Browne. We hope that those matters will be resolved.

It is a pity that there has not been a big enough recognition of the real problem that the Irish Republic is going to face. It is not affected by any of the matters on the border that have been mentioned so far. With regard to goods, only 1.6% of the output of the economy of the Irish Republic goes into Northern Ireland—so that is not a significant problem. The problem for Ireland is of a different character and it concerns tariffs. If tariffs are retained by the European Union, the Irish economy is going to find that between it and its principal market, which is across the water in Great Britain, there are now tariffs. There are no tariffs presently existing on goods moving from Ireland into and through the United Kingdom, but if the EU retains its existing tariff arrangements, this is going to have a huge impact on the Irish Republic. It will not affect us in Northern Ireland, but we know it is going to have an effect on the Republic. I have been disappointed to see that there has been no serious discussion of this that I am aware of, and I think that there needs to be one fairly soon. Otherwise, folk in the Republic of Ireland are going to have a rude awakening when they see the impact that this will have on their economy.

I have one further point. After the agreement we saw a considerable change in relationships between Dublin and Belfast and between the UK and the Republic. A good new relationship came into existence. That is now being threatened, not by us in Northern Ireland but by Brussels and Dublin—and they need to think again, particularly the folk in Dublin, about who their friends really are. I know that the EU is hinting to them, or saying to them, that it will look after them, but the EU does not have a good record in looking after small countries, and I think that Dublin should take that on board.

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

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Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, it is always a pleasure to listen to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames. I share his concern about some possible dangers in the situation, although not perhaps in quite the way he expressed it—but I shall come back to that later.

I recall a question that was asked of a leading member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party shortly after the beginning of the inter-party talks. The interviewer asked him whether he was confident that Sinn Féin and the republican movement would stick with the political process. The reply was: he trusted the circumstances that led Sinn Féin to that point. My interpretation of it was they were not necessarily coming of their own good will; they had not had a damascene conversion; they were coming because the circumstances left them with this option. I agree, too, with the comments about how Sinn Féin Members elected to the Assembly have carried out their functions and it would take a very unusual situation to move them away from where they are.

I point to these circumstances because I think that it is a mistake to link this process, this legislation, with the maintenance of peace in Northern Ireland. I do not see a connection in the terms that have been said and I am dubious about whether this should be addressed as any more than scaremongering, and scaremongering on a fairly limited basis.

However, there are things to worry about. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, referred to what Monsieur Barnier has been saying and saw various ways of interpreting that, the third of which was the bleakest and, I think, the nearest to the truth. That is because pressure has been coming from Brussels and Dublin for some time for a significant change to be made to how Northern Ireland is governed. The drive is there to get Northern Ireland into a special situation: linked permanently to the European Union and with the union with the rest of the United Kingdom to that extent weakened. That is what Barnier openly called for a couple of days ago; it is implicitly what Coveney said in a newspaper article a week or two ago, where he called on the British Government to abandon some of their red lines in pursuit of peace and prosperity—so the threat is there as well. If that goes down the way—here I should say that our own Government have rejected this proposal; some of it was published some time ago—there is a danger that the things being said today and how the vote goes may strengthen the hand of Barnier in his demands on us and weaken the hands of our own Government. There has to be careful consideration of that.

I have not yet mentioned the amendment. I had thought of going through it in a little detail, but I shall confine myself to just one bit, subsection (1) of the proposed new clause. That reads,

“a Minister of the Crown or devolved authority must—

(a) act in a way that is compatible with the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998”.

I am all in favour of that. I am all in favour of acting in accordance with the terms of the agreement; I have a personal affection for that agreement. I will not go into detail on that, because it would take too long, but it is something I would like to see.

Then we come down to the very last line of the amendment. It talks about various things,

“not subject to an agreement between Her Majesty’s Government and the Government of Ireland”.

What is missing? There is something very important missing. There is no reference to the people of Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Northern Ireland Executive. Do not dodge that by saying, “Oh, the Assembly is not sitting at the moment”. There is a very important principle here, which is at the heart of the agreement. The heart of the agreement contained what we call the principle of consent with regard to the people of Northern Ireland, their future and the institutions they create.

A long time ago, back in the 1970s, Governments tried to impose an arrangement on the people of Northern Ireland, through the Sunningdale agreement. Another long time ago the Anglo-Irish agreement was made, without reference to the views of the people of Northern Ireland. Both were huge decisions and big mistakes by the British and Irish Governments which prolonged the political instability, and the violence as well. When we got to the agreement, thankfully by then the two Governments had learned the lesson and the negotiations fully involved the people of Northern Ireland and we, collectively, took control of that—“ownership” is the term used. This amendment would deny us that.

Some people have gone around suggesting that Brexit might damage the Good Friday agreement. Brexit is not going to damage the Good Friday agreement; this amendment will, because it excludes the people of Northern Ireland. If future arrangements are to be made over the Northern Ireland border it is obvious that you have to have the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives closely involved in that. If not, you are going to make the same mistake.

Baroness Crawley Portrait Baroness Crawley (Lab)
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On that last point, surely the reference to the UK and Irish Governments contains the basic assumption that there will be extended talks with the Northern Irish Government, and it refers to the fact that the British and Irish Governments are the official guarantors of the agreement.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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In the examples I mentioned, going back to 1985 and 1973, there was no consultation by Her Majesty’s Government with the unionist elected representatives. The Irish Government, of course, consulted closely with nationalists, so there was that imbalance. In any event, I come back to the amendment and I think that the proposed new clause has the wrong approach and should be looked at again.

I have one other point and it is simply this: we made the agreement 20 years ago; it was a bit rough at times for a short period afterwards but it has settled in. There are still some difficulties but I am quite sure that those difficulties will be overcome and these institutions will survive because they have the wholehearted endorsement of the people of Northern Ireland. In doing it, we also helped to change the relationship between Belfast and Dublin and, indeed, between Dublin and London to a certain extent as well: relations between them in recent years have been very good. They have been extremely good and I am delighted, but the behaviour at the moment of the Irish Prime Minister and Coveney, backed up by the European Union, is actually destroying that relationship and doing considerable damage to it. I know that we cannot directly affect that, but the message should go out very clearly to Dublin and to Brussels that they are not to continue to damage the basis of our institutions in pursuit of some petty objective, such as getting yourself elected as the head of a European body in Brussels.

That is where I want to stop. It is hugely important that the Government stand firm on this proposal to move to what is called the backstop and against a situation where Northern Ireland is to be moved away from the rest of the United Kingdom and permanently attached to Brussels, as far as these things are concerned. That is the wrong way to go.

Lord Hain Portrait Lord Hain (Lab)
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My Lords, I support this amendment, moved so compellingly by the noble Lord, Lord Patten.

The land border between the United Kingdom and Ireland is a state border—for tax, excise and legal jurisdiction. It is also a border across which public services connect, public agencies operate, people make their daily commute, livestock graze and goods flow back and forth without restriction. The levels of integration across the Irish border are among the closest in the world, bringing material economic benefit to the island—particularly to Northern Ireland—and, even more importantly, a remarkable transformation of a border that fewer than 20 years ago was a highly securitised boundary, close to which hundreds of people lost their lives. Soldiers, police officers, customs officials, farmers, factory workers, musicians and teenagers were all killed near the border because of a conflict about the border.

The 1998 Good Friday agreement and the Act that followed it, which is referred to in the amendment—I point that out to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice—brought that conflict to an end by making the border a point of co-operation, without raising questions about the sovereignty or constitutional integrity of either the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. This was made much easier by the fact that common EU membership of the United Kingdom and Ireland had already removed many of the barriers to such co-operation and movement. This was because the EU came to form a customs union and create a single market, both of which transcended state boundaries. Thus from the quiet rural hamlets of Fermanagh and Monaghan to the busy border towns of Newry and Dundalk there is no need for customs controls, no tariffs payable, no need to pay VAT at the border, and no checks for quality, standards or regulatory compliance.

As a line of soft integration between the UK and Irish jurisdictions, the Irish border has faded into relative insignificance, allowing Irish and British citizens—nationalists and unionists—both to feel quite comfortable in Northern Ireland. Given the bitter sectarian and violent history, this is a remarkable achievement. But it is also a fragile one, and we ignore that at our peril. To withdraw from the EU is to remove Northern Ireland from the conditions that currently make the Irish border so frictionless. Finding a resolution to the border conundrum while respecting Brexit must somehow preserve those connections and protect those benefits of co-operation. This is an economic necessity as well as a political imperative.

In their joint report with the European Union of December last, the UK Government repeated their commitment to protecting the operation of the 1998 agreement and to the avoidance of a hard border. Indeed, they went so far as to preclude,

“any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls”.

The amendment would bring into legal effect the commitments the UK Government have already made to the European Union and to everyone. In Brussels, a means of doing so in legally operable terms in the withdrawal agreement is currently being negotiated. It is essential that we do likewise in passing this amendment to the Bill.

Any customs partnership must be tight and seamless enough to avoid such checks while ensuring that the border is not a back door into the EU’s single market. Any technological facilitation must not entail physical infrastructure, random checks or compliance checks at any point. The amendment will provide much-needed security and legal certainty, with no fudges, creeping barriers or sly erosion of the finely honed balance. It will ensure that cross-border movement, north-south co-operation and day-to-day, mundane integration will continue to happen unimpeded. It does not tie the Government’s hands on the precise solution, except to insist upon what everyone says they want anyway: namely, a border as free, open and invisible as it is today. In my view this can only mean reproducing in some form the customs, trade, rules of origin, standards and regulatory arrangements that we now have across it.

It is our responsibility to ensure that Brexit does not mean the emergence, at any level, of any new conflict about the border, because that would be both economically catastrophic and politically lethal. That is why this amendment is so vital.