Simon Hoare – 2022 Speech on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

The speech made by Simon Hoare, the Conservative MP for North Dorset, in the House of Commons on 27 June 2022.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Ten minutes is the time usually taken to make opening remarks, and popularity is something that I have always shunned.

The shadow Foreign Secretary is right: at the heart of this is trust or the absence of it—or, as she leaves the Chamber, the absence of Truss. Is the protocol perfect? No, it is not. The question, therefore, is not whether but how changes should be made. There are many ways to achieve change, but this Bill is not one of them.

The Office of Speaker’s Counsel has provided a legal opinion to all members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and it raises enormous concerns about this Bill’s legality. The Foreign Secretary and others have tried to conflate—they have fallen into the trap of conflating—the resurrection of devolution and the protocol. Those are two very separate and different workstreams, and we need to decouple them. Treaty making is reserved to this place; devolution is the duty of the politicians of Northern Ireland. We can and should be able to see the resurrection of one and negotiation on the other, but to fall into the trap of conflating them, the result of which is this Bill, is very sad indeed.

This is not a well thought-out Bill, it is not a good Bill and it is not a constitutional Bill. The integrity of the United Kingdom can be changed only via the Good Friday agreement. The protocol and trading arrangements do not interrupt or change the constitutional integrity of the UK, so I do not agree with those who try to position this as a constitutional Bill.

Gavin Robinson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hoare

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I want to make a few more points.

This Bill represents a failure of statecraft and puts at risk the reputation of the United Kingdom. The arguments in support of it are flimsy at best and irrational at worst. The Bill risks economically harmful retaliation and runs the risk of shredding our reputation as a guardian of international law and the rules-based system. How in the name of heaven can we expect to speak to others with authority when we ourselves shun, at a moment’s notice, our legal obligations? A hard-won reputation so easily played with—

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con) rose—

Simon Hoare

I give way to my constituency neighbour.

Dr Murrison

My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is making a good speech. Of course, the Bill is permissive legislation; meanwhile, negotiations are ongoing. He referred to a failure of statecraft—whose failure?

Simon Hoare

I think it is probably a failure of both sides, but a presumption of, “If I don’t get my own way on everything, I’m going to take my ball off the pitch; I’m going to act unilaterally, off my own bat” is not the way to do it. As a former distinguished Minister at the Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend knows as well as I do that most Northern Ireland outcomes are based on compromise—on give and take, and on finding the place and the path of least resistance.

This has been a failure of statecraft. I do not believe that the Bill passes the international test of necessity. It has to pass all the tests set out in the statute, and it does not. What, then, is this Bill? Is it a bargaining chip to try to browbeat the EU? Is it a bribe to right hon. and hon. Members in the Democratic Unionist party to get back around the table at Stormont?

Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hoare

Let me just finish on what the Bill might be, and then I shall of course give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Is the Bill a muscle flex for a future leadership bid? To sacrifice our national reputation on the altar of personal ambition would be shameful.

Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson

The hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) made a point on this subject earlier, but as a result of the protocol we have a democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. Many of the laws that now regulate how we trade with the rest of the United Kingdom are made by a foreign entity over which we have no say whatsoever, and our VAT rates are set by that foreign entity. There should be no taxation without representation. I do not need to be bribed to ask for what is the right of my people: democracy.

Simon Hoare

That is a point with which I have much sympathy, and which Committee members discussed with the Commission when we were there last December. The Commission is aware of that. Norway has Ministers of its Government in Brussels to discuss such things week in, week out. The EU and, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, Northern Irish business organisations are really keen to identify platforms whereby that democratic deficit can be in some way addressed. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman entirely. I am tempted to say to him, “Don’t shout at me; shout at the Ministers who advocated for the protocol and for us to sign and support it.”

Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con) rose—

Simon Hoare

I am going to make some progress, if I may.

I suggest that we have to be the party of the rule of law, or we are nothing. It is sad that we have to be reminded of that. This a power grab, with all these Henry VIII clauses. If we were being asked to pass powers to Ministers so we could polish an already superlative protocol, we might have some faith, but they have admitted that the results of what they negotiated have caught them by surprise—that they did not understand the import of what they were signing up to, or they did not quite understand the terms or the meaning of the words. We are told that they were surprised that the other side would expect us and them to fulfil the obligations we had negotiated.

Given our deep understanding of the complexities and difficulties of the politics of Northern Ireland— I have little or no doubt that we can all unite on that—I suggest that to enter into something so lightly without understanding precisely all the details, and then to say, “We’re having to do this because we didn’t expect the other side to do it in the way that they want us to do it,” is for the birds. It is totally bonkers. The Government told us that, having reached a difficult compromise on the final text of the protocol, they expected the EU to do something else. With all the history, all we relied on was expectation.

These Henry VIII clauses really will not stick. Seventeen of the clauses give unspecified powers to Ministers. Was taking back control about this Parliament handing powers to the Executive to use for unspecified purposes? Even worse, one clause tells us that powers will be used to change powers that might have been changed in the Bill if those changes are subsequently thought to have been wrong or ill-advised. That is not only someone marking their own homework, but someone copying somebody else’s homework and then claiming all the credit themselves.

Sir Bernard Jenkin

I find it astonishing that my hon. Friend has got eight minutes into his speech and he has still not mentioned the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

Simon Hoare

My hon. Friend was obviously not listening, because I made it very clear at the start that the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom is not touched by the protocol. The constitutional integrity of Northern Ireland within our United Kingdom is contained within the clauses of the Good Friday agreement—that is the only way. Anybody who tries to position this protocol—

Gavin Robinson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hoare

I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, because of the time.

Anybody who thinks that this is, in some way, a back door to a speeding up of the reunification of Ireland is fundamentally wrong.

Colum Eastwood

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hoare

I will not, but I know the hon. Gentleman will understand why.

The argument of necessity is clearly not made. The Prime Minister himself wants to see this done by negotiation, and I agree with him. There is the option to trigger article 16 if the Government think that that is necessary. If the situation is as bad as some Ministers would have this House believe, one has to ask why they have not used the emergency brake of article 16, but have instead suggested a calm and tranquil Sunday afternoon walk through a bicameral system of legislative progress—something that will take 10 months. Either the data is as bad as they tell us it is—incidentally, it is not—in which case rapid action is required, or we are just going to do this, which suggests to me that this is all gamesmanship and muscle flexing. Belfast port is now handling a record amount of cargo; last year, it handled a record 25.6 million tonnes. The food and drinks sector is benefitting. More Irish businesses are buying stuff from Northern Ireland, which is good for Northern Ireland plc.

The Henry VIII clauses are wrong, the purpose of the Bill is wrong, and the necessity for it is not proven. I ask this question sincerely of my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches. We are talking about playing fast and loose with our international reputation; playing fast and loose with our adherence to the rule of law; an Executive power grab with Henry VIII clauses; and pandering and giving way to some sort of political brinkmanship on one side of the very sensitive divide in Northern Ireland, which we cannot afford to treat as a plaything. If the Labour party were on the Government Benches and doing what is contained in this Bill, what would our response be, as Conservatives? We would say that this was a party not fit for Government. We would say that it was a party that does not understand or respect our traditions, and that does not understand the importance of reputation. For a fellow Tory to have to point that out to Tories is shameful. I ask my hon. and right hon. Friends to think about what this does to our party’s reputation and to our nation’s reputation, because both are in peril.