Claire Hanna – 2022 Speech on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

The speech made by Claire Hanna, the SDLP MP for Belfast South, in the House of Commons on 27 June 2022.

These few years have been frustrating and damaging for Northern Ireland, and the Bill adds to that. They have been bad for the economy—for businesses that need stability, not brinkmanship—and for relationships in each of the Good Friday agreement’s three strands: within Northern Ireland; between the north and south of Ireland; and between east and west. More than that, the Bill is being seen as part of the Government’s departure from the Good Friday agreement’s values of compromise, partnership and the rule of law. The Bill recycles the same distortions and half-truths that the people of Northern Ireland have been listening to for the last six or seven years of the Brexit debate, and there is still a failure to reconcile the dilemmas that Brexit forces and the choices that the UK Government have made with the reality of our geography.

Some truly mind-bending arguments have been put forth to justify the Bill. It is said that the Bill is about consent and consensus, when in fact the majority of people in Northern Ireland have not consented to Brexit in any form, and a majority of voters and MLAs reject the Bill in the strongest terms. We are told that it is about protecting the Good Friday agreement, while the UK Government and people whom we all saw scuttling away from Castle Buildings when the Good Friday agreement was being forged—they screamed in the windows for the first few years, while we tried to implement it—are in the middle of body-slamming a cornerstone of that agreement.

We have also heard that the Bill is about rights. If it is truly about rights, the women of Northern Ireland, the LGBT community of Northern Ireland and the minority ethnic community of Northern Ireland would like a word. We have heard that it is about the alleged damage to our economy, when every credible business organisation in Northern Ireland is calling for the retention of the protocol. Business after business lauds the potential of dual market access, and Northern Ireland is the only UK region outside London managing to achieve post-pandemic GDP growth.

We are told that the Bill is about a democratic deficit. That is being protested against by removing the entirety of Government from the people of Northern Ireland, and it will apparently be solved by handing over Henry VIII powers that allow the Government to ride roughshod over everybody in Northern Ireland. I am old enough to remember the time when Brexit was supposed to be about parliamentary sovereignty. We have been promised that, and we were promised sunlit uplands, but people in Northern Ireland are getting the gaslit uplands, given that there has, for years, been a cynical campaign to distort the causes and effects of the protocol.

I understand entirely the hurt and frustration of many ordinary Unionists. They have been catastrophically misrepresented by the Democratic Unionist party, and by the Prime Minister, who insisted—[Interruption.] The DUP has been saying all those words for three, four, five years, and we ended up with the protocol. Some of us are here to try to clear up the mess that was created, while the DUP voted down every option that could have prevented the sea border. Unionists and others are wrong to think that the solution is breaking international law and walking away from partnership and compromise.

I hope that the DUP will understand—I mean this in the best possible way—that hundreds of thousands of us in Northern Ireland who do not identify as Unionists constitutionally compromise every single day; we live in a reality where the governance lines do not directly match up with our identity. We do that because it suits the majority of people, and because Northern Ireland is not a place where hard, sharp lines of sovereignty work, or where the winner can take all. It is a place where governance survives in the shades of grey, as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) said.

I am glad that some very plausible solutions, including on sanitary and phytosanitary arrangements and veterinary deals, are being mentioned, because for some reason, they disappeared off the agenda. We are told, “I would do anything for Northern Ireland, but I won’t do that. I won’t agree to a simple, negotiated solution that could remove 70% or 80% of checks.” There is no doubt that the protocol can be smoothed and its operation can be improved; everybody says that. As I have said before, nobody in Northern Ireland loves the protocol, but the better options were voted down. As with everything that is worth doing in Northern Ireland, that improvement will be achieved through partnership and compromises, not by imposing unmeetable red lines. That would remove the people of Northern Ireland from the single market, and that has no support.

Instead of doing the hard work and levelling with the people of Northern Ireland, the Government, to whom the DUP has shackled itself, are choosing to distort and deflect. They are using the “stabbed in the back” narrative; they are saying that this is all the fault of remainers, the EU, the Irish, and those who are not patriots, but we know that this is about the DUP. The hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) mentioned Eamon de Valera, and that reminded me of a quote that has echoed down through Anglo-Irish relationships from the last century. Lord Edward Carson, who had been the leader of Unionism, said in the other place, as he reflected in disillusionment on the shambles left by the Conservative party on the island of Ireland,

“What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 December 1921; Vol. 48, c. 44.]

The only difference between then and now, when we have this miserable, deceitful Bill before us, is that we are talking about maintaining the Conservative party in power and propping up a failing, discredited Prime Minister. This is also perhaps about the Foreign Secretary currying favour with the malevolent European Research Group and once again pulling the wool over Unionism’s eyes.

I suspect that we cannot stop the Bill—people will troop through the Lobby and support it—but Members should understand that people on the island of Ireland, and further afield, are watching the Government. They will have to work through the implications of dealing with a Government who are in a very bad place morally, and who are in contravention of the culture of lawfulness that many of us have worked very hard to cultivate in Northern Ireland. The Government’s approach is fundamentally altering the dynamics of relationships on the island.

Having spent the last six years having the same argument time and again, I do not believe that the Conservative party has it in it to put the people, businesses and economy of Northern Ireland first. I implore my colleagues on the Opposition Benches: please, unshackle yourselves. Work with us—your neighbours, colleagues and friends—on the negotiated solutions that we all know are possible. We have solved bigger problems before; these solutions are available. End this toxic debate. That is what the people of Northern Ireland want. They do not want to have to hear about this day after day on the radio. They want dual market access, and they want our economy to prosper; and that is entirely achievable, with good will.