Jeffrey Donaldson – 2022 Speech on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

The speech made by Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP MP for Lagan Valley, in the House of Commons on 27 June 2022.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on Second Reading of this very important Bill. At the outset, it is important to make the point to all right hon. and hon. Members that this is not simply another Brexit-related Bill. Nor is it a technical Bill to remedy problems that have arisen since January 2021, albeit that it will have that effect.

Fundamentally, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill seeks to finally and fundamentally reset and restore Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom, given the devastating impact of the protocol on the economic, constitutional, social and political life of Northern Ireland over the past 18 months. Many in this House will remember our opposition to the protocol, and it is an honour to follow the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). She rightly flagged up our opposition from the outset to the protocol. It gives me no pleasure to say that we warned that it would be bad for Northern Ireland and that it would not work. That assessment has been more than borne out in reality.

The Northern Ireland institutions were restored in January 2020. The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), is in his place and he was very much involved in bringing about the New Decade, New Approach agreement. At the heart of that agreement was a clear commitment by the UK Government to protect Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market, and that it would be respected. On that basis, my party re-entered power sharing.

We kept our side of the bargain and we were patient. We waited and waited for the Government to take action to protect our place in the internal market. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland did refer to measures to be introduced to the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 that would have at least partly dealt with the problem, alongside other measures to be proposed to a Finance Bill, but those measures were not brought forward, so still we waited.

Last July, when I became leader of the party, I warned that if the Government failed to honour their commitment in New Decade, New Approach, we would have a real difficulty, because the consensus that is essential to ensure that power sharing is maintained in Northern Ireland is being undermined.

Simon Hoare

The right hon. Gentleman has not said anything up to now that is any way factually challengeable. On the presumption that the Bill secures its Second Reading this evening and begins its parliamentary progress, in the interest of serving those people in Northern Ireland who look to the Executive and Stormont to meet their daily needs, will he instruct his party colleagues who are MLAs to return to the Executive, get it back up and running, discharge their democratic duty, and serve all the communities in Northern Ireland?

Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson

I will come to that point, but I simply ask the hon. Gentleman: if I were to do that, would he then support the Bill? I heard nothing in his contribution to suggest that he would.

Last July, I made it clear that:

“The Irish Sea Border is not just a threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom, it is a threat to the living standards of the people of Northern Ireland”,

and so it has proven. The impact of the additional cost of bringing goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland is contributing to the cost of living situation in Northern Ireland. It is driving up the cost of food in our supermarkets, it is driving up the cost of manufacturing, and it is making it difficult for businesses to operate effectively.

Bob Stewart

Further to that point, it seems that the people of Northern Ireland sometimes cannot get goods from Great Britain. Manufacturers here are not sending them to Northern Ireland, because of the additional burden of trying to get them there.

Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. Many of my constituents, and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, have experienced that as consumers and businesses. This is about not just businesses, but every citizen of Northern Ireland.

It is also about the democratic deficit. My Members, who were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly and are Ministers in the Executive, are expected to preside over the imposition of regulations over which they have no say. They have no democratic input into how those regulations—the ones that regulate how we trade with the rest of our own country—are put in place. How can any hon. Member defend a situation where part of this United Kingdom is treated in such a way that its elected representatives have no say in many of the laws that regulate our trade with the rest of the United Kingdom? That is simply unacceptable and it is part of the problem.

Karin Smyth

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, as I have said in this place many times, about aspects of the Joint Committee. This Bill that he is agreeing with, however, similarly gives absolutely no power to anybody in Northern Ireland—him, his party or anybody else— but gives it all to the Secretary of State. On that basis, how can he support it?

Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson

If enacted, the Bill will restore confidence in Northern Ireland, will restore the consensus essential to operate power sharing, and will therefore give back to the elected representatives in Northern Ireland the power to take the decisions that they have not been able to take.

I also say to the House that it is a bit rich to hear hon. Members arguing for devolution and the restoration of power when this House, on a number of recent occasions, has overridden devolution and the Northern Ireland Assembly and has enacted powers contrary to the desires of the elected representatives in Northern Ireland.

I believe that this Bill is essential to the restoration of political stability in Northern Ireland. It will provide a framework for the free movement of goods within the UK internal market in line with the Government’s commitment in New Decade, New Approach. It gives reasonable protection to the EU single market; it does not have an impact on the EU and the integrity of that market. In fact, it protects the integrity of that market as well as the integrity of the United Kingdom’s internal market. I see no reason why this House should not bring forward measures to do that, when it is clear and evident that the protocol has disrupted the integrity of the UK internal market.

Sir George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab)

I know that the right hon. Gentleman gives a lot of thought to these issues and does not arrive at opinions lightly. He is arguing that the Bill as it stands will give Northern Ireland the things it wants—I think that is his main point—but what will happen if he is wrong?

Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson

I am not suggesting that the Bill is perfect. It is rare for legislation that passes this House to be perfect in every sense and not to require subsequent amendment. The benefit of the Bill is that it empowers Ministers to make change where change is necessary to ensure the proper functioning of the UK internal market, which is an entirely valid thing for this Parliament and Government to do.

Furthermore, as a Unionist, I make no apology for saying that it is important to me that the Bill will restore Northern Ireland’s place within the Union. Some right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the rule of law, yet the High Court and the Court of Appeal in Belfast have stated clearly that the protocol subjugates article 6 of the Act of Union, which is an international agreement —it is the fundamental building block of the Union.

Article 6 states clearly that I, as a Northern Ireland citizen and a member of this United Kingdom, have the right to trade freely within my own country and that there should be no barriers to trade between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. In putting in place the Irish sea border, the protocol has broken article 6 and made me a second-class citizen in my own country, because I do not have the right to trade freely with the rest of the United Kingdom. I am simply asking for my rights as a British citizen.

Simon Hoare indicated dissent.

Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson

The Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee shakes his head, but if he found his constituents in a position where they were unable to trade freely with the rest of their own country, he might be as annoyed as I am and he might actually have something to say about it.

Jim Shannon

My right hon. Friend is putting forward an excellent case for how to do away with the Northern Ireland protocol through this legislation. Does he agree that it removes the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and brings it back here, and that it should be the people of this House, and of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, who make those decisions, not Europe?

Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson

I believe in fairness and that when there is a dispute at an international level, the court of one side should not be left to be the arbiter of that situation. That needs to be rectified.

On the implications of the Bill, I make it clear that in our view, it will provide for the restoration of the equilibrium that is essential in Northern Ireland—the cross-community consensus that is at the heart of the Belfast agreement and that is absolutely necessary to ensure the proper functioning of the political institutions. As was evident in the May elections, not a single Unionist Member elected to the Assembly supports the Northern Ireland protocol, so there is no cross-community consensus in favour of it.

This House can bury its head in the sand and pretend that there is no instant solution to the problem. It can say, “Let us just wait for the EU to finally agree to change its negotiating mandate,” but what about Northern Ireland in the meantime? I want to see the political institutions restored, but I am not able to do it if my Ministers are required to impose a protocol that harms Northern Ireland. I am not prepared—my party is not prepared—to engage in an act of self-harm to Northern Ireland’s part of the United Kingdom. We are simply not prepared to do that.

Therefore, is it the will of this House that it wishes to see Northern Ireland languishing without political institutions able to operate because there is no cross-community consensus while we argue the rights and wrongs and the legalities of this situation? Unfortunately, I do not have a situation for my people whereby we can talk all night and debate this Bill and its legality in international law. I happen to believe there is a necessity, and the necessity is peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

This House and this Government are charged with the responsibility of ensuring peace and stability in Northern Ireland. That is the necessity, and I do not see and have not heard in this House from anyone opposing the Bill what their solution is beyond saying, “Let’s have more negotiations”—negotiations with an EU that refuses to change its negotiating mandate and will not change the text of the protocol. I have to say to right hon. and hon. Members that refusal to change the text of the protocol simply means that we will not get a solution that will achieve the cross-community consensus required in Northern Ireland, and I believe the Bill offers a solution.

Sir William Cash

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept, as he said earlier, that a serious democratic deficit exists at the moment in the making of laws by European institutions—in the Council of Ministers, by a majority vote, behind closed doors? None of his voters has any opportunity to intervene whatsoever, and it is done in a manner completely inconsistent with proper democratic procedures. Is that not the absolutely right reply to my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare)?

Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson

I thank the hon. Member for that intervention and for the excellent work he has been doing in helping to bring about the progress we are making towards the restoration of the political institutions in Northern Ireland.

As I come to a conclusion, let me say that much of what will happen in the coming period in Northern Ireland will be shaped by attitudes and decisions in this House. If this Bill convincingly passes all its Commons stages in its current form and the Government continue to develop the regulations required to bring to an end the harmful implementation of the protocol, that will of course give substantially greater confidence that new arrangements are on the way, which in turn would provide a basis to take further steps to see the return of our local institutions.

Therefore, I appeal to Members of this House who genuinely want to see the institutions restored and up and running in Northern Ireland again to prioritise the interests of Northern Ireland over any narrower ideological reservations they may have about this Bill. I urge them to recognise the vital nature of this Bill now progressing rapidly through its legislative stages in the Commons before the summer recess, and of ensuring not only that it receives substantial support in this House, but that it is not subject to either wrecking amendments or other amendments that would dilute the framework and impact of the Bill.

In conclusion, much harm has been inflicted on the Belfast agreement and its successor agreements. Time is now short to ensure that we arrest this situation, and the only way to do that, finally and fully, is to deal with the protocol and to see Northern Ireland once again focus on moving forward together. We want to see the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive restored, and that can be achieved when there is a sustainable basis for doing so. We will continue to be condition and not calendar-led as we look forward to this Bill now making rapid progress. I commend the Bill, and we will be supporting it in the interests of Northern Ireland and the integrity of the entire United Kingdom.