The speech made by Peter Kyle, the Labour MP for Hove, in the House of Commons on 27 June 2022.
I want to begin with an apology to the victims of crimes committed during the troubles in Northern Ireland; they were expecting the Committee stage of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill today. Several had booked and paid for their plane and train tickets, so their money has now been wasted. For the Government, changing the parliamentary timetable might be trivial, but for victims and their families, such behaviour only adds to the pain and frustration of decades of hurt. And it exposes the truth—that Northern Ireland and its unique sensitivities are not taken seriously by this Government.
As the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) said, if time were truly important, as the Government’s legal argument of necessity implies, this Bill would have been introduced as emergency legislation, or at least rushed through. There is only one real necessity in this Bill, at this time, and that is to try to distract from the catastrophic performance at the ballot box last week, and to fire the starting gun for the Foreign Secretary’s leadership bid. Once again, the Tories’ civil war is infecting our politics. Once again, Northern Ireland is paying the price. This House deserves better. Northern Ireland deserves better. Victims of the troubles certainly deserve better.
The Government claim to be acting on behalf of communities in Northern Ireland by tearing up the protocol, yet in the very same week they are simultaneously ignoring the opposition from all Northern Ireland communities, because opposition to their Bill to deal with the murders and acts of terror during the troubles is universal. Every party from every community opposes it, yet the Government plough on. They are picking and choosing parts of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement according to whatever their political needs are in any particular moment.
For example, one justification for tearing up the Government’s Brexit deal is the loss of community support for the protocol. This totally ignores one essential fact: the Government never had it to start with. The DUP and Unionists have been very consistent from the very beginning when it comes to the protocol: they opposed it. When Ministers were drafting and negotiating the protocol, the consent of the Unionists was never sought and never given. As the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) said, they even voted against it in this House. How can it now be claimed to have disappeared? It was never there to begin with.
In fact, when the Prime Minister presented the protocol to Parliament in 2019, he said in response to Lord Dodds that
“the people of this country have taken a great decision embracing the entire four nations of this country, by a simple majority vote that went 52:48 and which we are honouring now.”
He went on:
“I think that principle should be applied elsewhere, and I see no reason why it should not be applied in Northern Ireland as well. It is fully compatible with the Good Friday agreement.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 581.]
That was the Prime Minister speaking here, to this House, on 19 October 2019. We now have an entire Bill that reveals that the Prime Minister was not truthful with the House as he tried to sell the protocol.
Let us turn to another promise made and broken by this Government. Page 5 of the Tory manifesto could not be clearer. It says: “No…renegotiations.” So when the Foreign Secretary says, as she did at the Dispatch Box earlier, that the EU not agreeing “to change the text of the protocol” is her basis for this Bill, it exposes yet another broken manifesto promise. Fourteen million voters who believed that promise have been betrayed.
All this is perfectly in line with the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland: they pick and choose issues depending on whether they serve whatever grievance they happen to have and be peddling at any moment in time. Their approach is reckless and neglectful. When the politics of Northern Ireland demand sustained, diligent support, the Government look the other way. When the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in February, the Prime Minister did not visit Stormont to fulfil the vital role of honest broker to help the parties to find a way forward. He did make it to Saudi Arabia, India and the United Arab Emirates. Five months later, and only when the challenges in Stormont became unignorable, he found time for a fleeting visit.
The biggest challenge facing Northern Ireland is not the protocol; it is this neglectful Government. All parties in Northern Ireland want to see progress on the protocol. We on the Labour Benches have called for the EU and the Government to get back around the negotiating table. There are large areas of common ground that show that successful negotiation is possible, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) outlined eloquently. The UK, the EU and all parties in Northern Ireland have identified areas of improvement, and many of them clearly overlap. This appears to be the only negotiation in history that has failed because everyone agrees. We have consistently said that the EU must show more flexibility over Northern Ireland, but the way to unlock it is by engaging and negotiating—the very things that Britain used to be good at.
The overwhelming number of issues raised in the Bill are negotiable, with statecraft, diligence and graft. Take the veterinary agreement that New Zealand negotiated and signed with the EU. There were no rows, no psycho drama and no lawbreaking legislation. They just sat around the table and put in the hard work. With statecraft, diligence and graft, it is possible to reach an agreement on outstanding issues with the protocol. A veterinary agreement and a data sharing deal would remove the need for the vast majority of remaining checks. That is what this ultimately comes down to: identifying those remaining products that face undue red tape in their journey to Northern Ireland. With Britain’s great history of instigating, supporting and delivering global historic agreements, is it not reasonable to expect our Government to just get on and deliver it?
That is why we oppose the Bill. It takes us further away from the negotiated progress that is the only way forward. It is worth putting the scale of the current Tory incompetence in perspective. The previous generation, including John Major and Tony Blair, negotiated a framework that delivered peace in Northern Ireland. This lot cannot even negotiate a prawn sandwich across the Irish sea.