Bar the elected representatives of the liberal-leaning Alliance Party and a handful of others, almost the entirety of pro-union opinion in the north-east of the country has swung behind Arlene Foster’s opposition to any compromise Brexit deal between Ireland, the European Union and the United Kingdom. The head of the Democratic Unionist Party has set the militant tone for the smaller Ulster Unionist Party and the tiny Traditional Unionist Voice, as well as various fringe groupings. While publicly proclaiming its opposition to a “hard border” around the Six Counties, the ultra-right DUP and its allies are privately doing everything in their power to ensure its implementation. No matter how devastating the social, economic and potentially military consequences.
Duplicity has become the primary Brexit tactic of the Democratic Unionists and their fellow-conspirators in the ruling Conservative Party, uniting an extremist ragbag of xenophobes, hibernophobes, closet-racists, homophobes, religious fundamentalists, terrorist-apologists, science-deniers, revanchist nationalists, neo-imperialists and other assorted lunatics. That some of these people, including the odious anti-peace process agitator Michael Gove, are senior ministers in the UK government doesn’t help the situation.
However, there are one or two politicians from within the pro-union mainstream who do understand the urgent need for a sensible Irish-focused agreement between the EU and Britain, as the latter leaves the Continental community of nation-states. Sylvia Hermon is a former member of the UUP who now stands as an independent unionist for the parliamentary constituency of North Down. For many years she was better known as the wife of the late Jack Hermon, the controversial former chief of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the hated British paramilitary police force in the UK-administered Six Counties until its disbandment under the peace deals of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Since his death she has emerged as a surprisingly moderate voice of unionism in the disputed region, albeit very much in a minority. While her politics and interpretation of the former conflict in the north of the country diverges from my own, it would be churlish in the extreme not to recognise the integrity and bravery of her views on the Brexit negotiations’ debacle, as expressed in a recent Westminster debate.
Despite the catcalls and taunts of the bullyboy MPs of the DUP in the chamber, as well as their baying Tory allies across the aisle, Lady Hermon – as she is known – made a determined and generous contribution to the discussion. One which is well-worth reading in its entirety if you can spare the time (or take the antique language of the British House of Commons):
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon on this very important Bill, Mrs Laing,
I am enormously grateful to the Members who put their names to my new clause 70. I am sorry that Democratic Unionist Party Members did not find time to do so. I am sure they wanted to, but they have obviously been busy with other things, such as speaking to the Prime Minister. When, or if, I press my new clause to a vote this afternoon—I am clearly signalling to the Government and to you, Mrs Laing, that if I do not receive a satisfactory response from the Government, I intend to press it to a vote—it will be quite difficult, as I sit as an independent, to provide the Tellers. However, my hon. Friends—I call them friends—in the Scottish National Party and the Labour Party have kindly indicated that they will provide the Tellers.
I find myself in an extraordinarily difficult position. When I hear the Prime Minister and the Brexit Secretary repeat their commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, as I often do, I welcome that enormously. However, I of course expected the Government to match their words, rhetoric and promises about the Good Friday Agreement with actions. When I first collected my copy of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, I expected to see a commitment written in bold that the Good Friday Agreement—otherwise known as the Belfast Agreement—would be protected, even though the UK is going to leave the European Union.
I have read the Bill very carefully. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, the Good Friday Agreement or Belfast Agreement was an international Agreement between the Irish Government and the British Government. As an international Agreement, it had to be incorporated in our domestic law, and that was done by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Good Friday Agreement is absolutely fundamental. It has given us peace and stability for the past 20 years in Northern Ireland, and there can be no denying that. Unfortunately, the first mention of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which incorporated the Good Friday Agreement in our domestic law, is in clause 7. It is not at the beginning of clause 7 but in subsection (6), and it is not at the beginning of subsection (6) but in paragraph (f) at the end.
For the benefit of Members—including DUP Members, who have been busy doing other things, as I have said—let me take a moment to read out clause 7(6). Ministers will be given sweeping powers under clause 7 to do what they consider appropriate to prevent, remedy or mitigate deficiencies in retained EU law. The point I must emphasise to the Committee is that the sweeping powers provided in clauses 7 to 10 are replicated or duplicated in schedule 2 for the devolved authorities. The reference to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which I struggled to find, is in clause 7(6). It states:
“regulations made under this section may not…amend or repeal the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (unless the regulations are made by virtue of paragraph 13(b) of Schedule 7 to this Act or are amending or repealing paragraph 38 of Schedule 3 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 or any provision of that Act which modifies another enactment).”
I commend the legislative draftsmen and women, because I am sure it is technically correct, but what on earth does it mean? The legislation has to be clear to those people who read it who are not lawyers, and the vast majority of Members of this House are not lawyers. The language is not clear.
May I say to the Clerks of the House—the brilliant Clerks, who serve the House long hours into the night and with such enthusiasm—that I am enormously grateful to them for their patience personally with me and for their diligence and great wisdom in drafting new clause 70? The new clause puts in black and white a bold statement of the commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and to the principles which I call in shorthand in the new clause “the Belfast principles”. Those are the principles enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.
For Northern Ireland Unionists, the Belfast principles include the constitutional guarantee, through the consent principle, that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom unless and until there is a border poll and the people of Northern Ireland, and only Northern Ireland, say otherwise. It is not in the gift of No. 10, thank goodness; it is not in the gift of Dublin; it is governed by the people of Northern Ireland in a border poll. The constitutional principle is guaranteed among the Belfast principles in the Good Friday Agreement, as is the principle of mutual respect for all communities across Northern Ireland, who were so divided by the Troubles—respect and equality, irrespective of how a person votes, their political opinion and views or their religion. Non-discrimination and equal respect for all is guaranteed in the Belfast Agreement.
There are many other principles—I could go on—in that document, which is enormously important for people not just in Northern Ireland, but particularly in Northern Ireland. I stand here as a Unionist and I am proud to defend the Belfast Agreement—the Good Friday Agreement. I say that with great pride because I grew up, not in in some stately home but on a 50-acre farm west of the River Bann in County Tyrone, very close to what unfortunately became known as the “murder triangle” for the number of people, both Catholic and Protestant, who were murdered by the IRA and subsequently by loyalist paramilitaries as well. Our postman was murdered at the end of our lane. Many of our farming neighbours were attacked on their tractors, or went out to a shed and opened the door, and there was a booby trap that blew off their head or face. My late father made it to 92, but he had to attend innumerable funerals of our neighbours, both Catholic and Protestant.
There is no monopoly on pain and suffering—every single one of the DUP Members in this House, their families and neighbours, suffered as well—but likewise in County Tyrone in 1981, when we had a Conservative Government led by the late Margaret Thatcher, we had the hunger strikes, which unfortunately became the best recruiting agent the IRA did not have in 1981. Ten young men starved themselves to death—highly emotive within the Catholic community, the Republican community, the Nationalist community. They were the sons of neighbours of ours in County Tyrone. All communities suffered.
Many Members of this House will have no idea who Jack Hermon was, because they are all so young. My dear late husband, who died with Alzheimer’s nine years ago, was the longest serving Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. During the appalling terrorist campaign waged by the IRA and subsequently by the Provisional IRA, which morphed into something called the Real IRA, and by loyalists—do not forget the woe, the suffering, the grief that was caused by loyalist paramilitaries—he described his officers as extraordinary men and extraordinary men doing an extraordinary job, and they did. In Northern Ireland, with a population of 1.8 million, 302 RUC officers were murdered. That is an awful lot of dead police officers.
In the 10 years that Jack was Chief Constable, he had to attend almost 100 funerals, and that undoubtedly affected him, but I tell the House that when the Good Friday Agreement was signed and I talked to him about the constitutional consequences of having Sinn Fein in the Executive, Jack listened to me patiently and then lifted one finger and said, “If it saves the life of one police officer, I’m voting for this.” Jack supported publicly the Good Friday Agreement, the late Mo Mowlam and her efforts at that time.
The Good Friday Agreement has brought all of us in Northern Ireland stability and peace, from which the whole of the UK has benefited, the Republic of Ireland has benefited, and—since we are talking about Brexit—the European Union has benefited. After all, the IRA placed bombs in Germany, Spain, Gibraltar and elsewhere. Underpinning the Good Friday Agreement—the foundation for it—was the fact that the Republic of Ireland and the UK had joined the European Union on the same day, at the same time. It was the cornerstone, the foundation of the Good Friday Agreement. Under the Agreement, those born in Northern Ireland could choose to identify themselves as British or Irish, or indeed both, but they also regarded themselves as Europeans.
The border became virtually invisible where once we had had watchtowers, murders, security checks and unapproved roads. The roads had been cratered, so that someone going to school on the other side of the border, or to a community hall, or church, or chapel, had to get out of their car and tiptoe around on the uncratered part of the road. Those roads have been filled in again. We have normality in Northern Ireland, we have peace, and we undoubtedly have people alive today who would not otherwise be alive.
Let me say ever so loudly and strongly to senior members of the Conservative Party that I do not want to hear them or see them on television talking about pushing ahead and no deal—“Let’s just move on with no deal.” It is an absolute nonsense. It is so reckless and so dangerous. The Home Secretary stood here yesterday and made a statement about counter-terrorism. Dissident Republicans are active. They are dangerous and ruthless—utterly ruthless. If I had a child or grandchild choosing a career—I have no grandchildren, by the way; I have two children, both of whom have chosen careers other than politics, sadly, because we need leadership in Northern Ireland and young people to come into politics—I would not encourage them to join the UK Border Force or Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in the event of no-deal Brexit, because inevitably we will have a hard border.
It must be a moral responsibility and duty on this Government to take care of all personnel, all officials, in HMRC, in the Police Service of Northern Ireland and in the UK Border Force. It is all very well and good to have talked about “taking back control” of our borders—that was a catchy refrain during the EU referendum—but I never could, and still cannot all these months later, get any clarity on how exactly we proposed to take back control. However, in the event of no deal, we would certainly face a hard border, and dissident Republicans would regard Police Service of Northern Ireland and HMRC officers, and UK border officials, as legitimate targets. I do not want that on my conscience, and I do not believe for one moment that the Prime Minister or the Government want that either. I plead with senior Conservative Party members to stop the nonsense of talking up no deal. The Home Secretary wisely described no deal as “unthinkable”, and it is. She may not be here, but I quote her anyway, because I agree with her and hold her in very high regard.
Why am I so committed to this issue? It is because half my life has been blighted by the Troubles. I was not involved in politics when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. I was not then a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, of which David Trimble was leader. He and I had taught together in the law faculty of Queen’s University Belfast. If anybody cares to look, they will see that my specialism was EU law; that is another reason why I am so passionate about this subject. David Trimble, who was such a remarkable, courageous leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, never quite liked or understood my interest in EU law, yet now he is in another place and is asked for his views on so much. He and I will never fall out, but we have always disagreed over the EU. My love for it continues.
I accept that Brexit will happen. We as the United Kingdom have to come out together, and the Prime Minister made that quite clear at Prime Minister’s questions today, but in doing so we cannot risk undermining all that has been gained through the Good Friday Agreement—the lives that have been saved and the normality that we have had. That will carry on, but people in Northern Ireland are extremely nervous. There is one party, the Democratic Unionist Party—and I am just describing, factually. DUP Members are colleagues and friends, though sometimes I wonder, given the tone of voice that they use towards me. Let us remember the history: a previous Conservative Government, led by Margaret Thatcher, caused such divisions, hurt, anger, rage and outrage in one part of the community in Northern Ireland—the Republican Nationalist community —and there was the way that the hunger strikes were handled. It is critical that the Conservative Government, who are supported by the DUP, bear in mind all the people of Northern Ireland, and that the DUP do not speak for or represent all of them.
Mr Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con)
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Of course; I would be delighted.
I do not think that I am one of the senior members of my Party whom she is criticising. Does she agree that the Prime Minister, 48 hours ago, reached an Agreement with the Taoiseach that seemed to show that the Prime Minister shared the hon. Lady’s concerns? We cannot have an open border without having some regulatory and customs convergence on both sides. That all came to an end when the DUP vetoed it, which makes it extremely important—more than it was—that her new clause be put into the Bill to make sure that we are not back-sliding. Of course, the DUP could always rescue its reputation by confirming that its only objection was to not having regulatory and customs convergence across the whole United Kingdom, and by agreeing, as she and I do, that regulatory and customs convergence across the whole island of Ireland is in the interests of inhabitants on both sides of the border.
That was very interesting. Lots of points were raised there. The DUP will have to speak for itself, and I am sure that at some point this afternoon, its Members will want to contribute to the debate. I am hugely grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for confirming that he feels that the Government should accept my new clause; I thank him.
I felt deeply embarrassed for the Prime Minister on Monday. What was so interesting in her demeanour during Prime Minister’s questions today was her confidence at the Dispatch Box, and her response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who had a question on the Order Paper. It was a very interesting question, and the Prime Minister’s reply was significant. She seemed so calm, not that she does not normally seem calm—forget about the Party conference; that was a very difficult experience for her, and we would not like that to happen to any of us. I suspect that she has spoken a lot to the leader of the DUP since Monday; that is what I hope, but I am not in that inner circle. I am not a member of the DUP, and its members do not come along to me and say, “Here’s the draft memorandum; have a look at it.” I hope that I am right in saying that there has been progress. If I am not, I am sure that a DUP Member will quickly get to their feet to contradict me, and they are not doing that.
Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP)
I did not think it was worth it.
Well, that is very disappointing.
Could the hon. Lady answer the question posed by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who asked whether she accepts, as he does, that it is a good idea to have regulatory convergence and common rules between Northern Ireland and the Republic? Could she give a straight answer to that, because many in Northern Ireland now view her as being on the side of the Dublin Government on these issues?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman so much for that. [Interruption.] Yes, what do you do in response to that?
I can hear. If the right hon. Gentleman gives me a chance, instead of chuntering away, I might actually reply to him.
The Prime Minister, and yesterday the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, made it absolutely clear—at least this is what I understood by the Secretary of State’s statement—that it was always the intention of the Prime Minister and the Government to have the same regulatory alignment right across the United Kingdom. For the record, if the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) wants me to say this again, I am a Unionist. I am not in the pocket of, am not propping up, and have not spoken to, the Dublin Government, and I strongly resent the implication, in his question, that I am doing that.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
The hon. Lady and I have got on very well since entering the House together—16 years and I think four months ago, as the Speaker might say. Does she agree that my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) asked her a very specific question relating to what the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) said about convergence across the island of Ireland? In the few minutes that have elapsed since then, I have not heard an answer to it.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman—or the hon. Gentleman; I just promoted him. That is not what I understood, so there is no point in putting up a straw man for me to knock down. I understood that the proposal that the Prime Minister took with her to Brussels was always to have been that the entirety of the UK should have the same alignment. The Prime Minister is no one’s fool. She has made it quite clear that she will protect the integrity of the whole United Kingdom. She had already ruled out having a border down the Irish sea. I therefore believe and trust that when she went to Brussels, she had always planned that there would be convergence throughout the United Kingdom, and that Northern Ireland would not be treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. That is the confidence that I have.
Mr Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con)
The hon. Lady may share with me a certain amount of bemusement. There can be no question for me, as a Unionist, of a separate regulatory arrangement for Northern Ireland, permitting it to have regulatory equivalence or convergence with the Republic. Convergence either applies to all of us, or cannot apply at all. I have to say that all of us having regulatory convergence with the Republic, and indeed the rest of the EU, strikes me as a very good idea.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. Even though he sits on the other side of the Chamber, I have always regarded him as a friend. He has just summed up how I feel. I will not stand here and criticise our Prime Minister—she is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and I believed that her stance when she went to Brussels on Monday was that the convergence would apply to all of the United Kingdom. I did not believe for one moment that she would cast Northern Ireland off somehow to a regulatory framework and convergence on the island of Ireland, and not with the rest of the United Kingdom.
Of course, I do not want Northern Ireland to be treated any differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. We are all coming out of the EU—sadly—on 29 March 2019. The referendum result in Northern Ireland was in favour of remaining, but the UK-wide result will be honoured. The Prime Minister has said that repeatedly. As we move towards that, I urge and encourage the Government to adopt, in some form of words, new clause 70, because the principles of the Good Friday Agreement, which I and the other Members who have put their names to the new clause are proud to support, must be protected in black and white on the face of that Bill. That is the assurance I need from the Government this afternoon, otherwise I will test the House’s commitment to the Good Friday Agreement.