Karin Smyth – 2022 Speech on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

The speech made by Karin Smyth, the Labour MP for Bristol South, in the House of Commons on 27 June 2022.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will see how we go.

Exactly six years ago today, following the Brexit referendum, we had a statement in this House from the then Prime Minister, and more than two hours of questions took place. I believe I was the only non-Northern Ireland Member of Parliament to raise the issue of the Northern Ireland border. Specifically, I referenced my own family who live on both sides of that border. My family are from Cavan and some of my family now live in Fermanagh. I spend a lot of time there crossing the border. It has always been personal to me. I witnessed and saw the benefit of the removal of the physical infrastructure throughout the 1990s. However, throughout most of the last six years—Members who were not here at the time have referenced it—Northern Ireland has received very little attention. It has always been an inconvenience to the Brexiteers, who have never really articulated a solution to the conundrum of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. Too many hon. Members on both sides of the House do not know or understand the history.

Clearly, among the European Research Group or somewhere, a briefing pack is circulating that starts at 1800 with the Act of Union, moves swiftly on to 1998, and finds us here today. It would well behove many hon. Members to walk along the corridor to the Library and check the Hansard from this place throughout the 19th and 20th century. It would behove Conservative Members to understand the arguments between Disraeli and Gladstone about that “coming storm” from the west, because it is different now from it was throughout those times. Careless words spoken in this place throughout those two centuries have an impact across Ireland—in the Republic and in Northern Ireland.

Peace and stability must always guide us—we all want that—but nothing in the Bill does anything to bring peace and stability to Northern Ireland. It gives no power to people in Northern Ireland, but all the power to singular Ministers in this Government. The Foreign Secretary told us today that she has had no agreement from the parties that they will go back to Stormont, and the powers given to the UK Government Minister are complete and unfettered with no accountability.

A key part of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which no one seems to want to mention but which has always been important for bringing peace and stability across communities, is the mutual interest and mutual respect between the UK and Irish Governments for the two communities that exist in Northern Ireland. The Conservative party does not like it, but Ireland remains a member state and is that mutual interest. When people talk casually about the EU being the enemy, they really mean that Ireland remains an enemy. For the Brexiteers, there has always been one solution to the problem of Northern Ireland, which is for the Irish to leave the European Union.

Brexit has never been about the UK leaving; it has always been about the destruction of the European Union. The solution for the Brexiteers—for the ERG that now controls the Conservative party—is for Ireland to leave, but that is not going to happen. Ireland has been successful in the European Union, which has transformed society and the lives of people there. That is the realpolitik. The unique circumstances on the island of Ireland have not changed. Somehow, we need to remind the Conservative party and other hon. Members of that place.

With the dual regulatory system, Northern Ireland is on the cusp of either great prosperity or economic failure. It is our duty to decide on which of those paths we want to support people there. We could choose the investment that awaits—being the fulcrum between the EU and the United Kingdom is potentially exciting for business and prosperity in Northern Ireland—or we could chose stagnation, indecision, fighting in the courts, and debates about the niceties of legal arguments and international treaties of the last 200 years, which would frighten off the investment that is crucial for prosperity and security.

It is not just personal now for me. The instability that breaking an international agreement causes definitely has an impact on businesses and people in my Bristol South constituency. Our international reputation as a safe place to do business, our stability and our rules-based economy are being totally trashed and shredded by the Government.

In my remaining minute, I will alert hon. Members to the inquiry of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, into international treaties. We have heard from Lord Frost and last week we heard from Professor Bartels from the University of Cambridge. When asked about the state of necessity, Professor Bartels said that

“you resort to a defence of necessity when it is necessary, in other words you don’t have anything else.”

The ultimate test of legislation is whether it will work, and it is clear that this will not work. It is a distraction—a distraction from the psychodrama within the Conservative party, and the Prime Minister—and it is truly shameful.