Foreign AffairsNorthern IrelandSpeeches

Theresa Villiers – 2024 Speech on the United Kingdom Internal Market

The speech made by Theresa Villiers, the Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet, in the House of Commons on 1 February 2024.

The important statutory instruments that we are discussing today are the latest in the process of implementing the result of the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union. They may not have attracted the same volume, attention or emotion as those endless meaningful votes in 2018 and 2019, but they are no less important. This has been a long and difficult process that has divided the nation, but the end goal of restoring our status as an independent, self-governing democracy has been a prize worth fighting for.

For centuries, Members of this Parliament strived to ensure that we would be governed only by the laws made by our own elected representatives, and that is what Brexit seeks to deliver, but we all know that the job is not yet finished when it comes to Northern Ireland, so I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, the Minister and the DUP for their work and determination to tackle the problems with the Windsor framework and secure Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market. I very much welcome the advances being made towards the restoration of power sharing and devolved government, and I accept that the statutory instruments are an important part of enabling that to happen because of the significant changes they contain.

Of course, I completely understand the DUP’s concerns regarding the Northern Ireland protocol and the Windsor framework. We must do all we can to minimise trade frictions between Britain and Northern Ireland. The agreement on the Windsor framework started that process—for example, by making the movement of medicines, food and items for retail sale much less problematic. I believe that further improvements will be delivered by the deal that we are looking at today, which will further reduce checks and inspections. My concern is that the central problem remains that Northern Ireland is subject to single market rules without having a vote on them. The instruments we are considering do not change that, although I welcome the important further clarity and safeguards offered on the Stormont brake.

Dialogue with the EU has to continue so that ultimately we can move to a situation in which only items destined for export to the south are subject to EU rules and regulations in Northern Ireland. With pragmatism and advancing border technology, that should be possible. It is important that we continue to strive to bring that about, so that we can restore democratic control over making our laws in every part of our United Kingdom and Brexit is fully delivered for Northern Ireland, as it is for Great Britain.

We also need assurances from Ministers that nothing in regulation 3 of the Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations will prevent regulatory divergence between Britain and the EU. Of course, any responsible Minister must consider the impact of his or her decisions on the unity of the UK and its single market, but new screening obligations must not be allowed to create a chilling effect, which would stop us charting our own course with regard to how we regulate our economy. Taking back control of making our own laws was a key reason that people voted to leave the EU. We have yet to fully deliver that for Northern Ireland and, as I have said, we must go further on it in the future.

Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for the conversations we have had on this specific point. She is right to highlight her concerns and to seek assurances from the Government, but she does accept that it is right to get assessments; that it is right that Governments should always be going through the process of assessing the impact of their decisions on every part of this United Kingdom; and that there is nothing wrong with transparency, with knowing any possible consequence, nor—if that potential consequence is negative—with all of us determinedly trying to ensure that it does not arise.

Theresa Villiers

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; the dialogue that he and I have had over recent days has done a lot to reassure me that this package is about transparency, not a block on divergence. I hope the Minister will confirm that in his closing remarks, because divergence is important. The regulatory reform made possible by exit is, I think, crucial for our future economic success. By making us more competitive, modernising regulation is a key means to boost growth, raise living standards and reduce taxes.

In conclusion, it took courage and determination from Northern Ireland’s elected leaders to secure peace after three horrific decades of terrorist violence. Asking very different parties to sit in a permanent mandatory coalition was never going to be easy, not least because some of the divisions between them date back decades, or even centuries. That devolved government has worked for so much of the past quarter of a century is a testament to Northern Ireland’s leaders and their determination to make the ’98 settlement work—to make Northern Ireland work. I pay particular tribute to the DUP in that regard: for so often it is they who have found ways to fix problems and keep devolved government going, while always safeguarding Unionist principles.

We in this House must recognise the significant problems caused by the Northern Ireland protocol and the Windsor framework—including, of course, what the courts have described as a “subjugation” of article 6 of the Act of Union of 1801—but, as we have heard today, we are making real progress on tackling these issues by setting out in the statutory instruments stronger legal protections for access to the GB market. I also think that the historical perspective, as set out in annexe A of the Command Paper, is something that everyone should read. We are making progress on remedying these problems.

It was a privilege for me, as Secretary of State for just under four years, to play a part in Northern Ireland’s inspiring story, and I truly hope that a way can now be found for its devolved institutions to resume their work of taking Northern Ireland forward to further success and an even brighter future.