Richard Thomson – 2022 Speech on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

The speech made by Richard Thomson, the SNP MP for Gordon, in the House of Commons on 27 June 2022.

I rise to speak in line with the basis of our reasoned amendment, namely that we believe that this Bill breaks international law.

We have already had to stumble our way through the consequences of a Brexit deal that was supposedly oven-ready. Quite frankly, what is proposed in this legislation is no better. The fact is that, if this Bill does not break international law, it is an act preparatory to doing so.

I will start my remarks by being as helpful as I think I can be to the Government. First, I hope I can understand and at least empathise with some of the concerns of people in Northern Ireland over how aspects of the protocol are working or, as they would view it, not working. Secondly, I do not consider it unreasonable in and of itself that, in the light of experience, the Government should seek to try to renegotiate aspects of the deal that has taken effect. However, I am firmly and clearly of the view that this is absolutely not the way to go about trying to achieve that objective.

I am bound to observe that, although we are here to talk about a Bill on the Northern Ireland protocol, the issues here do not only affect Northern Ireland. We are subject to a withdrawal agreement that does not work for Scotland or, I would contend, any other part of the United Kingdom. There is much rhetoric from the Government about our precious Union, but it is a Union under the stewardship of a Government who did not pay a great deal of attention to the concerns or priorities of the majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland who opposed Brexit. If relations are to be rebalanced across these islands, whether that is cross-community in Northern Ireland or even cross-Union, some recognition of those points by the Government is long overdue.

Jim Shannon

I was very fortunate to have the hon. Gentleman in my constituency, where I gave him the opportunity, which I know he enjoyed it, to meet some of the Unionist community groups, the fishermen and the elected representatives. Every one of those people, as he will remember well, conveyed to him the unfairness of the Northern Ireland protocol and the impact it was having on fishing and on the community. He will know that the local people he met were very fearful of a future where the Northern Ireland protocol was retained. Does he understand those issues, and will he express that in the Chamber as well?

Richard Thomson

I recall that visit with great fondness, particularly the discussions we were able to have in Portavogie, and I am extraordinarily grateful to him and to everybody I met when I was last in Northern Ireland for the chance to discuss these matters. As I have said, I certainly hope I can empathise with and understand some of the issues raised there; if he will allow me to make some progress, he might see where there are perhaps areas of agreement and also, inevitably, some areas of divergence.

Richard Graham

It seems to me that the fundamental issue of debate is whether the EU would move on the implementation issues that it claims are the only problem. For the EU, it is not a question of renegotiation, but of implementation. It has said that it believes that customs formalities can be reduced by about 80%, and the same with sanitary and phytosanitary checks, and that the expanded trusted trader scheme could solve many of the problems. How confident is the hon. Gentleman that those things will be delivered, given how long this has been going on for and the affect already evident in Northern Ireland?

Richard Thomson

It certainly appears to me that there is a potential landing zone between what has been proposed by the European Union and what has been proposed by the UK Government—indeed, there is a bit of an overlap. I would offer to come along with Ministers, but they might feel that reinforcements had arrived and somehow weakened their position. Nevertheless, there ought to be a landing zone here for those of goodwill and good faith.

Even as a supporter of Scottish independence, I find it utterly inconceivable that any Unionist Government would have signed up to the kind of arrangements that placed a trade border down the middle of the Irish sea while denying they were doing any such thing. All the issues inherent in the protocol could have been avoided had the UK Government maintained a modicum of statecraft and respect for all parts of the Union, acknowledged the limitations of the mandate they had from the Brexit referendum and remained in as close alignment as they could with the single market and customs union, thereby minimising the economic harms we have seen to the UK since then and ensuring that no part of that precious Union was left behind. Yet even now it seems that the Government have not learned from their mistakes. The Scottish Government were not consulted by the UK Government before they took this action. I believe I am right in saying that the UK Government did not even afford the Scottish Government the courtesy of a phone call in advance to advise of these plans.

It has also been reported that the UK Government did not consult their top legal adviser—the First Treasury Counsel, Sir James Eadie—on the legality of their move. So we have a UK Government who are in contempt both of international law, as we have seen in other matters, and domestic law. Aspects around the Prime Minister’s current travails are bad enough, but to stand up and use the full authority of a ministerial office to say that which is not gets right to the heart not just of the problems being presented by the protocol in its current form but of the fitness of the Prime Minister, or anyone aspiring to replace him.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)

It is clear that the protocol is not working, and Northern Ireland business is suffering. In what way does this Bill act to the disadvantage of the European Union, because it seems to me that it is a very good way forward?

Richard Thomson

Well, it seems to me that whether it disadvantages or not is not something that Her Majesty’s Government get to decide. While I am clear that there are problems with the protocol, clearly there are aspects of it that are working very well, as indeed those on the Treasury Benches have admitted. I will set out some of the examples, particularly over trade, where it is not having the impact that we are told, in all aspects, that it is. I come from the point of view that trust has been broken between the UK Government and the people of all these islands, as well as between the UK Government and our international partners. That gets right to the nub of the issues about trying to renegotiate it.

We should not really need to say this, but it is absolutely vital that the UK Government should be able to respect the international obligations that they enter into freely. Lord Butler, who was head of the civil service for 10 years, has said that this country has repeatedly criticised states like Russia and China for breaking the rules-based international order and yet now holds that it is perfectly justified in breaching international law itself. It seems that in this Bill we are going from a “limited and specific” breach to something that is potentially extensive and egregious. General Sir Richard Barrons, the former chief of joint forces command, who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland, has said that

“what the government is proposing is short-sighted tactics which will do much harm strategically in the wider world. In fact what is being done is particularly stupid.”

He went on to warn that these moves will empower our adversaries as

“it will undermine us with our enemies by giving them the opportunity to accuse us of hypocrisy when we call them out for breaking the rules-based international order. It will also undermine us with our allies who will doubt whether they can rely on us to keep to an agreement, keep to our word.”

Dr Murrison

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with a great deal of interest. He is right to defend international law and international treaties. Did he raise the concerns he has just expressed when the European Union was busy breaking those treaties—for example, over subsidies to Airbus?

Joanna Cherry

Whataboutery!

Richard Thomson

My hon. and learned Friend says it very eloquently in one word: whataboutery.

We have been brought here by 40 years of political dysfunction in the Conservative party and the various neuroses it has had over Europe. The exceptionalists of the “punch above our weight” brigade to be found extensively, but not exclusively, within the European Research Group, where research seems to be at a premium, have led us to this point, in the process shredding any reputation that the UK might have preserved either for good, stable government or adherence to international norms.

Whatever the bluff and bluster, and personal agendas that might be at play—I notice that the Foreign Secretary is no longer in her place—it is of course the UK’s exit from the EU rather than the protocol that created this difficult situation, because there were only ever three options that would allow this particular circle to be squared: a return of a border on the island of Ireland, close alignment between UK and EU regulatory standards to reduce the need for checks, or checks to be carried out at the main Northern Ireland ports. The further that there is a diversion from the single market and the customs union, the harder the border then eventually becomes.

Sir William Cash

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in 1937 de Valera himself actually tore up the Anglo-Irish treaty in exactly the same kind of way as he is accusing other people of doing?

Richard Thomson

The hon. Gentleman seems to be confusing me with a representative of the Government of Ireland; that is an interesting historical diversion that I would be more than happy to discuss with him later, but I am not exactly certain how germane it is to this particular discussion. It seems a little bit recondite to say the least.

The Government have presented a precis of the legal advice. The Law Society of Scotland has identified a number of provisions in the Bill that it believes to be inconsistent with the UK’s international law obligations. Because of the amount of time available and the fact that we are only on Second Reading, I do not intend to go into those points in any great depth or delve unnecessarily into the horrors of the empowerment of Ministers that the Bill represents—the Henry VIII powers. However, I just specifically highlight the issues that the Bill creates given that article 4 of the withdrawal agreement states expressly that the UK cannot legislate contrarily to its commitments through primary legislation.

We now get on to necessity, which is ultimately the justification that the Government are using. As I understand it, that rests on two key points: first, that there is effectively, when viewed from London, no detriment to the single market from these measures; and secondly, that this underwrites the Government’s wishes to protect the UK single market and the Good Friday agreement. That argument was neatly eviscerated by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) in an earlier intervention, but there are three points that instantly leap out at me. First, as I have said, whether or not there is detriment is a largely subjective measure. Whatever unilateral assertions might be made on this, whether or not there is detriment requires to be determined in another manner.

Secondly, making an invocation of necessity must not seriously impair an essential interest of another party, and it is quite hard to argue that this could not at least be at risk of happening. Thirdly, it is not particularly credible now to cite the protocol as harming the single market or the Good Friday agreement when it was cited by HM Government as a means of protecting both those things. The Prime Minister wanting to override a deal that he himself was happy to claim credit for, in terms of having got Brexit done, during his 2019 election campaign is not the strongest basis for sustaining that argument.

With regard to the economic effect, Northern Ireland has clearly lagged behind the rest of the UK in economic performance in recent decades. For some reason, it is currently outpacing every other part of the UK, except, perhaps predictably, London. There must be some reason why that might be, and I do not know whether anyone can help me with it, but perhaps there is a clue—

Sammy Wilson

If the hon. Gentleman were to examine the economic performance in Northern Ireland, he might find that, surprisingly, it is the service sector that has increased, by seven times more than the manufacturing sector, and of course the service sector is not covered by the protocol at all.

Richard Thomson

Manufacturing also seems to be doing quite well, as I recall. Perhaps having a foot in both markets and easier access to both, in contrast to counterparts on the other side of the north channel, might also be a reason for that.

A survey by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce shows that 70% of businesses now believe that that unique trading position with preferential access to both the EU and UK single markets presents opportunities for Northern Ireland, with the number of businesses reporting a significant problem dropping from 15% to 8%. While I would not seek to diminish in any way the problems that those 8% feel, that is perhaps an indication that many of the problems, at least initially, were because of the short lead-in time that was given and the lack of preparation and clarity ahead of the big changes that came in January 2021.

To come back to my fundamental point, we need a protocol. The nature of Brexit means that there needs to be a protocol. It does not need to be exactly the same as this version, but what we absolutely do not need, in the middle of a cost of living crisis, is the prospect of increased trade frictions through needless conflict and a developing trade war with our largest and closest overseas market. That is what I very much fear this legislation, if enacted and utilised, would do.

I believe that the way forward is through negotiations. Like the man asked to give directions, I would not be starting from this point, for a variety of reasons, and I need not detain the House on that. We need negotiations based on trust, good faith and co-operation. The UK Government would stand a much better chance of success if they were driven by that, instead of by this piece of legislative brinkmanship, and if they were to pursue measures that for once were motivated by a genuine desire to deliver the best possible outcomes out of this mess for all peoples on these islands, rather than simply pandering to the agendas of those in the tiny subset of the population who might have an influence over who the next leader of the Conservative and Unionist party might happen to be—a party that no longer seems to be very certain what it is here to conserve or to unify.