Iain Duncan Smith – 2022 Speech on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

The speech made by Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative MP for Chingford, in the House of Commons on 27 June 2022.

I am grateful to be called so early.

May I start by saying to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) that I agree with all that stuff about the trade issues? They have been on the table for ages. I will just go over one small point. During the breakdown in negotiations when my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) was Prime Minister, I happened to take a delegation, including Lord Trimble, to see the then chief negotiator. I put to him the fact that the whole issue around trade across the border was easily settled, as long as we were able to trust each other on things like phytosanitary foods and veterinary checks, which the EU does with New Zealand. He completely agreed and said it would be possible, but then it came to another agreement and we have plunged ever since.

It is wholly feasible not to have these ludicrous checks and ludicrous requirements for customs codes to be banged across to the EU, or for the Court of Justice to sit to rule over what is going on in Northern Ireland. It would have been agreed then, under a thing called mutual enforcement, where both sides take complete responsibility for the enforcement of transgressions in the other’s area when it comes to Northern Ireland. That would have solved that problem straight.

Here is the problem: the EU has point blank refused to negotiate that. Here is the point about the protocol. I am not saying that the protocol should go completely. I am saying it should be changed—that is the whole point. When I read it before we originally voted on it, I read clearly what its main purpose was. Article 1, paragraphs (1) and (3) make it clear that the primacy in all this is the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. Upholding that is critical—of course it is.

I served in Northern Ireland. I never want anyone I know to go back to a thing like that again. I lost people in Northern Ireland. It is part of me as much as it is of those who live there. We do not want to go back there. Therefore, the Good Friday agreement must be prime; by the way, it is an international agreement. So we have a problem. We are talking about breaking international agreements, but we have a clash between international agreements. Which one is prime? Paragraphs (1) and (3) of article 1 make it clear that maintenance of the balance in the Good Friday/Belfast agreement is prime. If that is the case, I do not believe—I accept I am not a lawyer; I say to the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, who is on the Front Bench, that that is a badge of pride for me, although I am sure that others would argue differently—[Interruption.] Of course. I always hear him argue and I love it. I have read the text of this. I do not believe this legitimately will break international law. There is a good reason. If the Good Friday/Belfast agreement is so prime in the protocol, it was agreed from the word go that what affected that badly would make this thing fall.

The rest of the protocol is important. The protocol was never seen as permanent. First, it was negotiated under article 50, which means that it cannot be permanent of its own right. Secondly, article 13(8) of the protocol makes it clear that it can be changed in whole or in part. So what is the problem? It is not working—change it. It could have been changed ages ago. In fact, last year, I asked for article 16 to be triggered simply so we could start that process immediately.

The point that I want to make is that the Good Friday/Belfast agreement is critical. It is about safeguarding that first, and then there is no hard border, the EU single market and the UK’s territorial integrity. The last one has clearly been badly damaged and we cannot have that reign any further. Northern Ireland is clearly an important part of the United Kingdom, so it must be treated as an important part of the UK, as much as my constituency is. That is critical. Actually, the protocol specifies that that is one of the priorities. So here we go again: why would the EU not change the mandate? It set a narrow mandate that said that it would deal only with issues that affected the running of the protocol. It did not allow its negotiator to have a mandate that would change article 13(8) of the protocol in whole or in part. We are here today with this because we are only going to be able to force this to happen through this Bill.

There are those who say, “Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.” Negotiation is not an end in itself. It has a purpose. At some point, you have to leave the room because it no longer works and, until the other side makes a change, you cannot simply go back. That is the real problem that we face. The only time the EU will sit up and look at this is when it realises that the British Government are determined to make this change come hell or high water. If the EU will not agree to the necessity for this, we will have to make it.

I believe that the Government are acting reluctantly. I have listened carefully to what the ex-Justice Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), has said about the efficacy of this in international law. He will speak shortly and we will want to hear what he has to say.

Quite simply, the most important thing is that the EU—including, I might say, Ireland—wakes up to what the challenge really is. The process at the border was wrongly and damagingly weaponised during the negotiations. We got locked down in the original negotiations and ended in this position because it was seen as a stick to beat the dog. The dog was Brexit Britain, and the EU was going to use it no matter what to ensure that it could not be clean. It is time to recognise that that has to stop. So I support the Bill tonight not on technicalities, but on the reality as it has turned out.

Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

I am surprised to see the right hon. Gentleman wanting to interfere further on “Brexit means Brexit.” Is he not the one who told the House in October 2019 that this matter had been

“debated and thrashed to death”

and said that if anything else needed debating about it, he

“would love to know what it is”?—[Official Report, 22 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 853.]

When was the epiphany?

Sir Iain Duncan Smith

I read the protocol—that is why. I do not know whether the hon. Member did. In the protocol, it is clear that if it does not work, it will be changed

“in whole or in part.”

He should have read it, and he would have understood. The whole point is that we can change it. The protocol has always been clear: the seeds for its own major change are in it. [Interruption.] I made no resolution on it. I was absolutely right to do so, and I would repeat that. [Interruption.] Whether he wants to hear what I have to say is another matter altogether. He had his moment in the sun and he lost, so I will move on.

I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that we are here out of necessity because of how the EU has behaved, and, I must say, because of how the Irish Government have behaved. Some people, such as the Irish Taoiseach, have been good—he has been much more reasonable—but quite recently the Irish Foreign Secretary celebrated the diversion of trade that was taking place. That contravenes article 16 and makes it clear that the protocol has to be changed. I read the treaty, but I do not think that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) did.

I do not believe that the Bill breaks international law. It is a clash of international treaties, and the most important international treaty is the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Maintenance of that is critical. I want to see the DUP back in power sharing. I understood the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) to say that he would head in that direction and get back into power sharing once the Bill was through the Commons. I hope so, and I will hold him to that. Let us get the Bill done as quickly as possible, because only then will the EU realise that we mean business.