Claire Hanna, SDLP MP for South Belfast
In the two days of debate on the withdrawal Bill, Northern Ireland MPs certainly made a difference. Having read or watched their very uneven contributions on the floor of the House even before the broadcasting of Parliament started with a radio experiment in 1975, this was a rare moving occasion. For first time in two of the most turbulent years of intense politics in which our affairs had unusual prominence, the other voices of Northern Ireland were heard once again. No longer can the DUP seem to speak in that egregious manner for “the people of Northern Ireland” without challenge.
The new Speaker recognised the significance of the occasion by calling all three of the new MPs over these two days to make their maiden speeches. It’s very unusual for new MPs for one area or party to be called so close together so early in a new session of Parliament and even more unusual for their maiden speeches. The point was well made by the former secretary of state Owen Paterson, a hard Brexiteer but rare among English MPs for keeping up a sustained interest in the place and its people.
Owen Paterson, Conservative, former NI Secretary
I heartily congratulate the new hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) on a very fine and fluent maiden speech. It is never easy to make a maiden speech and it is certainly not easy to make it just one or two days after taking the Oath, especially in a high-profile debate such as this….
Above all, I heartily congratulate the hon. Lady on turning up. It is most important that her point of view for the future of Ireland is represented in this House. She quite rightly mentioned John Hume. Through the most terrible years, the Social Democratic and Labour party Members bravely made their case about where they would like Ireland to go. They were looking to a united Ireland down the road, but they always turned up here and participated in local, national and European elections; they always participated fully in the democratic process. I am therefore pleased to see the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) back here. They will not be at all surprised that I do not agree with them, but I hope that we will be working together. I congratulate her on her fine speech at a very key moment.
Claire Hanna MP SDLP, South Belfast
It is my great pleasure to be able to speak about my home, South Belfast, which is in many respects an exemplar for what Northern Ireland—and, indeed, any community—can be. It is diverse, well integrated and forward looking, and is doing reasonably well economically. It is a place where difference is genuinely respected. We do not all have the same views or the same vision for the future in South Belfast, but we do work the common ground. I am deeply grateful to all those in South Belfast who in enormous numbers elected me to serve them last week. I will do my best to do that every day, as well as to encourage all that is good in our constituency and shine a light on all that needs to change.
South Belfast, like Northern Ireland as a whole, is a place that overwhelmingly voted against Brexit. The pro-European majority of Members in Northern Ireland, I must tell the House, is a more diverse and united political movement than I believe we have ever seen in our troubled history. For Northern Ireland in particular, Brexit has sharpened all the lines that the Good Friday agreement was designed to soften—around identity, borders and sovereignty. We should have been spending the last few years talking about reconciliation, regeneration, social justice and equality; that is what all political action should really be about. Instead, we have spent morning, noon and night talking about Brexit—a problem that did not need to exist and which, particularly in Northern Ireland, reopens old wounds and limits our horizons.
Brexit sundered the body politic and the social consensus across these islands in unimaginable ways. It fed off people who felt lost and disenfranchised in the political system, and I fear that it will leave them feeling much worse. It is one of the reasons that Northern Ireland has now been without a Government for over 1,000 days, leaving Members such as myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) with no other forum through which to hold Government to account..
We will vote against the narrow and restrictive view of the future articulated in this Bill. We will work with fair-minded people of all parties to limit, by amendment, the damage as best we can. We will seek to minimise the damage to the Good Friday agreement, which, for those of us in Northern Ireland, is the only viable pathway to a better future, under whichever constitutional arrangement people desire that future. That agreement is at its core about relationships, in three strands: within Northern Ireland; between the north and south of Ireland; and between our Ireland and yours. I deeply regret that Brexit in any form will damage the relationships in each of those strands, and I implore Members of this House to work with us to limit that damage..
Owen Paterson, Conservative MP
I did not entirely agree with her. I see a great future for Northern Ireland post Brexit. She and I would entirely agree that there is never, ever going to be a hard border; that is never, ever going to happen, and there is no need for it to happen. I spent some time working on this issue last year. I would like the hon. Lady to look at the concept of mutual enforcement, whereby we would recognise the standards required by the market into which we were selling, and would make it a legal obligation to ensure that our suppliers matched those standards. In the same way, those selling into Northern Ireland would have to match our standards. That would not breach the point of sovereignty, which is key to this debate; it will be entirely in our national hands, but we would respect those standards. If she and the hon. Member for Foyle would like to look at that, we might find a mutually beneficial way forward, because like her, one of my main worries about the Bill is the concept of any sort of barrier down the Irish sea, which is a clear breach of the Acts of Union—to be exact, article VI of the Acts of Union 1800, which said that there would be no taxes, barriers or impediments to trade between what was then Ireland and Great Britain. I congratulate the hon. Lady and look forward to working with her…
In two days of debate not only were all NI MPs – DUP SDLP and Alliance in rare unanimity whether they were Leave or Remain ; they were o not alone in pointing out the limbo between the Prime Minister’s “ unfettered access” and the need for checks between GB and NI identified by the government’s own experts.
Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I wanted my first formal comments in this Chamber to be in Irish to reflect the shared heritage of the language across all the traditions in Northern Ireland…
I come to this House with a very strong mandate for remain—indeed, the remain vote in Northern Ireland grew in the election—and that strong remain vote continues to reflect the dominant majority of the people in that region.
Society in Northern Ireland only works when based on sharing and inter-dependence. Sadly, we remain a divided society. We are a complex society with lots of ambiguities. The Good Friday agreement balanced all those different challenges through a unique set of relationships. It is about the principle of consent, but it is more than that; it is about the internal dynamics, the north-south relationship and the east-west relationship. In terms of our economy, both supply chains and trade, we depend both on north-south and east-west linkages.
The challenge of Brexit is that if we do not go for a soft Brexit, as defined by the UK staying inside a customs union and the single market, Northern Ireland will be confronted with some form of border boundary interface and a degree of friction, which is very regrettable. Any perception of a border creates the feeling of winners and losers, and in the context of a place like Northern Ireland, where we are inching slowly towards a better and more reconciled and integrated society, that has the potential to be very damaging and destructive.
The current proposal from the Prime Minister presents Northern Ireland with a much more challenging situation. While it certainly maintains an open border on the island itself, it creates a much more problematic situation down the Irish sea than people had a right to expect and was originally anticipated.
To be clear, some degree of checks down the Irish sea can be managed—indeed, there are already precedents in that regard—and Northern Ireland has always done things differently since the early 1920s. Nor do I see the notion of any special deal for Northern Ireland or an interface as being a constitutional question, but what has been proposed so far will be very challenging for our economy, in terms of both the east-west interface and the west-east exchange. Some estimates put the compliance costs as high as £300 million per year for our businesses. That simply cannot be sustained. So rather than Northern Ireland having a foot in both camps, Northern Ireland risks becoming peripheral. The Prime Minister, throughout the election campaign, has been very clear that there will be no checks down the Irish sea, but that is clearly at odds with the view of most experts and most people who have analysed the deal so far.
There is some common ground across all the parties from Northern Ireland. Clearly, I am coming from a remain perspective, as are my colleagues from the Social Democratic and Labour party, whereas my counterparts from the Democratic Unionist party are coming from a leave perspective. But together we have a reasonable argument, and we speak with a moral authority, about trying to mitigate the impact of that boundary down the Irish sea. At the very least, we would ask that the Prime Minister and Government meet us halfway in that regard.
Much has been made of the Prime Minister’s comment about being a one nation Conservative. Unlike my counterparts in the DUP, I do not interpret that as meaning one nation of the UK; the UK is about four different nations. My appeal to the Prime Minister is: don’t be a one nation Prime Minister for England, but be a Prime Minister for all four nations of the UK, and, as we proceed to the more detailed scrutiny of this Bill, pay particular attention to the needs of Northern Ireland and the damaging implications of what is now set to emerge in terms of that interface down the Irish sea.
Yesterday, the SDLP Colum Eastwood put down his marker for another topic that divides the new government and a wide range of opinion within and beyond politics – the proposal to limit soldiers’ prosecutions to ten years from the alleged offence , seen by many as a virtual amnesty for the army’s role during the Troubles, unless compelling evidence is available.
Colum Eastwood, SDLP leader, MP for Foyle
I stand here, Mr Deputy Speaker, as an Irish nationalist. In fact, I stand here because I am an Irish nationalist, not in spite of it, because I believe that every single person in all our constituencies needs to be properly and fully represented. I am glad to be here, but we are not narrow nationalists. We come from the tradition of Parnell and Hume. Our vision is big and it is broad. Our mission is to unite all of our people, not divide them any further. We intend to represent nationalists, unionists and everybody else, and we will do that to the best of our ability.
This Prime Minister wants to drag us out of the European Union against our will. I know that he has a huge majority, but the only majority that I am concerned about is the pro-remain majority in Northern Ireland that has thankfully now got its voice back in this place. We may be few in number, but we intend to be very, very loud in voice.
The Prime Minister’s approach to Brexit is totally reckless. It drives a coach and horses through the Good Friday agreement and the relationships that we have built up over many years, right across our community and right across our islands. I am glad to see now that the Democratic Unionists are very concerned about the checks between this island and our island. It is a pity that they did not think about that when they drove the Brexit agenda, and when they rejected Theresa May’s deal. Now we are in a situation that none of us is happy with. We are in a situation that every one of us should be trying to reverse and to reject.
Equally damaging to our progress and our peace process is the current proposal that basically gives an amnesty to British soldiers for whatever they carried out in Northern Ireland during our very, very difficult troubles. I come from a place called Derry. In 1972, 14 innocent civil rights marchers were gunned down by the British Army on the streets of Derry. They were demanding their rights and they were marching against internment. An international tribunal has stood by the fact that they were innocent and were unlawfully killed. Is prosecuting those veterans vexatious? No, it is not. We will resist this attempt to undermine our peace process and our political progress, and this insult to all the victims of our terrible, terrible past, who have been denied the opportunity to find full truth and full justice since 1998. We stand by every single one of those victims, no matter who the perpetrator was. Government Members need to understand that if they begin with an amnesty for the British Army, they will end up with an amnesty for everybody; that is the door they are opening with this proposal. It would better suit the Prime Minister and the Government to stand by all the innocent victims who have been searching for truth and justice for far too long.
I will end with one other comment. A proposal has been mentioned today by a number of people, including by the Prime Minister, who said, “Watch this space.” The Government want to build a bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland. Well, they would be much better suited building a decent road from Belfast to Derry.
Eastwood’s judgement is correct that the DUP are not happy with the withdrawal agreement, as they made clear today.
We supported Brexit. We want Brexit to happen, and we acknowledge and recognise that the Government have won a mandate to take forward their withdrawal agreement. But there is a major contradiction at the heart of that agreement that causes us great concern.
At one level, the agreement does say that Northern Ireland should continue to have unfettered access to the rest of the UK for trade. But then there are customs arrangements that inhibit our ability to have that unfettered access. That is our major concern—one that we hope the Government can address.
The Prime Minister talks about taking back control, and that is what we want. Yet for Northern Ireland, there is to be a new joint committee between the European Union and the United Kingdom that will make major decisions about Northern Ireland. In a sense, there is to be shared control of Northern Ireland on key issues. It is also the case that that arrangement cannot change unless the EU consents to change it, so the EU has a veto over changing the arrangements under the control of that joint committee. Northern Ireland, therefore, will not quite be taking back control. The European Union will continue to have a significant say on key matters relating to Northern Ireland.
It is clear that a number of issues will make Northern Ireland a less Unionist region of the United Kingdom. Fishermen who bring fish back to Portavogie will be subject to a tariff, and the meat sector will also face tariffs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Northern Ireland will end up being less Unionist than Liverpool, Leicester, Manchester, Newcastle and London, and that we should be the same as, not different from, everywhere else in the United Kingdom?
That brings me to my second point. The Prime Minister has been clear that he wants the United Kingdom to leave the European Union as one nation, and over the past few days he has spoken often of his one nation Conservatism. Northern Ireland is my part of the United Kingdom and, in leaving the European Union, I want the Prime Minister to treat it the same as the other parts. We want to hear how the Government are going to achieve that, given the withdrawal agreement’s special provisions for Northern Ireland and how they will impact on and change the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
We welcome the withdrawal agreement’s provision for the Assembly to have a say, but I am not so sure that it will operate in the way described earlier by the Prime Minister. He said that the special arrangements would continue only if the Assembly supported them, but I think it is the other way around: they will continue unless the Assembly stops them. That would require a vote in the Assembly. The Government know that we have issues with how that vote would be exercised and what it would mean for the principle of consent at the heart of the Belfast agreement. We want to continue our discussion with the Government about how that will operate in practice. We want the Assembly to have a say, but we also want to ensure that that say can be exercised in a fair manner that respects the principle of consent, as set out in the Belfast agreement.
Of course, we hope that what is agreed in the future relationship will negate the need for many of the special arrangements for Northern Ireland. The joint committee will have a say on that, however, and it is not a given that all of the future relationship arrangements will apply to Northern Ireland. We want to continue that discussion with the Government, because we want Northern Ireland to benefit fully from the future relationship and any free trade agreement arranged with the European Union. We have a land border with the European Union and an agri-food sector that trades across it, and we recognise that arrangements have to be made to facilitate that ongoing trade, but we do not want barriers against trade with the rest of our own country. That is absolutely essential.
That brings me to my third point: the customs arrangements. The Prime Minister has said that there will be no checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, or from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. As the Leader of the Opposition reminded us, a Treasury report says clearly that there will be checks and customs controls on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, to ensure that the correct tariffs are applied and that goods meet EU standards. It is clear that those checks will take place. We want to work with the Government to mitigate the impact on Northern Ireland business of the requirement for those checks. We want to hear more on that from the Government. We will see what we can do in Committee with regard to the commitment in the agreement and that made by the Prime Minister that there will be unfettered access in relation to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
We would like to be able to support what is happening, but we have grave concerns about the potential impact on the Northern Ireland, where economic prosperity goes hand in hand with political stability. The peace process cannot just be about the politics of Northern Ireland; it has to be about prosperity for Northern Ireland as well. The Prime Minister has said that he wants all of the United Kingdom to prosper. That has to include Northern Ireland. We need to ensure that these arrangements work for Northern Ireland and do not become a barrier to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London