At the outset I think it would be important to make the point to all Right Honourable and Honourable Members that this is not simply another Brexit related Bill, nor indeed is it a technical Bill to remedy problems that have arisen since 1st January 2021 – albeit it would have that effect.
Fundamentally the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill 2022 seeks to finally - and fundamentally – reset and restore Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom given the devastating impact of the Protocol on the economic, constitutional, social, and political life of Northern Ireland over the last 18 months.
Many in this House will remember our opposition to the Protocol from the outset. It gives me no pleasure to say it but we warned that it would be bad for Northern Ireland and would not work. That assessment has been more than borne out in reality.
The Northern Ireland institutions were restored in January 2020 on the basis of ‘The New Decade, New Approach Agreement’, which for all of its flaws, provided a sufficient basis to allow the NI parties to re-establish the Executive with a clear route-map for tackling the challenges we faced at that time.
Within the NDNA Agreement there was a clear commitment from the Government that Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market would be respected. That commitment was pivotal to our re-entry into the Executive.
When I became leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in July of last year I warned that, “the Northern Ireland Protocol represents the greatest threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom in any of our lifetimes.”
I also said that “the Irish Sea Border is not just a threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom; it is a threat to the living standards of the people of Northern Ireland and the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.”
Mr Speaker, for those of us from Northern Ireland, we have lived through the experience of that over the last period of time.
I want to acknowledge the importance of the publication and introduction of this Bill.
Following the publication of the Government’s Command Paper in July 2021 this Bill’s publication is recognition by the Government that we cannot continue with the flawed Protocol as originally negotiated and implemented.
For almost a year I have set out the case for decisive action.
Indeed in a speech on the 1st July 2021 I urged both the Government and the European Union to conclude discussions in a manner that would deal with the Protocol recognising its lack of support in the Unionist community.
Sadly that did not happen, in large measure because the European Union was not prepared to alter its negotiating mandate, instead preferring to propose measures within the context of the original legal text.
Last September I warned, both publicly and privately, that time was running out for the Stormont institutions unless decisive action was taken to deal with disruptive and unacceptable impact of the Protocol on the economy and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.
In February I took decisive action to bring matters to a head. That action was both necessary and proportionate.
At that time, and during the subsequent election campaign, we indicated that we believed in devolved government and wanted to see the long shadow of the Protocol removed so that we could see the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the full functioning of the Northern Ireland Executive. That, of course, remains our position.
I have today published, for the benefit of Members and a wider UK audience, a paper setting out in detail the reasons why the Protocol must be replaced and a series of case studies detailing the devastating real-life impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol across a variety of sectors.
Such impacts are taking place in circumstances when the full impact of the Protocol has not yet been felt due to the Government having already taken unilateral action to extend grace periods – action that the European Union now seeks to again challenge through the Courts.
Mr Speaker, it is our assessment that this Bill is now the only route to restoring the constitutional balance that was achieved by the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements, as well as eliminating the trade barriers created by the Protocol, and it is the only path to stable and sustainable government in Northern Ireland.
I want to commend the work of the Honourable Member for Stone, and his colleagues, who are pre-eminent constitutional and European lawyers, who have closely examined the Bill and who have concluded that the bill “properly reinforces” the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Their conclusions, reflecting our own assessment, that the bill will reaffirm in substance the elements of the Articles of Union of 1800, is a welcome and necessary development in light of the recent legal proceedings on these issues.
The bill will provide the framework for the free movement of goods within the UK internal market that are not destined for the EU Single market. The bill gives reasonable protection to the EU single market against the movement across the Irish land border on which the correct EU tariffs have not been paid or which do not comply with EU regulation.
The bill before us will also provide the legal framework for Ministers to dis-apply those elements of the Protocol that would otherwise disadvantage Northern Ireland consumers. It will allow HM Treasury Ministers to bring forward UK-wide measures on VAT and other such fiscal instruments and not be barred from implementing them in Northern Ireland by virtue of the Protocol.
Truly, Mr Speaker, with the support of Honourable and Right Honourable Members this bill will transform the political situation in Northern Ireland and engender sufficient confidence to get our local institutions up and running.
This bill, alongside regulations that will need to be published by Ministers, will remove the Protocol’s long shadow from Northern Ireland.
It will, in our view, provide for the restoration of the equilibrium in Northern Ireland, which is essential for the effective functioning of the political institutions on the basis of a cross-community consensus.
But the opposite is also the case – a failure to pass this bill will ensure the final death knell for the Belfast Agreement and its successor agreements. That is not an outcome that I, or any member of this House, would wish to see.
The DUP, in line with its mandate, is committed to fully participating in a newly established Northern Ireland Executive and we would want to do so as soon as there is a sustainable basis for the creation of the Executive.
Unlike the last Executive, the incoming Executive cannot have its agenda blighted by the real world issues and problems that have flowed from the failed Northern Ireland Protocol.
In preparation for the creation of the new Executive and Assembly we are already engaged in discussions with other parties in Northern Ireland on what political programmes and action plans we can agree upon to be included in an Executive Coalition Agreement.
It is important that confidence in Northern Ireland is rebuilt following the disastrous impact of the Protocol.
It does not enjoy the support of Unionists; indeed none of the Unionist MLAs elected in the recent Assembly election support it. The importance of the passage of this bill to Northern Ireland cannot be overstated. At the heart of the Belfast Agreement is the political reality that the political institutions can only operate effectively on the basis of a cross-community consensus. It is precisely because of the harm done to that consensus by the Protocol that the political institutions are not functioning at this time.
Mr Speaker, much of what will happen in the coming period in Northern Ireland will be shaped by the attitudes and decisions taken by this House.
If this bill convincingly passes all of its Commons stages in its current form, and if the Government continues to develop the regulations required to bring to an end the harmful implementation of the Protocol then that would of course give substantially greater confidence that new arrangements are on the way, which in turn would provide a basis to take further steps to see the return of our local institutions.
I would appeal to Members who genuinely want to see the institutions up and running in Northern Ireland to prioritise the interests of Northern Ireland over any narrower ideological reservations they may have about the bill at this time.
I urge them to recognise the vitality of this bill now progressing rapidly through its legislative stages in the Commons before the Summer recess and ensuring that not only does the bill receive substantial support in this House, but that it is not subject to either wrecking amendments or indeed other amendments that would dilute the framework and impact of the bill.
Mr Speaker, much harm has been inflicted on the Belfast Agreement and successor agreements. Time is now short to ensure we arrest the situation and the only way to do that is to finally, and fully, deal with the Protocol and let Northern Ireland once again focus on moving forward together.
We want to see the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive restored and that can be achieved when there is a sustainable basis for doing so. We will continue to be condition and not calendar led as we look forward to this bill now making rapid progress.
I commend this Bill and we will be supporting it in the interests of Northern Ireland and the integrity of the whole United Kingdom.