Official Report: Monday 20 January 2020
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: As is required by Standing Order 79(4), I inform the Assembly that, in accordance with Standing Order 79(5), two vacancies exist in the Assembly Commission that must be filled within 28 days.
That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 20 January 2020.
Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 20 January 2020.
That Mr Keith Buchanan replace Mr Gordon Lyons as a member of the Business Committee. — [Mr Lyons.]
That Mr John O'Dowd and Ms Sinéad Ennis replace Ms Carál Ní Chuilín and Mr Declan McAleer as members of the Business Committee. — [Ms Ní Chuilín.]
That Standing Order 49(2)(a) and Standing Order 52(2)(a) be suspended.
Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Order 49(2)(a) and Standing Order 52(2)(a) be suspended.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 49(3), the membership of the Statutory Committees as detailed in NIA 5/17-22 be approved. — [Mr McGrath.]
That, in accordance with Standing Order 52(3), the membership of the Standing Committees as detailed in NIA 6/17-22 be approved. — [Mr McGrath.]
Mr Speaker: The next item in the Order Paper is the motion on the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill.
Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you confirm that the debate that we are about to embark on is on a motion that cannot be amended in consequence of the Executive Office choosing to lay the motion late on Friday? If Members were like me, they got notice at 3.46 pm, and, of course, our Standing Orders require amendments to be tabled two full days before debate. In consequence, we have reached the farcical situation where we are going to debate a motion that no Member can amend. Is that correct?
Mr Speaker: The fact of the matter, Mr Allister, is that the Executive Office tabled the motion late on Friday, and we issued that to the Business Committee, which approved and reaffirmed it this morning at our meeting at 9.30 am. I accept entirely, Mr Allister — I say this to the House — that it is regrettable that the motion came as late as it did. However, I expect that the First Minister and deputy First Minister, who will address the matter, will elaborate on and deal with that to the satisfaction of the House.
Obviously, I want to make sure that, at all times, Executive business is conducted in a way that allows the Assembly to conduct its duties with the rigorous integrity that it is duty-bound to do, and the Member will very much be a key person in that regard. As I say, Standing Orders did not provide for the ability to take amendments, and, therefore, we are in the position we are in. However, even looking at the amendment that had been tabled by Friday, the advice given to me was that the motion in the Order Paper is of a quite specific and narrow scope, and, therefore, amendments that might have been tabled may well not have been ruled as normally acceptable. That is where we are at the moment.
I wrote to the First Minister and deputy First Minister this morning, setting out my concerns in relation to that. We have been in exceptional circumstances: there is no question about that. That is why the motion came from the Executive at such short notice. Under those circumstances, that is the business that we are in this morning.
Mr Allister: Further to that point of order, may I, under Standing Order 16, move that we delay the debate for seven days, on the basis that it is only right and proper that any matter, not least one of this magnitude, should be debated in circumstances where Members should have the capacity to propose amendments? It really is a sad situation if the Executive think that the Assembly is a mere tool that they can bounce motions through without any opportunity to amend.
I wish to have leave, under Standing Order 16, to move that we postpone for seven days or sooner.
Mr Speaker: I will look at that now momentarily, and I will come back in one second. So, Members, take your ease for a second.
Mr Speaker: OK, Members. A motion has been proposed by Mr Allister that the Assembly adjourns the debate on the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill 2019-20 for seven days. I am content that the motion is in order and will allow up to 30 minutes for debate. Members will have a maximum of three minutes in which to make their comments and should indicate their desire to speak by informing officials at the Table. The mover of the motion will have three minutes in which to propose and three minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. If the House divides, the vote will be by simple majority.
I propose to suspend the sitting for 10 minutes to allow Members to make arrangements in relation to speaking on the debate. The Assembly is, by leave of the House, suspended for 10 minutes.
The sitting was suspended at 12.17 pm and resumed at 12.29 pm.
Mr Speaker: Members, the sitting is resumed. The next item of business is a motion to delay the debate on the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill 2019-20. The debate will last for up to 30 minutes. The proposer will have three minutes in which to propose and three minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have three minutes.
The motion was as follows:
That this Assembly, in accordance with Standing Order 16, adjourns the debate on the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill 2019-20 for seven days.
Mr Allister: This is a very simple and net point: it is an elementary rule of debate in any forum, from a school debating society right through to the most elevated forum in the land, that, when a matter such as a motion is being debated, it can be amended. That is how fora express themselves and finesse the view of any particular forum. It is through amendments that that process is perfected. Yet here we have a proposition that, in the House, under the guise of a new approach, the Executive Office brings a motion so late that it cannot be amended. That is the sort of action that the Politburo would be proud of.
Either we are a properly democratic Assembly, so constituted, or we are just a tool of the Executive. If we are a proper debating chamber for Northern Ireland, we need to have the facility to sift, debate and amend any motion that comes before us. It is astounding that the very first item of motioned business in the House, from the most primary functionaries in the House, should be a motion that defies those most fundamental democratic rules and procedures and is a motion that cannot, by virtue of the lateness with which it was brought, be amended. That cannot be right. Therefore, I urge the House that we take the time to follow due process — until next Monday, if that is the scheduled date, or an earlier date that would allow amendments. There is nothing to lose in doing that, but a lot of credibility to lose in not doing it.
Mr Speaker: Can the Member confirm that he is proposing the motion?
Mr Stalford: This is a simple matter: it is the last available time for the House to express an opinion on the content of the European Union withdrawal agreement. The Scottish Parliament has expressed its opinion. The Welsh Assembly will be expressing its opinion on the content of the withdrawal agreement tomorrow morning. Therefore, this is our last available opportunity to express a view. I speak as someone who was on the same side of the Brexit argument as Mr Allister and who is happy to vote for the motion because I do not agree to the content of the European Union withdrawal agreement. I do not need to amend the proposal, because it clearly states the view that my party leader and party have expressed.
The choice is therefore this: do we have a debate on the record in the Assembly that affords all Members an opportunity to express their view before the withdrawal agreement passes through Parliament at Westminster, or do we forgo that opportunity to give a statement of the views of the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland and allow the withdrawal agreement to go through without our input into that debate at Westminster? This is important. It is the defining issue of the age, and if the suggestion is that the withdrawal agreement should be a done-and-dusted effort before the Northern Ireland Assembly takes the opportunity to express an opinion on it, I do not think that that would be a particularly constructive way for us, as the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, to proceed. This motion may be great parliamentary japes, but it is doing nothing to serve the people whom we were sent here to serve.
Mr O'Dowd: Apologies for not hearing the start of the debate, a Cheann Comhairle. Although, to a certain extent, I agree with Mr Allister that the Assembly has to be given its place and that, as we move forward, the Assembly and its Committees etc must carry out their functions with impartiality and vigour, there will always be an exception to those rules. Given the time frames that we are working to, which have been set by neither the Executive nor the Assembly, the Assembly has little choice but to move forward today and debate and vote on the Executive Office motion.
As Mr Stalford said, there will be different reasons why different parties vote in favour of the Executive Office motion. There has not been unity on the issue of Brexit across the political parties to date, and I suspect that we will not find that today. Therefore, everyone will have an opportunity to put on record their views. My experience has been that the British Government and Westminster have paid little regard to what the people here have said about Brexit thus far, and I have no reason to believe they will pay any attention to what we say into the future. I do think, however, given the extraordinary circumstances that we are in, that the Assembly should proceed as planned with what is in the Order Paper.
Ms Mallon: We are also sympathetic to the arguments put forward by Mr Allister, but we have not had an Assembly in three years. In that time, the Scottish Parliament has had its say. The Welsh Assembly has had its say and will again have its say tomorrow. As other Members have indicated, today is our last opportunity to have our say, in advance of tomorrow's sitting of the House of Lords, which presents the last opportunity to amend the Bill. Although we are sympathetic, these are extraordinary times, and, as a result of having had no Assembly, we are restricted, so today we need to unite and speak with one voice.
Dr Aiken: We, too, have a lot of sympathy for Mr Allister's motion and for what other Members have said. We need to be very aware, however, that we have not had sufficient time to debate the issue, and there is time before the withdrawal deal goes through in the other House for us to get our position across.
We, like many other parties, have been working very closely with the business community and civic society, and we would have wished amendments to be put into the Executive Office motion to be able to make the points clear, particularly on the withdrawal agreement. We therefore support the motion.
Ms Armstrong: Today, it feels as though we are caught between a rock and a hard place. Although we were part of a cross-party group that wanted an amendment to go forward, we find that the timescales are so tight that we are not allowed. This motion is absolutely correct. We should have been afforded the time to put forward our amendments. However, that is not the case, and, as others have indicated — Mr O'Dowd, for example — the timescales are against us, set not in this place but in another place.
Unfortunately, and with a very heavy heart, we cannot agree with Mr Allister today. We want to go forward with the Executive Office's motion. I thank you, Mr Speaker, for writing to the Executive Office. The Assembly needs to be able to scrutinise and amend appropriately, and I thank you for taking that forward. Today, unfortunately, just because of the timescales, we will be voting against the motion.
Mr Poots: I do not have any sympathy with Mr Allister on the issue. What we are seeing is pure grandstanding and seeking of attention. What we have in front of us is legislation that is going through Westminster. We are to give an opinion on it, and if we do not give an opinion this week, we will not have the opportunity to give an opinion. Maybe Mr Allister does not want to give an opinion on where he stands on the European Union. Our party is very happy to do so and is very clear on its position. It is useful that the Assembly will have the opportunity to send a message to Westminster on where it stands on this particular issue. It would be absolute foolishness not to proceed with the motion today. We should deal with it and allow Westminster to hear what we have to say.
Mr Allister: What we have not heard in the debate, of course, is why, if this is a matter that is exercising the Executive, they did not table the motion on Wednesday or Tuesday. Why did they wait until Friday evening to table the motion, knowing that that prevented amendments? We have had no explanation from the lead parties in the Executive or the Executive Office as to why the motion was not tabled in a timely manner. We are then told that it is our last opportunity. Is it? If the House sat on Wednesday, could we not debate the matter with amendments? The Bill is still in the House of Lords, as I understand it. It has yet to return to the Commons, so it is a bit threadbare to say that this is the last chance saloon opportunity. If that were really the thinking, and if there were respect for the processes of the House, the motion that we are invited to debate would have been tabled long before 5.00 pm or later on Friday last. It is a contemptible way in which to treat the House, and I trust that Members will bear that in mind.
The Assembly divided:
Ayes 14; Noes 62
Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Ms Bailey, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Beggs, Mr Butler, Mr Carroll, Mr Chambers, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Stewart, Ms Sugden, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Allister, Ms Sugden
Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Mrs Cameron, Mr Catney, Mr Clarke, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Dunne, Mr Durkan, Mr Easton, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Gildernew, Mr Givan, Ms Hargey, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Ms C Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyons, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Miss McIlveen, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Middleton, Mr Muir, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Sheehan, Miss Sheerin, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Mr Weir
Tellers for the Noes: Ms Ennis, Mr Robinson
Question accordingly negatived.
Mr Speaker: Members will be aware that this item was added to the Order Paper after last week's Business Committee meeting and that a revised Order Paper was issued. I hope that, as a courtesy to the House, the Minister will give a full explanation for the late tabling of this legislation. The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to three hours for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 15 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
That the Assembly notes the request from the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union for the consent of the Assembly for the provisions of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill which affect its competence; and affirms that the Assembly does not agree to give its consent.
The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union wrote to us last week and asked that we provide consent to Her Majesty's Government legislating on our behalf in relation to the provisions of the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill that affect the legislative competence of this Assembly.
First, ordinarily, the deputy First Minister and I would have brought the motion forward within the established time frame, and we are sorry that that was not the case today. We took the view that it was important to provide Members with the earliest possible opportunity to consider this key matter.
This is the last chance for us to have our views aired in this place. The Third Reading of the Bill is in the House of Lords tomorrow afternoon. Scotland has already expressed its view, and the Welsh Assembly is debating it tomorrow morning. We felt that it was important to put this motion down, albeit late. We accept that, but we felt that it was important that Members be given the opportunity to air their differing opinions — and there will be differing opinions on this matter — on the Floor of the House. Whilst I hear what Mr Allister is saying, I think that it is important that this Assembly puts forward its views, however varied they may be, so that the House of Lords is aware of them tomorrow when it has the Third Reading.
I remind Members as to the nature of the —
Mrs Foster: I have covered the issues that Mr Allister raised in his debate.
I remind Members of the nature of the legislative consent process. In 1998, when devolution took effect in Scotland and Wales, Her Majesty's Government established a convention — known as the Sewel convention — that Parliament would not normally legislate on devolved matters without the consent of the relevant regional Parliament or Assembly. That convention has generally worked well but has become controversial in the context of Brexit. In particular, the Scottish Government and Parliament objected strongly to the UK Parliament taking a power potentially to retain at the United Kingdom level some of the many powers that affect devolved services that are returning to the United Kingdom as a result of us leaving the European Union.
This is our first chance as an Assembly to consider this issue, and for some of the aspects of the legislation that were made in the last three years, and indeed for some aspects of the current Bill, the effect of Her Majesty's Government's approach is to limit the role of the devolved Administrations in deciding and agreeing policy, though, in fairness, some of the aspects of the legislation are relatively technical and uncontroversial.
As I indicated, there was insufficient time to bring this matter to the Assembly through the established legislative consent process, but the deputy First Minister and I felt that it was proper for the Assembly to have its say on the matter. In any case, our procedures primarily provide for agreeing to give consent. In this case, the deputy First Minister and I agree that we should recommend that consent is not given, albeit for different reasons, hence the motion that we have brought today.
The clauses that the UK Government wish to legislate for on our behalf are outlined in the Secretary of State's letter, a copy of which has been made available to Members. The withdrawal agreement Bill will give legal standing to the deal that has been secured by the UK Government with the European Union and upon which the UK will leave the European Union. Members will be familiar with that deal. The United Kingdom and the European Union have agreed that the United Kingdom's exit will be followed by a time-limited implementation period, which will last until 31 December 2020. During the implementation period, European Union law will continue to apply to the UK under the terms set out in the withdrawal agreement. Therefore, new pieces of directly applicable European Union law will continue to apply automatically within the whole of the United Kingdom.
The explanatory notes accompanying the withdrawal agreement Bill set out the Government's view of the Bill's purpose and main functions. The Parts of the Bill with particular relevance to matters within the legislative competence of the Assembly include Part 1, the implementation period; Part 2, remaining implementation of the withdrawal agreement etc; and Part 3, citizens' rights, specifically clauses and associated schedules relating to citizens' rights, and the establishment and functioning of the independent monitoring authority.
In Part 4, of particular relevance are clauses relating to the implementation of the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol and the protection of certain rights safeguarded in the Belfast Agreement, as well as those relating to other technical issues such as financial provisions and the implementation of European Union legislation during the implementation period.
Members will be well aware that, for various reasons, all parties in the Executive have serious reservations about the deal that has been secured by the United Kingdom Government and therefore, by extension, about the withdrawal agreement Bill. The deputy First Minister and I are in agreement that it would not be in our interest to assent to this request as it is always preferable that the Assembly legislates for itself. I feel it is important to stress that Parliament and Her Majesty's Government should at all times seek our views on relevant issues.
It is fitting that my first statement to the House following the restoration of the Executive deals with an issue on which we are all prepared to work together to advance the interests of Northern Ireland irrespective of our political views. The amendments to the withdrawal agreement Bill supported by local MPs from across the political spectrum have demonstrated that the will is there for different parties to work together in the best interests of our people and businesses.
As an Executive, we will work together to represent the concerns of all our citizens and ensure that our voice is heard. I commend the many business organisations that have been working with political parties across the spectrum to try to find amendments, which, at the end of the day, were not taken by the Government, but I think they demonstrated that there was cross-party agreement in relation to those amendments.
We recognise that the United Kingdom Government is determined to press ahead with the withdrawal agreement Bill irrespective of whether we give our consent but, in our view, this will have a significant impact on our devolution settlement. We will be making it clear that, with the restoration of the Executive and the commitment of all parties to work together, the Government must recognise our devolution settlement and should not normally legislate in the devolved space without consent.
Our priority for Brexit is to ensure that the needs of Northern Ireland are understood and are reflected as we move forward. Our unique position, in that we are the only region of the United Kingdom that will have a land border with the European Union, requires very specific solutions to protect and enhance trade. While the withdrawal agreement Bill provides powers to implement the protocol, the 'New Decade, New Approach' document goes further and, indeed, includes further commitments from the United Kingdom Government.
We understand that the detailed arrangements will be contained in future secondary legislation and will secure some of the main points on which our MPs had agreed in the amendments that were not made in the Commons debate two weeks ago. We will therefore be making representation to Her Majesty's Government that it is imperative that they fulfil all their commitments and that we are involved at an early stage on any policy discussions around future legislation brought forward under the powers provided by the withdrawal agreement Bill.
While the withdrawal agreement Bill is likely to be implemented by the United Kingdom Government, this is not the end of the matter. There are a number of important areas in which we require clarity from the Government in relation to the deal it has agreed with the European Union, and, in particular, the protocol. In terms of trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which, of course, is of vital importance to everyone, we must have unfettered access to the Great Britain market.
The Prime Minister promised that this would be the case throughout his campaign for re-election, and he must deliver on his promise.
It is essential that our businesses do not face additional barriers to trade, such as tariffs, administrative costs or delays, and that their competitiveness be maintained. Specifically, we welcome the commitment from our Government that they will ensure that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom internal market; that legislation will be in place to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the whole of the UK; and that that will be in force for 1 January 2021. We will now be engaging with the Government to ensure that that is delivered in the necessary time frame.
As I have acknowledged already, our businesses have raised concerns about the potential for discrimination against Northern Ireland goods and businesses accessing the GB market, particularly if there should be regulatory divergence in future. To grow the economy in Northern Ireland, our businesses need clarity, and we will be strong in pressing the Government to provide that throughout the process as we exit the European Union. It is also essential that trade can continue in both directions and that Great Britain businesses are not discouraged from operating in Northern Ireland due to new burdens.
The various committees outlined in the protocol will play a very important role, and the decisions that they take will have a long-lasting consequence for Northern Ireland. We have secured a commitment that our representatives will be part of any UK delegations in any meetings of the UK/EU specialised or joint committees discussing Northern Ireland-specific matters, and those meetings are also being attended by the Republic of Ireland's Government as part of the European Union's delegation. It is only right that we are included in those discussions, and we will ensure that our views are properly presented to the relevant decision makers.
Despite having secured numerous commitments and guarantees from the Government, we are still of the view that the deal that is being pursued by the UK Government poses significant challenges for Northern Ireland, because it should be for the Assembly to legislate for matters within our competence. That is the way that it should be. We have brought forward the motion today to seek agreement from the Assembly that it does not give its consent to the request from the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.
The letter from the Secretary of State, Steve Barclay, and the details of the clauses have been provided to Members. Given the very limited time that we have to respond and the expectation that the Government are going to proceed with the Bill, I suggest that our debate should focus on the issue of principle rather than attempt to scrutinise the detailed clauses, albeit I cannot order Members what to say. It will be a matter that we take a stand on, as a newly restored Assembly, to show that we are back in business and representing the views of our constituents, and that our views and policies should be respected and not overruled by the UK Parliament.
I recognise that if debate on the Bill goes ahead tomorrow in the House of Lords, there is limited time for it to take account of our views. However, the deputy First Minister and I felt that it was very important that the Assembly be given the opportunity to air those views, and that is why we brought the motion to the House. Again, I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, and the Business Committee that we could not do so in a more timely manner. We look forward, Mr Speaker, to receiving your letter on the issue.
To sum up, I commend the motion to the Assembly. I hope that it gives Members the opportunity to air their views on the issue, and I look forward to the debate.
Mr McGrath (The Chairperson of the Committee for The Executive Office): I will speak briefly as the Chairperson of the Committee for the Executive Office. For obvious reasons, there has not been any Committee consideration of the devolved provisions included in the withdrawal agreement Bill, so there is no Committee position. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that had the Committee been in place, there would have been significant scrutiny under the legislative consent procedure of those provisions that alter the competence of the Assembly. As the First Minister has outlined, that has not been possible, meaning that the way in which the issue is being dealt with today has been unavoidable, and we understand that. However, I am confident also, given the cross-Northern Ireland party support in Westminster for the amendments to the Bill, that the motion would have been supported by all the parties there as well as those that do not take their seats or that do not have seats there.
Speaking in my capacity as an MLA, I call for the rejection of consent for the Bill. Across the North, over the last three years, Brexit has sharpened all the lines that the Good Friday Agreement helped to soften on borders, sovereignty and identity. We should have spent the last three years, since June 2016, talking about tackling poverty, creating opportunity and reconciling our island, but instead we have talked exclusively about Brexit — a problem that did not need to exist and that we did not consent to.
We in the SDLP have been proudly pro-European since our foundation almost 50 years ago. Our founder, John Hume, talked about the European Union as the world's greatest peace process, and our European identity has been woven through the politics of the SDLP ever since. We campaigned hard against Brexit, and we do not believe that there is a good version of Brexit. Although we believe firmly that nothing is as good as remaining, this deal is particularly challenging and destructive for people in the North. It does not protect our interests in the way that the backstop would have done, and it has united Members across the House in opposition.
There are various political views and positions on Brexit, but there is collective agreement that any hindrance to trade, east or west, is not good for business here and will introduce an additional layer of bureaucracy that business can ill afford to manage. It is positive that, albeit for our different motivations, we have a collective political voice on this matter in the House, and we can show our political maturity on the issue by setting the politics aside and working together for the business community out there. I hope that this sends a positive message to them.
The withdrawal Bill is laced with uncertainty and ambiguity, and there is a clear lobby from the business sector here that it wants just the opposite: it wants to know exactly how business will be transacted. In the absence of such clarity, it has worries, and we share in those worries and concerns.
Politically, we believe that Brexit, in whatever form, is not good for Ireland. The overwhelming consensus on the imposition of borders, be they fiscal or trade, hard or soft, is that they are not good. We must do all that we can to mitigate the worst excesses of Brexit and ensure that we are on the side of business and trade sectors. They have been a powerful voice of reality in the midst of much noise of late, but we must now focus on their needs.
I hope that the withholding of our consent for the Bill will send a message to the British Tory Government that we do not agree with it and that it must be improved. I hope that such a collective rejection of the Bill here will send the message to Prime Minister Johnson that we want that unfettered access for trade and no imposition of additional borders, costs or delays when conducting trade from the North.
Mr Stalford: I am tempted to open with, "As I was saying, before I was interrupted three years ago", but maybe it is too soon. It is important that we state on the record in the House what the Prime Minister himself said:
"If we wanted to vary ... regulation, then we would have to leave Northern Ireland behind as an economic semi-colony of the EU. We would be damaging the fabric of the union."
Those are the words of the Prime Minister, spoken before he became Prime Minister, when he was denouncing Theresa May for the content of her withdrawal agreement and yet — and yet — the aegis that he warned against is exactly that which he now proposes to sign this part of the United Kingdom up to. In those circumstances, it is absolutely right that the House should say that we are not prepared to tolerate such a situation.
During the absence of devolution, there have been many twists and turns in the Brexit process. Even in Northern Ireland, over the course of devolution being down, we have had three Secretaries of State and two Prime Ministers, but, from a DUP perspective, we have had one guiding principle on Brexit: Northern Ireland must leave the European Union on the same basis as the rest of the United Kingdom. When a border up the Irish Sea was suggested, Theresa May and Boris Johnson stated that that was a prospect that no British Prime Minister could sign up to. I call upon Boris, therefore, to maintain his word and his consistency, and it is important that, going forward, the Executive adopt a collective approach to make sure that that is the case.
The Prime Minister should be congratulated. I think this is the first time, certainly in my living memory, that I have seen the Northern Ireland Assembly as united on an issue in rejecting the content and withholding its consent for the content of the treaty that he signed up to. This deal is bad for Northern Ireland economically because it hives us off from our single biggest market, and it will be the responsibility of the Executive going forward to ensure that there are no barriers to east-west trade. I want to see the outcome of the referendum delivered, but Northern Ireland cannot be a dowry for delivering Brexit for Great Britain, and the Prime Minister needs to be made very much aware of that.
I believe in devolution. I believe that devolution is worth having, and it helps us to address the unique circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland, and we have to work together in order to do that. Attempting to shunt this piece of legislation through without the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly runs contrary to everything that my Rt Hon friend the First Minister said pertains in the Sewel convention.
I will finish my remarks with a quote from the First Minister:
"On Brexit, we will not give support to the government when we believe they are fundamentally wrong and acting in a way that is detrimental to Northern Ireland and taking us in the wrong direction. We will oppose them and we will use our votes ...
Let me say clearly from this platform today"
that we do not support a deal that does not work for Northern Ireland as well as the whole of the United Kingdom.
That is our position, and we have maintained it consistently throughout this process. The Prime Minister, for whatever reason, may have chosen to change his position, but we will not. It is essential that all parties now pull together to defend the economic interests of Northern Ireland and to defend our businesses and our traders, all of whom will be damaged or hurt if the vision outlined by the Prime Minister comes to pass.
On behalf of our party, I am clear in saying that we want to work with everyone to ensure the best possible outcome in this, the defining political issue of our age.
Mr Murphy: It has been an interesting debate so far in that we find ourselves in partial agreement with each other. In the contributions so far there has been a clear recognition of the damage that Brexit can do to here. What a pity that that recognition, which was first put in a joint letter from the current First Minister and the late deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, did not become the consistent position over the last three years, because I think we are now back at that place where we recognise that the Brexit ambitions of the British Government are damaging to the people we represent here.
This has been a divisive debate ever since that. I sincerely hope we can get back to that, but one consistent point through it all has been that the majority of the people in this jurisdiction are opposed to Brexit. They stated so in the referendum, and they have stated so in numerous elections since and in numerous opinion polls, and the position continues to be, if it is not even stronger, that people are opposed to Brexit. I think they did so because there is a broad recognition across the community, as has been expressed today, that the idea that has been pursued by a British Government is damaging to our interests. Leaving the European Union is not in the interests of the people who live here.
The EU guarantees rights, it facilitates a soft border and it underpins the all-Ireland economy. We are EU-critical, unlike our colleagues here. There is much wrong with the European Union — much wrong in its approach, its desire to centralise things and its desire to have common defence and common foreign policies. There are many things about the European Union that we disagree with, and we use our position within the European Parliament and as elected representatives here to oppose some of the direction of the European Union, but there is no doubt that, overall, membership of the European Union has been good for this island and continues to be good for this island.
It is part of the identity particularly of the younger generation who see themselves very much as European, as well as whatever particular identities they hold on this island.
It is also important to remember, at a time when we are struggling to get the British Government to live up to the financial commitments that it made as part of the deal to resurrect these institutions, that the EU is a significant contributor to our public finances. CAP payments alone amounted to £2·1 billion between 2014 and 2020. They are vital for keeping many of our farms sustainable. We have, I am sure, many large farms, but the vast bulk of people involved in farming in this part of Ireland are small farmers who are very much reliant on EU subsidies to keep those farms viable. We have some limited guarantee, I think, until 2021 in relation to the future of similar spend that CAP would provide, but nothing beyond that and there is a huge question mark in the agricultural and farming community over how sustainable small farms will be on the other side of a reduction of all of that.
There is also, of course, INTERREG funding, which has been hugely important, particularly in border areas. Both sides of the border were neglected during almost 70 years of partition with respect to investment, particularly in infrastructure. Infrastructure investment has led to economic advantage growing for people in the border communities, communities that were practically ignored throughout the history of both states on this island. Infrastructure funds from Europe also contributed to the opening up of the border following entry into the single market and the customs union, and there are the competitive funds, all of which have been jeopardised by Brexit.
We are told that there is some guarantee in relation to the Peace funding, which is specific to the Six Counties and the six border counties as well. I sincerely hope that that continues because, again, in the absence of the peace dividend that we were promised in 1998 — history repeats itself somehow — that has been very important in helping communities that suffered as a consequence of the conflict. Communities on the other side of the border suffered from that lack of investment that I talked about in relation to INTERREG funding. It allowed those people to access funding which had not previously been agreed to.
Those are all hugely important and that is why, when the Brexit issue came up, we joined forces with the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Greens. We opposed Brexit; we made sure are voices were heard in Europe; and we worked through our MEPs and with the Irish Government. We made sure that the interests of the people that we represent were on the agenda for the European Union, because they were not on the agenda for the British Government.
We will continue to oppose Brexit. It is important that the Assembly rejects the Brexit propositions of the British Government. We do not consent to them. We continue to represent the best interests of the people because we know that our interests are not in any way featuring in the British Government's approach to Brexit. English nationalist interests dominate that agenda, and it is important that we continue to reject that with every voice that we have.
Mr Nesbitt: I retain significant sympathy for Mr Allister's position that we are being forced to vote on a binary proposition, which actually leaves us with no choice. The Ulster Unionist Party believes that we will have to support today's motion; but we do so hoping that the idea that we are in a new decade with a new approach will be reflected with perhaps some humility by some Members and parties in the Chamber. If that is too much of an ask, perhaps at least with some acknowledgement that previous confidences were based on pretty shallow ground.
In 2016, before the collapse of devolution, in a debate on Brexit, Mr Poots made it very clear that:
"we are in a negotiation period and that negotiation will be led by our national Government. I am proud to be part of the United Kingdom and to put my faith in our national Government ... We will be involved in those negotiations and will deal with Theresa May, David Davis, Boris Johnson and the key people" — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 117, p103, col 1].
So well dealt with that we are now about to vote against one of the key proposals from our national Government.
That debate was on our document 'A Vision for Northern Ireland outside the EU', which was rejected by the House. The document said that we should deliver a positive vision for the people of Northern Ireland post-Brexit; that we should have a war room with skills and capacity to game the policy options; and that we should define our key asks of Her Majesty's Government.
The first key ask was to triple infrastructure investment. It was derided and pooh-poohed by the House, but here we are in 2020, and one of the key priorities for the UK Government is what? Investment in infrastructure: we are to benefit to the tune of £1 billion through the Barnett consequentials because of investment in infrastructure. Yet, interestingly, in deriding the notion, given that he is now the Finance Minister, it was Conor Murphy whose criticism of our document was this:
"It is predicated on the generosity of the British Government" — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 117, p99, col 2].
What a pity he did not remember those words when he was negotiating New Decade, New Approach.
Let me diverge for a second, Mr Speaker, just to put this on record because many people are asking why the smaller parties did not ensure the financial package was right for New Decade, New Approach. The Ulster Unionist Party was halfway through its first read of the document when Secretary of State Smith and Tánaiste Coveney were briefing the media. We had no opportunity because we had been closed out.
By the way, another key ask of our document, just to put it back on the record, was:
"No 'hard border' at Great Britain’s ports and airports".
We remain the region of the United Kingdom most affected by Brexit, and we remain the least prepared. The longer it goes on, the more Theresa May's famous "Brexit means Brexit" quote is as meaningless as lunch means lunch, but it seems that, for Northern Ireland, lunch increasingly looks like a ham and cheese sandwich from the local gas station; not three courses at one of our Michelin star restaurants.
Interestingly, Mr Stalford said in that debate back in 2016 that those of us in the Remain campaign were exhibiting:
"a public display of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance." — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 117, p94, col 2].
This motion is an acceptance of the failure to deliver on the promises of 2016.
In June 2016, Mrs Foster told the House that Brexit offered:
"the opportunity for ambition, innovation, flexibility and imagination." — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 116, p22, col 2].
I, in the same debate, said that I feared, as a prophet of doom, that Brexit meant:
"an era of uncertainty, an uncertainty that will last years, not months." — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 116, p1, col 2].
Three and a half years on, who was right?
Ms Armstrong: Alliance continues to be a pro-European party. We believe that Northern Ireland should be part of the EU and that there is no such thing as a good or sensible Brexit. Northern Ireland will be worse off under all Brexit scenarios. That said, we accept that Brexit is now inevitable in less than two weeks' time. We now need to focus on taking the rough edges off the Brexit deal and standing up and protecting Northern Ireland.
Our society works only on the basis of sharing and interdependence, yet all forms of Brexit entail some degree of friction, boundaries or borders. That risks creating a perception of winners and losers. Our economy is integrated for sales and supply chains on a North/South and east-west basis, and it is wrong to see either avenue being compromised.
The Theresa May deal provided a more credible soft landing. By contrast, the Johnson deal is much more challenging. Northern Ireland does need a special deal to address our particular circumstances. We should not fear Northern Ireland being different; the core challenge is how that difference is managed.
The withdrawal Bill itself raises a number of problems. First, there is uncertainty that a trade deal with the EU or a wider future relationship can be reached within the next 11 months. At best, this might be a mere fig leaf. It creates a significant risk of a no-deal outcome for the UK, with particular implications for us here in Northern Ireland.
Secondly, the nature of that future relationship is unclear. The Chancellor has stressed recently that the UK will not actively align with the EU. This will have implications for any Irish Sea interface. Thirdly, the Bill has a significant impact on devolved powers and competencies. This is the main thrust of the motion from the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Fourthly, and related to that, there is set to be extensive use of the so-called Henry VIII powers and other deleted powers granted to UK Ministers to shape outcomes without accountability and scrutiny.
The passing of the motion by the Assembly is set to be constitutionally significant. We have been asked by the UK Government to pass a legislative consent motion as is required under the Sewel convention. The Assembly is set to say no. The Scottish Parliament has already said no. We have heard that the Welsh Assembly is to debate it tomorrow. However, the UK Government are set to proceed regardless. Moreover, there are many unresolved issues for Northern Ireland. The cross-party group's joint amendment, which was not permitted, sought to capture and address many of those issues. Positively, we have seen some progress via UK commitments to Northern Ireland's being represented on the Joint Committee and the specialised Committee when it is being discussed and to legislate to guarantee unfettered access from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. However, it is unclear how both of these commitments will be met in practice. The UK Government need to go further and give commitments on the specific points in the amendment. We hope to bring that forward at some other stage.
It is worth making some points in the wider context. First, we should not tolerate a trade-off between some sort of interface on the island of Ireland or having the interface down the Irish Sea. Secondly, the focus of current debate is largely on the interface between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. However, the Great Britain to Northern Ireland interface is just as important and, indeed, more complicated. Its nature largely depends on the nature of the free trade agreement. Indications here, so far, are not good, but even a more benign free trade agreement is not the same as a customs union and a single market. Thirdly, there is an ambiguity on Northern Ireland's future trade relationships. Rather than having what could have originally been a foot in both camps, we could now end up being marginal in both the UK and EU arrangements. Finally, it is important that the shape of the future relationship covers not just goods but services and the movement of people.
In conclusion, there is a gap between the rhetoric, declarations and promises of the UK Ministers and reality. Therefore, Alliance confirms its support for the motion. We do not agree to the Assembly's giving its consent.
Mr Givan: I support the motion tabled by the Executive Office. The referendum that was held on the EU was a UK-wide referendum. It has been debated at length. Indeed, we could spend time rehearsing the old arguments and seeking to have another battle on an issue that has now been completed. We are best to spend our energy looking to the future and how we can deal with the new reality that we face. I of course accept that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. However, that was part of a UK national question. We must accept that, given our place in the United Kingdom.
During the discussions that have taken place, a lot of focus, understandably, was on the relationships on an all-Ireland basis and the implications for the movement of people and trade, North/South, on the island. A lot of attention was paid to that by civic society, business groups, different interested stakeholders and, indeed, nationalist politicians. My concern at the time was that viewing the relationships and the outworking of Brexit through a nationalistic constitutional lens would then lead to the problems that we now encounter as a result of the withdrawal Bill. The Bill ensures that there will be no friction between North and South and that those trading relationships will be able to continue. However, there are now issues for the east-west dimension to our trading relationship.
When we look at the Northern Ireland protocol that is contained in the withdrawal Bill, it causes my party concern. Northern Ireland will be required to align with single market regulations.
There will be enforcement and compliance carried out by the European Commission and the European Court of Justice. These are issues that will not be faced elsewhere in the United Kingdom, in Great Britain. We will have a dual-tariff regime in place, because the joint committee that is being established as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol requires goods to be identified as being at risk. So, where there is trade, east-west, if there is a risk that that could then end up in the European Union, a tariff will have to be paid for that. That, inevitably, requires checks and compliance to be carried out. That will put increased burdens on our business community.
When I look at the consent mechanism that is built in as to how we will ever extract ourselves from this new relationship, it turns the Belfast Agreement on its head. I note that the UK Government's justification for this is that it is an international agreement, and, therefore, the consent mechanism does not need to be the same as it is in this House when it comes to dealing with controversial domestic issues. That consent mechanism is going to build in tension in this place. Not immediately, but further down the line in the years ahead, there will be problems for this House as to how that consent mechanism is —
Mr Givan: — to be carried out. I will give way.
Mr McCrossan: First, I welcome the Member back to the House and congratulate him on his recent appointment. Will the Member agree that Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, and the Tory Government can obviously not be trusted when it comes to these matters of debate in relation to Northern Ireland's future in the European Union and also general matters in relation to this place, as we have seen from most recent behaviour?
Mr Givan: The Member brings me on to my final point. The Prime Minister has made commitments, given the context that I have set out, about the concerns that we have around the implications for east-west and how that will interface for Northern Ireland businesses. The Prime Minister has made an unwavering commitment to Northern Ireland. He said:
"This new deal in this Bill ensures that the United Kingdom will leave the EU whole and entire, with an unwavering dedication to Northern Ireland’s place in our Union."
The Prime Minister also indicated that we will have "unfettered access" when it comes to trade.
Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute because of that intervention.
Mr Givan: Thank you, Speaker. The Prime Minister also indicated that we will have "unfettered access". So words have been made clear by the Prime Minister that we could take comfort from, and commitments made in the Conservative manifesto to that effect. However, in the Bill, there is no mention of unfettered access. It does not exist. The regulations to facilitate access to the GB market for Northern Ireland say that Ministers "may" regulate. They do not say "must". That is why our party, with the support of other parties, brought forward amendments, and I put on record my appreciation to those parties that tabled amendments to seek to put the requirement to regulate for unfettered access in the withdrawal Bill. That, however, was rejected by the House of Commons.
Those commitments by the Prime Minister and by the UK Government need to be given legal effect. They need to bite when it comes to the future relationship for Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom, and also for that North/South dimension. I want the best of both worlds. That is good for our politics, it is good for our people and it is good for our businesses, but there needs to be much more work carried out to ensure that it happens.
Dr Archibald: In supporting the motion to reject consent, it is important to continually emphasise that we are being dragged out of the European Union against the democratically expressed wishes of the majority of the people of the North. In fact, on a number of occasions since 2016, that rejection of Brexit has been reaffirmed, most recently in the European elections in May, when two out of three MEPs elected were pro-Remain, and in the Westminster election last month, when the majority of MPs elected were anti-Brexit.
The withdrawal agreement between the European Union and the British Government contains the protocol on Ireland, which gives some certainty to preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland, but it is far from an ideal arrangement and, no matter what is agreed before the end of this year, it will be suboptimal to what we currently enjoy.
The sections of the withdrawal agreement referring to the North are as noteworthy for the lack of detail as for what they actually contain. It is unclear how the customs and VAT arrangements will actually work, and, of course, much depends on the trading arrangements that are still to be negotiated. At the weekend, however, the British Chancellor, Sajid Javid, commenting on regulatory divergence, said:
"There will not be alignment, we will not be a rule taker, we will not be in the single market and we will not be in the customs union".
If those comments are anything to go by, there is likely to be a considerable negative impact, particularly so for businesses and those that rely on regulatory alignment, such as our agri-food sector.
The British Chancellor then had the audacity to suggest that businesses should be prepared for the imminent changes, despite the continuing absence of clarity on the conditions under which they will be trading. It is important at this point that we pay tribute to all the representative bodies from across the North — business, trade unions, farming organisations, and the community and voluntary sector — that have come together over the past couple of years to speak with a clear and united voice about the need to protect the interests of the North, because what is clear is that, regardless of its outcome, Brexit is going to have a detrimental impact across every sector of our society for many years to come. When we hear comments such as those of the British Chancellor, we know that it is clear that he has little thought for the impact on his own economy, never mind ours. When we add to that the disgraceful bad faith displayed by the British Government over their financial commitments to the New Decade, New Approach deal, is it any wonder that more and more people are coming to realise that the British Government have no positive contribution to make to our future well-being and prosperity?
Mr Middleton: I join colleagues in supporting the motion tabled by the Executive Office. We are now three years on from the referendum having taken place and since the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Of course, as democrats, we strongly believe that the result of the referendum should be delivered and that the voice of the electorate should be respected. Today is very much a welcome opportunity for all of us here in the Chamber to give our views and perspective, particularly on giving consent to the UK Government.
My party has long held, and continues to hold, the view that Northern Ireland and the entire UK will have a bright future outside the European Union. It was the New Decade, New Approach agreement that brought the House back. In that agreement, the UK Government made a number of commitments, which can be summarised in four broad points. The UK Government have already committed to ensuring that there is a new deal for Northern Ireland as we leave the EU, maximising trade opportunities and investment. There is a commitment that Northern Ireland will remain an integral part of the UK internal market and that it will remain in the UK customs territory. There is a further commitment to legislate to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the whole of the UK internal market, with legislation in force for 1 January 2021. Finally, there is an aim to maximise the free flow of trade and a commitment to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses benefit from the UK's new free trade agreements signed with other countries.
All of that is very much welcome, but it is disappointing that, when MPs from this place joined together just days ago in the House of Commons and put forward amendments that would have ensured that access was truly unfettered on the movement of goods on both an east-west and west-east basis, those were opposed and not allowed to progress by the Government.
The checks as proposed would lead to greater burdens for trade between GB and Northern Ireland, and, consequentially, they would have a negative impact for consumers. Despite the fact that Northern Ireland trades more significantly with GB than it does with the Republic of Ireland, the EU and the rest of the world combined, the current proposals would see our east-west trade being subject to the rules of the EU customs union, notwithstanding the fact that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK customs territory.
The Prime Minister has described his withdrawal agreement as being "oven-ready", but it is very clear from the Chamber and from business and stakeholders that there is no appetite for the current withdrawal agreement. For our part, the Democratic Unionist Party will continue to work to shape a solution in Northern Ireland's interests. It is important that the new Northern Ireland Executive are represented on the UK delegations to the EU.
Finally, as at every stage of the process, the Democratic Unionist Party will judge each situation on what is best for Northern Ireland economically and constitutionally within the Union.
Mr Speaker: I remind Members that this is the first opportunity for Karen Mullan to speak as a private Member and that it is the convention that a maiden speech be made without interruption.
Ms Mullan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I speak in support of the motion.
The EU/British Brexit deal undoubtedly contains essential protections for the island of Ireland, preventing any hardening of the border, but, in reality, it is the least worst option because there is no good Brexit. The majority of people here voted to remain in the EU. We do not support Brexit, and we do not consent to Brexit. In addition, although the Brexit mitigations for Ireland in the withdrawal agreement are essential, we still need greater protections for young people and, indeed, all of us who are EU citizens.
I want to focus on education and the implications of Brexit for our young people. Last Wednesday in the House of Commons, 344 MPs voted against a clause that would have required the British Government to negotiate continuing full membership of the ERASMUS programme after Brexit. The ERASMUS scheme is an EU programme that afforded our students the opportunity to study in other countries. The impact of Brexit on education will remove that option and will mean that people from the North will have to pay higher tuition fees if they wish to attend university in the EU. Such changes could put university attendance out of the financial reach of many of our young people.
Among students, young people, those in training and staff who work in the education sector, there is no doubt that the ERASMUS scheme has been appreciated and is seen as beneficial for those who have availed themselves of it. At the end of the year, regardless of a trade deal, that option will be gone. The ERASMUS programme has been acknowledged as a tremendous success for many young people, and I strongly argue that its benefits will be very difficult to replicate. Its loss will impact most on those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with medical needs or disabilities.
I urge Members to send a strong message to the British Government that they do not have our consent to remove our citizens from the European Union.
Ms Mallon: Brexit is the biggest challenge of our time and will affect generations to come across these islands. The politics of Brexit has dominated and consumed the past three years since the referendum on EU membership in 2016; time that should have been spent dealing with poverty, inequality, the crises in our health service and schools, and the climate emergency. I recognise that there are different views in the Chamber, from those who are passionately Remain to those who support Leave, but I wholeheartedly welcome the fact that, after three years, we are in the Chamber and are respectfully debating our differences rather than outside, engaged in megaphone diplomacy over the air waves.
There is no escaping the facts: 56% of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, and that vote has been reinforced with further support for Remainers in subsequent European and Westminster elections. People understand and recognise that Brexit is the most significant economic, constitutional and social challenge that we face across these islands. Democratically, they have made their will clear again. People across the North are not prepared to suffer economic ruin, they are not prepared to accept the wholesale sell-off of our health service in a barter between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, nor are they prepared to accept declining food and environmental standards.
Today is our opportunity to reinforce the message of the electorate whom we represent. Today, we can and must give back a voice to the people of Northern Ireland. Today, we must send a united message to Boris Johnson and the UK Government, to Dublin and Brussels that, collectively, we reject the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. Today, we can choose not to be divided by our views on EU membership. Instead, we can choose to unite, respect those differences and together vote to reject the withdrawal Bill, because it does not protect the interests of all the people whom we represent.
Without question, the legislation offers nothing but economic self-harm and damage to the hard-won progress that we have made over 20 years. It opens old wounds and threatens business, investment and jobs. Critically, the legislation, as drafted, provides no certainty or security for our future. As the British Government have recklessly ruled out an extension to the transition period, there is still the threat of the possibility of a catastrophic no-deal Brexit.
It is not Boris Johnson and his Cabinet colleagues who will suffer as a result of that dangerous cliff edge; it will be communities, farmers and businesses right across Northern Ireland. Today, again, the SDLP calls on the British Government to immediately rule out any future threat of a no-deal Brexit.
People at home are rightly concerned. They know, given the catalogue of experiences to date, that the words of the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, cannot be trusted. Moving even beyond the falsehoods of the Vote Leave campaign, following his election to office, the Prime Minister ripped apart our insurance policy — the backstop — yet, today, his Government seek our consent for this EU withdrawal agreement, which will leave the North clinging to a broken Brexit Britain, left to suffer its inevitable and punishing fate of economic self-harm without adequate protections. That is why SDLP MPs, with Alliance and DUP MPs, proposed a series of amendments in Westminster to protect all our interests. The Conservative Party may have a majority in the House of Commons, but that does not remove power and responsibility from this place.
The SDLP continues to believe that the best solution is for Northern Ireland to remain a full member of the European Union. As our former leader and civil rights champion John Hume put it:
"[The] European Union is the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution".
Mr Beggs: Does the Member accept that, if that were the case, that would be a breach of the Belfast Agreement and Northern Ireland's position in the United Kingdom would be changed? Will she accept that even this proposal of Boris Johnson's is changing what was agreed and is not following the Belfast Agreement and that what she proposes will be opposed by unionists because we are part of the United Kingdom, even though we dislike what is proposed in Boris Johnson's deal?
Ms Mallon: Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I thank the Member for his comments. As I go on, I will point out how the Good Friday Agreement is the answer to a lot of the challenges that we will see and presents the key to unlocking the opportunities.
For our communities, the European Union has provided support and stability. It has maximised rights and protected freedoms to move across these islands. It has supported the Good Friday Agreement, ensuring that no —
Mr McGlone: Very briefly, on that point, as part of all that, we live and represent areas and communities where many other EU nationals live and work, and, in recognition of that very positive contribution to our society in our schools, our workplaces and all that, it is crucial that the rights and protections of those citizens be inserted into and enshrined in legislation too.
Ms Mallon: Yes, I very much agree with that point, and the SDLP maintains that the best protections and solutions to the challenges we now face are in the Good Friday Agreement and its three strands of relationships across these islands.
In closing, I urge Members across the Chamber to support the motion to withhold legislative consent. Whatever our views on membership of the European Union, our job now is to unite in common purpose to best protect people.
Ms Mallon: We have already seen collective leadership from politicians of all parties in one approach with the business community in Westminster. That approach must continue.
Dr Aiken: I echo the comments made by everybody else today, and I will support the motion on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party.
The comments from the Chancellor at the weekend in the 'Financial Times' underpin how much Northern Ireland is now likely to diverge from the rest of our country. The implications, particularly on the Irish Sea border, are significant. However, no one seems to really care about what the practical implications of that may be; indeed, in the discussions the party leaders had with the Secretary of State less than a week ago, when we were sitting round the table, nobody seemed to be aware of the significance of the changes that will occur. Nobody seemed to understand the quantum and the amount of work and effort that needs to go into trying to achieve where we are going to; indeed, earlier last week, our conversations with senior EU and UK political leaders showed that Northern Ireland is rapidly sliding down the priority list. There is little or no focus on making this agreement work, and that has massive potential political costs and may lead to regulation being passed on to our businesses, our consumers and our agriculture and fishing sectors. Unfortunately, the implications of all this were and are sadly predictable.
The withdrawal Bill puts the withdrawal agreement into UK law. The withdrawal agreement will affect Northern Ireland in perpetuity when it is passed, not just in relation to the EU but in relation to the rest of our country. The withdrawal Bill is legislation that will be built on in future in order to manage the domestic implications of this protocol. That can be expected to take the form of statutory instruments that the Government will lay down. Northern Ireland will have little influence and virtually absolutely no hope of annulling them.
The withdrawal Bill provides extraordinary power to the UK Executive over areas of potential devolved competence. The power of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly is directly constrained by the Bill. It is notable that the concerns that have been expressed by the business community and the political parties and that were given considerable cross-party support in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document do not seem to have been supported by what has been going on in Westminster, particularly by the Government. Although there is a welcome and considerable step forward, particularly, in the 'New Decade, New Approach' and the approach from all the parties, that mainly took the form of Government commitments to consult. Who here believes that the current British Government will do much in the way of consulting? How that is to be done and whether it will enable Northern Ireland views to be taken into account as the UK implements its protocols and in the negotiations of the future UK/EU relationship is, to say the least, unclear.
There are some practical issues. We need to see the rapid creation of the Brexit subcommittee that was talked about in the deal last week. In parallel, we need to establish a ministerial-level lead to coordinate with the other regions. We need to have representation at the JMC and to build a Northern Ireland case in London, Brussels and further afield. There is an opportunity here, First and deputy First Ministers, to build a full partnership approach, a partnership on behalf of Northern Ireland between the political parties, the representatives of the business community, the third sector, the Civil Service and relevant academic research. We can all come together. First and deputy First Ministers, quite frankly, there is little appetite in the EU, London or Dublin to deliver what is best for us in Northern Ireland. The only way we can make these changes and influence this is if we all join together and make it happen. First Minister and deputy First Minister, you have a significant task ahead of you. We, in the Ulster Unionist Party, will be willing to support it, but we need to get on with it, and we need to get on with it now.
Mr O'Dowd: It would be tempting, in the debate, to reflect on the events of the last three years, on where mistakes and errors have been made and where opportunities have been missed. While I may drift into that territory at some stages, through no fault of my own, we have to learn from the past to make sure that we do not make similar mistakes in future because, as the Taoiseach — or the current Taoiseach — reminded everyone last week, this is only half-time. The general public, the business community, agriculture and all those people out there, for a variety of reasons, may have sighed a sigh of relief when Boris Johnson and the European Union's withdrawal Bill was signed off on, because they hoped that Brexit would no longer feature on our news programmes and political programmes and that progress had been made: the reality is the hardest bit is yet to come in relation to negotiating a trade deal.
The direct responsibility of the Assembly in all these matters is somewhat limited, because, even though we have been assured that we will have representations on various delegations and committees etc, I and others sat on the Joint Ministerial Committee in European format in a previous life, and I have to say that they were the most frustrating meetings I ever attended. It was clear that those sitting across the table from us, the Welsh representatives and the Scottish representatives either did not care or did not know about the needs of the people we represented, and that is where we will continue to run into difficulties. So, the more unified and focused a voice we can garner in the Chamber and in the Executive, the better.
What we have to remember is this: Brexit did great harm and great violence to the relationships that had been built up over the last 10 to 15 years, following the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, the establishment of the Executive and the Assembly and all those sorts of things. What we have to do — there is an opportunity through the most recent agreement — is to start rebuilding those relationships and realise that no one will defend our corner and the people we represent better than we can. No matter what your opinion is on the Union, no matter what your opinion is on the reunification of Ireland, the experience of the last three years has shown us that we will have to stand up for ourselves. Otherwise, we will be run roughshod into deals that do great harm to our economy and to future relationships across the island of Ireland.
There is a variety of reasons why Members and political parties are voting against the withdrawal agreement today. There is an argument and a rationale behind them all, but let us focus on the next stage in all these issues and try to get a common cause. I do not want a hard border down the Irish Sea, now or in the future, because it serves no benefit to the economy on the island of Ireland, the North or whatever you want to call it. It has no benefit. I want to see a future united Ireland, but I want to trade with our nearest neighbours, because that makes economic sense. We are socially, economically and culturally inextricably linked, going into the future, and we do not want to break any of those relationships. We have to get a deal that ensures trade between us and Britain. We have to get a deal that ensures trade between us and the European Union. The reality on this island is that, when you go along the border corridor, the European Union is the next hedgerow. It is the next field, the next laneway, the next road and the next business. That is the reality of what many representing the British Cabinet when meeting us a number of years ago at the Joint Ministerial Committee did not even recognise, did not understand and, in my opinion, did not care about. Mr Givan said that the politics of Brexit became focused through a nationalist lens, but he was talking about the wrong nationalist lens: it was always about what English nationalism needed rather than what everybody else required to move forward.
As for where we go next, the best way forward is for the Assembly and the Executive to work together to represent the people to ensure that citizens' rights, workers' rights, trade and all those things —
Mr Speaker: Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?
Mr O'Dowd: — are protected and secured going into the future.
Ms Bradshaw: I support the motion. I emphasise that I do so as a democrat, but we must nevertheless reflect that much of what was pledged by the Leave campaign has not turned out the way the public were told it would. There has been no easy trade deal, no extra money for public services, and a weakened sterling has contributed to rising costs of living. Despite all of that, I argue that it is away from pure trade and pure finance that the biggest risks from Brexit are to be found. That is another reason why I endorse Dr Farry's recent comments in the House of Commons that future arrangements must have the consent of the devolved legislatures that will bear so many of the consequences of them. I remind the House, with particular regard to health, as that is my brief, that, when it comes to arrangements on the future relationships between the UK and the EU, we need to see detailed and realistic proposals for cooperation.
With regard to workforce issues in Health and Social Care Northern Ireland, we are still without any reassurance that reciprocal arrangements will enable health workers from other EU countries to continue to work in Northern Ireland. Additionally, direct access to a labour market of over 500 million people is of value not just to our health service but to the vital health research ongoing in Northern Ireland, not least in the cancer research centre in my constituency. We also need agreement on mutual standards, not least to enable people in Northern Ireland to continue to seek treatment elsewhere, including through all-Ireland partnerships, such as that for congenital heart conditions, or for rare conditions right across Europe. We need to see detail from the UK Government on how they will ensure mutual access and recognition so that people from elsewhere in the EU can continue to provide vital care and research here.
It is concerning, therefore, to see that one early step of the UK Government was to withdraw, in effect, from the Erasmus programmes; in fact, reciprocal programmes, research projects and even trade missions are vital to ensure that we have the most up-to-date healthcare knowledge that we can with regard to treatment, medicine and even diagnostic equipment. We do not even have a guarantee on reciprocal arrangements concerning the E111 European healthcare insurance card, meaning that people resident in the UK may have to pay for treatment elsewhere, something that would be grossly unfair, in particular to those with rare conditions that cannot be met here in the UK. Many have a justified concern that they will, for example, be blocked from international clinical trials.
There is also a concern that a race to the bottom on standards will include standards on food safety and environmental regulation, which have a direct impact on population health. There is also the direct issue for local pharmaceutical firms that have access to EU markets. They will need to be unfettered. As we have seen, many have already started to set up bases in the Republic of Ireland, which results in a direct shift in labour and job opportunities across the border. Mutual agreement on medicine standards would be of interest to both our well-being and our economy.
Whether we are faced with the worst-case scenario or even the best case, we still need time to improve our data collection and dissemination, workforce contingency plans and communication requirements, given the complexity of the issues that will arise on 1 January next year in health alone. Even something as simple as the reciprocal recognition of driving licences, for example for our ambulance drivers, across the border needs to be secured, right through to grave issues such as our ability to adequately access data and intelligence to combat sexual exploitation.
That is a brief outline of some of the issues arising in just one area about which the European withdrawal Bill is, effectively, silent and on which we have still no serious guidance from the UK Government. That is true whether we voted Leave, Remain or not at all. For that reason, I urge unanimous support for the motion.
Mr Speaker: Thank you, and I now call Matthew O'Toole. I remind the House that this is the Member's maiden speech.
Mr O'Toole: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Thank you for reminding everyone of that. I congratulate you, first of all, on your appointment. You are an experienced Chair; I am an extremely inexperienced Member, so I hope to call on you for your advice in the months ahead.
What do we know about Brexit? We know it has been deeply divisive in Northern Ireland and across these islands. That is why unity of purpose in this place today is so important, and unity of message from the Assembly. We also know that it is definitely happening. On 31 January, by automatic force of law, the UK, including Northern Ireland, will leave the EU. That is why it is important that we send a message now about this withdrawal agreement Bill and what the Assembly thinks of it, which is that the Assembly does not give its consent.
I am in the unique, slightly strange position of actually having been a civil servant in the UK Government when the Brexit vote happened and in the period afterwards. In many ways, the reason I am here now is my frustrations at the dilemma that Brexit has imposed on our island, particularly Northern Ireland, without its consent. It was clear long before the 2016 referendum that leaving the European Union would put Northern Ireland's unique situation at risk because of our land border with the EU but also because of the complex web of identity and history that links this place — the Assembly is, in many ways, a manifestation of that complexity — to the rest of Ireland and the rest of the UK.
I also accept, even though I profoundly disagree with them, that many in the Chamber believe in leaving the European Union. It is clear that this deal — this withdrawal Bill — is rejected not only by those who rejected Brexit in the North, which, as we know and as Members have reflected, is the majority, but by those who supported Brexit, including others in the Chamber. I acknowledge, as others have done, that the, in a sense, rejection of the withdrawal Bill is for slightly different reasons, and we should not be shy about admitting that.
However, we have today the opportunity to do something important: to show unity of purpose in rejecting the withdrawal agreement Bill.
For the past three years, the UK Government have said that the voice of all Northern Ireland's representatives — the voice of the Assembly — should be heard and that the Assembly should reconvene in order to enable that to happen. Well, we are here now, and if the Assembly rejects the Bill, as we expect it to, then no Minister in London can claim that there is any doubt over the view of Northern Ireland's representatives.
A few people have mentioned Sajid Javid's comments in the press over the weekend about the UK abandoning alignment. It is worth saying that every time a UK Government Minister decides that the UK is going to diverge from EU rules, they are making a decision that will lead to further divergence in the Irish Sea. It is really important to put that point on the record. People who are concerned about divergence in the Irish Sea should be considering decisions that Tory Ministers in London are making about divergence from EU rules. We should send that message as well today.
As someone who passionately supported efforts to avoid a hardening of the border in Ireland — it is part of the reason why I am here now — I see no contradiction in also saying to the British Government, for which I not so long ago worked, that they have a responsibility to live up to their commitments in minimising disruption of goods as they move between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. That is what parties across the Assembly have attempted to do at Westminster. We have talked a little bit today about the amendments that were tabled at Westminster and which had cross-party support, with the support and advice of the business community, in the last few weeks.
There will be further votes on amendments like that in the days ahead. I hope, for that reason, that we can send a clear message from this place that the parties here are also unified in supporting unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses in Great Britain and in keeping the UK Government to their pledges in living up to that. At the moment we have assurances from UK Ministers but, with respect to them, people from all parties in the Assembly have reason to question the value of guarantees from the Prime Minister and his Ministers.
In the years ahead, we will be debating exactly how the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol works and exactly how it affects Northern Ireland and our island. Today, colleagues have gone through in detail the vast range of areas in which life and policy will be affected in Northern Ireland. It is, quite simply, bewildering. That is why it is really important that, today, we send a clear message that the Assembly does not consent to the detail of the withdrawal agreement Bill, nor does it consent to the Brexit that is being offered. The vital thing that we can do today is to send a very clear message to Westminster that Northern Ireland and its Assembly, when it comes to the withdrawal agreement Bill, says no. I commend the motion.
Mr Beggs: I, too, support the motion. I do not consent to a border being drawn down the Irish Sea, with the additional bureaucracy that will flow with it, both in regulations and in differences between ourselves and the rest of the United Kingdom, which, I highlight, is our biggest market, particularly for our agri-food industry. We must ensure that difficulties that could arise from the agreement are ironed out or avoided. Nevertheless, we all have to accept that a decision has been taken by the British people and by Parliament. That is the reality, whether you voted for or against Brexit. We must ensure that our economy, our people and our businesses are not adversely affected by the withdrawal agreement.
The agreement provides for the setting up of a joint committee, which is a new mechanism for regulations governing Northern Ireland to be established, bypassing the Assembly and Westminster. It will be made up of officials who are appointees from Europe and the UK, and it will determine how we are governed. That could have a very significant adverse effect if the practical outworkings of some of their decisions are not foreseen. It is therefore important that Northern Ireland and the Assembly have a significant input into the joint committee, yet there are no details and there has been no talk about how that will happen. We cannot agree on what is deemed to be the withdrawal agreement so far.
There are some very practical implications for businesses, and, indeed, for my constituency, at the port of Larne. What infrastructure will have to be built for additional inspections to take place? Will the car parks in Belfast, Larne and Warrenpoint be big enough? Will lorries be delayed? Will the agri-food industry, which moves time-sensitive products to supermarkets throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, be able to meet its contracts?
I previously visited a significant distribution point in my constituency and became aware of just how detailed and important time management is for the agri-food industry. If a container arrives late at a distribution point, it is rejected. The manufacturer then bears the cost because it has not met its contract. What would happen to our mushrooms, which have a very limited shelf life? I use mushrooms just as an example. Supermarkets want products with the maximum shelf life. If we have any delays, those will reduce the shelf life, and the industry may not be able to maintain its contracts. At the very least, there is potential for a reduction in the value of our agri-food products because they have a shorter shelf life. Therefore, we must ensure that there are no undue delays as our goods move to other markets.
There is then the whole issue of a customs border potentially being created for goods coming from Scotland to Northern Ireland. Will that put people off using that route for some of our goods? Alternatively, will supermarkets be forced to buy more expensive goods from elsewhere in the EU and the Republic, which is not what we are used to doing?
It is vital that we get engaged and do not sign up to anything without knowing the detail and without being fully aware of the adverse implications that the withdrawal agreement could have on our businesses, our people and our overall economy. It is for that reason that I am happy to support the motion and reject the proposed withdrawal agreement. There is a lot of work to do. We have to accept that this decision has been made, but we must try to mitigate and minimise disruption to our people and our businesses going forward.
Mr Speaker: I now welcome Sinead McLaughlin to make her maiden speech.
Ms McLaughlin: Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is an honour to be called to make my maiden speech, particularly on this very important issue. Before I speak in support of the motion, I hope that Members can allow me a small indulgence, because I want to talk about my city and my constituency.
First, it is my privilege to carry on the mandate of my predecessor and party leader, Colum Eastwood. Colum is a superb politician, showing the value of properly representing the Foyle constituency in Westminster, for Derry and for all of Northern Ireland. I am proud of my party leader. The SDLP has new energy, but we stand on the shoulders of some of the greatest leaders in Ireland: John Hume and Séamus Mallon. We have a strong history of civil rights, as peacemakers and as Europeans. It is part of our DNA.
I am a Derry girl. I was born, was reared and raised a family in my home town. I love my people and my place in Derry. I am passionate about our city, which is full of potential. Derry is a beautiful city, where the Wild Atlantic Way meets the Causeway coast. We are surrounded by the hills of Donegal on three sides. We are a cross-border region that is steeped in history and heritage. If walls could speak. I have lived in Derry in the very worst of times and I have lived in Derry in the best of times, but I really believe that better times are ahead. I commit to the Assembly that I will work very hard to make the best of times better in the future.
I support the motion. There is no good version of Brexit. Brexit is bad for our economy and bad for our citizens. I was the vice-chair of the Remain campaign for Northern Ireland back in 2016 while being chief executive of the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce. Economic forecasts predicted that Brexit would damage Northern Ireland, especially in the border counties. Sure enough, last week, the Ulster Bank said that Northern Ireland is now in recession. Thank you, Brexit.
While Northern Ireland faced the challenges of Brexit, we had a political vacuum, and our business leaders stepped up. They tried to make sense and tried to make contingency plans, with little or no information. Businesses are not orange or green; they just want to get on with things. I want the Assembly and Executive to work more closely with the business community — with all communities — and academics, and to move ahead with the implementation of Brexit. However, I am pragmatic. The UK leaves the EU on 31 January — 11 days from now. We need to play the ball where it has landed. The SDLP and the North did not want a land border in Ireland, and nor did we want a watery border in the Irish Sea. All Members must work hard to ensure that the withdrawal agreement guarantees unfettered access for not only Northern Ireland goods moving to GB but goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. There are competing narratives out there. The EU Commission will protect the single market and the customs union. It has said that the EU import and export formalities will need to take place. We need to understand what they are.
I do not like the withdrawal agreement Bill. It gives the UK Government too much power over Northern Ireland. We need certainty around our future arrangements, but we need to prepare for Brexit. Our economy is weak, and we have poor productivity due to underinvestment in physical and human capital, especially in my city. We must build our skills to build our economy. Our second city needs a full-sized university of 10,000 students. We need to retain more of our talent instead of exporting it. Limiting the size of our university is a terrible act of —
Mr Speaker: Will the Member draw her remarks to a close, please?
Ms McLaughlin: — economic self-harm.
I will end by quoting the Irish economist John FitzGerald, whose recent analysis of the North's economy was that, to improve the economy, the most important steps are:
"to reduce the number of early school leavers and increase the numbers of graduates".
That is true, Mr Speaker, and nowhere is it more important than in the city of Derry, where poverty levels are much too high. It is a failure that I am determined to challenge. That is at the core of my new role in the Assembly. Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Boylan: Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin. I speak in favour of the motion. I put on record my thanks to the likes of BCAB — Border Communities Against Brexit. It played a major and pivotal role and brought a challenge to Europe on behalf of a number of people whom I represent — people who were born and reared in a border county. I also acknowledge the work of ICBAN, the Irish Central Border Area Network, which is made up of a number of councils from along the border corridor. It compiled three reports on the border and Brexit. Any person who has read any of those reports will have seen the remarks made and the challenges that are facing those people along the areas that a lot of us represent.
There is no good in Brexit for Ireland. Brexit, in any form, will be hugely damaging for Ireland and the border region in particular.
Our community — workers, farmers, small businesses and students — will face considerable challenges in the time ahead, irrespective of the exact type of Brexit forced upon us. It is worth remembering that the people in the North voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. Sinn Féin has worked to secure unique arrangements for the North in order to offer some protection for the economy, avoid any hardening of the border and protect, most importantly, the Good Friday Agreement. Those protections were secured not at Westminster but in Dublin and Brussels. Under the terms of the current withdrawal agreement, the people of the North stand to lose rights, funding and opportunities that derive from membership of the European Union. A number of the social, workers' and economic rights we enjoy are based on EU legislation. For example, cross-border access to some social security depends on European directives.
My constituency of Newry and Armagh is a large, mostly rural area, with over 70 border crossings and some others known to locals only. Brexit has the potential to devastate our constituency. The loss of access to EU funding streams is a grave concern. Newry and Armagh has benefited hugely from EU funding streams, and we have absolutely no confidence in a British Government replacing them. Single farm payments via the common agricultural policy were worth nearly £25 million to the Newry and Armagh economy in a single financial year.
Membership of the European Union brings a number of opportunities, including, for example, the Erasmus programme. Although it is not flawless, it presents the opportunity for young people to study and work across the EU. That will be lost in the future.
A majority of our people voted against Brexit. We will not, and we do not, consent to Brexit. That is the message we should send from the Chamber today.
Mr McCrossan: Before I contribute, I welcome my colleagues to the House and congratulate them on their maiden speech. I know that Sinéad and Matthew will be powerful advocates for their constituencies and Northern Ireland more widely.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute by supporting the Executive motion and my party by not giving the British Government our consent over the withdrawal deal. I am glad the Executive have finally been able to show a united front on Brexit, regardless of our political backgrounds, and, equally, I am glad that parties have finally started to listen to business, civic society and the public, who have long voiced their concerns over Brexit and its impact here.
In that regard, and having had no representation in this Chamber for three very long and difficult years, I first of all thank the EU 27 for their solidarity in ensuring that the North and its people are protected as far as possible from the worst impacts of Brexit.
As a representative of West Tyrone, a border constituency, and as a Strabane man who lives just a short distance from the border and Lifford, I know full well that there is no such thing as a good Brexit and that there are no positives to come from a British-imposed exit from the European Union. Brexit creates barriers to trade. It is silent on workers' rights and on social justice. It will inevitably damage Britain's economy and cause significant collateral damage to Ireland, North and South. Despite the Prime Minister's promises, it will swallow up resources and funding, which means that public services will take a hit. That will have a long-term knock-on effect here as well, as is well-documented in the concerns of my fellow Members.
Businesses in my constituency of West Tyrone are, rightfully, fearful as to what Brexit will bring to them in tariffs, extra costs and bureaucracy. For three years they have felt voiceless, and I am sure I speak for many who feel joy at seeing this place restored to give them some voice to the challenges we face. That view is reflected right across the entirety of this island, with grave uncertainty facing our agri-sector, manufacturing, SMEs and many other industries.
The withdrawal Bill does little to alleviate those concerns. While it is positive that the withdrawal deal does not place a de facto border across the island, it creates economic implications for trade with GB, which could hamper businesses and the economy here. The SDLP has serious concerns over the Northern Ireland protocol and the lack of detail that it provides. Last week, I was glad to see the North's MPs, including my party leader Colum Eastwood and colleague Claire Hanna, come together in the House of Commons to support amendments to ensure that the North has unfettered access to GB markets. This has major implications for businesses trading between GB and Northern Ireland who must provide declarations on animal health, VAT tariffs, standards, rules of origin and, perhaps, rules of destination. All of these things are adding additional costs, resource requirements and huge concern for businesses, many of whom are already operating with fine margins.
I have no faith that this Tory Government will act honourably and offset this financial burden. The most recent behaviour of the Tory Government shows that they do not serve our interests here, they never have served our interests here and, certainly, in the future, will not prioritise our interests or those of the people of the North of Ireland.
Last week's amendments to protect business here were struck down by a huge Tory majority in Westminster, and it leaves us, in this Chamber, with a very important role to play to shape the future of trade on this Island. While the Government intend to cut the Northern Ireland parties out of the Brexit process and out of having anything to do with the Northern Ireland protocol, it is important that we send them a strong message from this House. It is important that we strongly tell them that we do not endorse this deal. We will not be walked over, and we will not let all the rights and freedoms be taken away from us without a fight. The restoration of this Assembly and our politicians working together, united in this capacity, is vital.
We need to utilise any leverage we may have to ensure that our protections are not removed against our will. We need a strong relationship with a new Southern Government to ensure that, in terms of the EU, we are treated fairly and equitably. The SDLP supports the motion.
Mr Speaker: I remind the House that it is Rachel Woods's maiden speech.
Miss Woods: Thank you, again. Today, it is refreshing to hear such objections to Brexit. Given this, I wonder who would have thought it was a good idea in the first place.
It is of note that the First Minister stated that correspondence was received last week on this matter. I would be interested to know, given the context of the previous and current item of business, when this correspondence was actually received. It would be interesting to know when this letter was made available to Members of this House, as members of the "naughty corner" here are yet to receive it.
It is concerning that competences that had been devolved to this House and that are to come back from the EU are not to be devolved but held by the UK Government. We must be sceptical of any assurances that this will be temporary, as the scene changes so frequently. The needs of Northern Ireland need to be understood and reflected in any agreement, but this is not what we have currently. What are the guarantees that the UK Government will be acting in the best interests of Northern Ireland on crucial decisions, such as workers' rights, freedom of movement, goods and services and the future of our businesses, and are taking these important concerns into account?
What of our common cause? What affects all of us? The future of our environment and the climate crisis. Why would we trust a Government whose current record is summed up by an empty chair and a melting ice sculpture; whose record is a prime example of greenwashing? One important example is that we are set to miss the 2020 and 2030 emissions targets on PM2·5.
The majority of Northern Ireland never consented to Brexit. They voted against it, they continue to lobby against it, and they know it is an act of self-harm. This is the first time in many years that we have cross-party support reflecting the will of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. We do not consent to the cutting of the devolution settlement nor to the withdrawal agreement, and, as such, we support the motion.
Mr Allister: In keeping with tradition, I congratulate the previous speaker on her maiden speech. I might not have agreed with very much of it, but, nonetheless, there will be more of that on other occasions.
Can I echo the point she made. The First Minister assured the House that all Members had been furnished with a copy of the Brexit Secretary's letter. I can assure her that I have not received a copy. I have checked with the Business Office; there are no copies in the Business Office. I just wonder how the distribution was perfected?
Mrs Foster: Thank you for allowing me to intervene, Mr Allister. If I misled the House, I certainly did not mean to do that, Mr Speaker. It has been laid in the Library for everyone, and everyone has access to it.
Mr Allister: If I could come to the substance of my remarks: the fact that the United Kingdom joined the EU as one nation but is not leaving it as one nation goes to the very heart and puts the finger on the withdrawal agreement's betrayal of Northern Ireland, because, to all intents and purposes, Northern Ireland, under this deal, is to remain subject to the EU's customs union, subject to its customs code, subject to its tariffs and subject to the laws made surrounding that.
Northern Ireland will also, to all intents and purposes, remain in the EU single market for goods — all goods — and, therefore, will be subject to hundreds of laws into which we will have no input or contribution. We will be rule takers in customs and goods regulations. The practical, physical outworking, of course, is a border down the Irish Sea — a manifestation of how far Northern Ireland's interests have been betrayed by this deal in circumstances in which the vast majority of its trade is with GB, the vast majority of its goods come from GB and a comparatively small minority of trade is with the Irish Republic. Yet, in order to protect unfettered trade with the Irish Republic, the answer, apparently, of this agreement is to fetter trade with GB.
It is not very hard to work out the economic consequences of that for this part of the United Kingdom. It will orientate our economy away. I do not care what the Prime Minister says: it is not the Prime Minister's rhetoric that matters; it is the cold, hard print of the agreement, and what I have outlined is what it says. The Prime Minister, for all his rhetoric, has consciously abandoned this part of the United Kingdom to the clutches of the EU, to be a sort of EU colony in the worst possible traditions. Of course, that is intended to orientate our economy away from the United Kingdom and towards the Irish Republic in the hope, of some, that it is a relatively short step from economic unity to political unity.
I have heard some soothing comments today that there are those of a nationalist tradition who do not support a border in the Irish Sea. Really? Let me just remind them that it was their hysteria about prioritising no checks, no border and no recognition from Northern Ireland to the Republic that evolved and created this situation. Of course, it fits entirely into the glove of nationalism that you dilute the link with Great Britain, establish a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and thereby undermine that union. I am sorry: I do not buy the platitudes from some that this is not about undermining the constitutional and economic position of Northern Ireland.
That brings me to this point: we are told to take some comfort from the fact that, now, the Executive will have an input into ongoing/forward negotiations. What will be the consequence of that? You have unionists in the DUP, whose position is that it wants Brexit, does not want a border in the Irish Sea and wants to maintain the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, and you have Sinn Féin saying the very opposite. What will be the input of the Executive on those critical issues?
It will patently be utterly ineffective, cancelled out one by the other. I see no comfort in that regard whatsoever, and, indeed, I suppose, it takes me back in a way —.
Mr Speaker: Will the Member draw his remarks to a close, please?
Mr Allister: Very well. I will not go there then. With that, I draw my remarks to a conclusion. I certainly am opposed to this deal, but that is not because I am opposed to Brexit; it is because I did not get the Brexit that is a proper, thoroughgoing, successful Brexit for Northern Ireland.
Mr Carroll: People Before Profit is a socialist organisation. We want to see society organised in the interests of ordinary people, and, for that reason, we do not support Boris Johnson's Tory vision of Brexit, including the deal he is pushing through Westminster. Unlike those who were happy to shake his hand and smile for the camera last week with him, we consider Johnson to be a dangerous charlatan who has little concern for people here and less concern for those who are working-class and would be most impacted on by the details of the deal.
I have been clear in the past that I am no great friend of the EU as an institution because its foundations are built on neoliberalism, because of its role in forcing austerity in the South of Ireland and beyond, because of its treatment of migrants, whom it recently voted to allow to drown in the Mediterranean Sea, and, most recently, because of its complicity in the stifling of democracy in Catalonia, including the complete silence it afforded when the Spanish state cracked the heads of independence campaigners in Barcelona and beyond.
We recognise that the vast majority of people here do not support Johnson's Tory Brexit, and we recognise that to impose it here would be a flagrant attack on democracy. We think that the deal could have a negative impact on working-class people.
I know, too, that some parties here blustered about Brexit for months, but, when it came to negotiating a 60-page deal with the British Government just over a week ago, the New Decade, New Approach deal barely mentioned Brexit at all. That tells me something about some of the parties here. It tells me that their bluster about Brexit was simply a disguised form of the usual orange and green sabre-rattling that we get during every election period and that, when they were actually given a chance to do something about Brexit by tying the British Government down to specific commitments, they failed to do so.
People Before Profit believe that it is entirely possible to have a different kind of politics and a different kind of society, one that is not tied to elites in London, Brussels or, indeed, Dublin. In our party, we stand with none of those elites, but, instead, stand on the side of ordinary people no matter what their background. Today, we reaffirm our opposition to a Tory Brexit, to Boris Johnson's vision for our future. We stand for our commitment to fighting for an alternative, socialist future.
Ms Sugden: I recall comments from an Executive meeting more than three and a half years ago that, despite the outcome of the referendum, despite the differences in the room, we would put our best foot forward and lead in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland. Sadly, we did not, and only those in the room heard those comments.
The words of the First Minister this afternoon sound very similar to those spoken in 2016, and I sincerely hope that her words, along with the endorsement of the deputy First Minister and the wider Executive, are genuine. I have no doubt that each is acutely aware of the responsibility that rests on their shoulders and the scrutiny they face not just from MLAs but from those outside the Building. We have two years to convince the people of Northern Ireland of our value, and I fear that, in a Brexit context, that will be incredibly difficult.
The significant difference between now and 2016 is time and opportunity to do anything. While I appreciate the Executive Office creating an opportunity to enable Members to share their concerns regarding the withdrawal agreement Bill, I agree with Mr Allister's motion that we should have been able to exercise our scrutiny powers. It is disappointing that the majority of the House did not agree, and I reiterate comments that I made on restoration day: it is regrettable that no party chose official Opposition, but do not limit the integrity of this legislature further by removing our accountability.
I support the motion, and I see value in the House coming together on an issue that will affect all the people of Northern Ireland. I am, however, unsure of the practical purpose, other than to send a hollow message back to the UK Government. It feels too little and far too late. We lost our opportunity to participate in the legislative consent process. We cannot formally reject the legislative consent motion; we are simply putting on record what, I expect, the UK Government already know. I expect that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet will treat our motion similarly to how he treated Scotland when they rejected it. I expect that they will deem it unnecessary, as they did the cross-party amendment on 8 January. Unnecessary for whom? Certainly not the Tory Party, who have no representation here other than the Secretary of State, who tells us to get on with it, even to the detriment of the most vulnerable in our society.
I commend the DUP, the SDLP and the Alliance Party for taking a practical approach in the House of Commons to addressing the inevitable challenges that the withdrawal agreement will bring to Northern Ireland. They sought to provide much-needed clarity regarding unfettered access for Northern Ireland to the UK market. Much credit goes to the business community for their input. They have been trying to cajole politicians for three years, knowing the potential impact that Brexit will have on our economy. Stakeholder contribution is valuable regarding that and, indeed, every other issue that we consider. Regrettably, the UK Government rejected the amendment, arguing that Government assurances over access to the UK market were sufficient. The momentous deal just over a week ago and the promises of additional funding demonstrate to all of us that assurances from Mr Johnson's Government cannot be taken for granted.
Brexit is not over on 1 February 2020. It is the beginning of our biggest political test. Regardless of your view — "In" or "Out" — undoubtedly, dismantling 30 years of political, social and economic structures will be our biggest challenge.
Mrs O'Neill (The deputy First Minister): I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate. It has been a fairly constructive debate in terms of our shared opposition to Brexit being foisted on us. It is clear across the House that there is widespread support that we should not agree to give our consent on the matter. I note the comments from Ms Sugden about it falling on deaf ears in terms of what the British Government will do on the back of this, but, nonetheless, it is really important, and both the First Minister and I felt that it was right and proper for the Assembly to have its say on the matter. We also agreed that we should recommend that consent is not given, and I am glad that that is the response, in the main, that Members have contributed to the debate today. There is no doubt — the First Minister said this in her opening remarks — that it is for different reasons that we come to this position today; nonetheless, it is significant that we are in the space that we are in.
It is of no surprise that our objection is shared by our colleagues in the Scottish Government, whom other Members have referred to today, and Wales, which will vote tomorrow. It is no surprise at all that this objection is felt across Scotland, Wales and here. Brexit is unprecedented: no member state has left the EU before now. It is only 11 days until we exit the European Union after 47 years of membership. Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the restoration of power-sharing in 2007, the Union has provided significant financial support to the peace process under the Peace and INTERREG programmes. We now have a restored Executive and a fully functioning Assembly, North/South Ministerial Council and British-lrish Council, which is what our citizens want and what we who are elected to the Assembly want. Our shared determination is that those institutional arrangements will continue with much more vigour, going forward. It is our responsibility as elected representatives to work together to ensure that the rights and entitlements of our citizens are protected and that we deal with the challenges posed by Brexit for the good of everyone.
Members will recall that our Brexit priorities were set out in the letter that the then deputy First Minister — the late Martin McGuinness — and the First Minister sent to the Prime Minister, Theresa May, in 2016, and I note that other Members have referred to that. It was clear then, as it is now, that there could be no return to the borders of the past and that any border could not be an impediment to the movement of goods, people and services. It is now absolutely imperative that we redouble our efforts to develop and rebuild a modern, competitive and sustainable economy and to safeguard jobs.
We want to be equally clear now, as we were in 2016, that it is critical to our economy that our businesses are able to retain their competitiveness. Slowing businesses down or putting the costs of doing business up is not in anyone's interests, including consumers'.
Our membership of the EU has provided substantial financial aid towards infrastructure, agricultural subsidies and other grant aid. The First Minister and I will be working closely with the Finance Minister to ensure that the British Government are fully aware of the importance of replacing those funds so that many critical projects may continue to benefit our communities now and into the future.
Energy is also a key priority for us, given our position in a small and isolated market. Businesses and investors will be concerned about energy costs and ensuring a consistent supply that meets the needs of modern industry. We need to ensure that that vital aspect of our economy is not undermined in the negotiating process.
The importance of issues that affect our agri-food sector must also be considered by the British Government. As well as the important matter of a replacement for CAP funding, they must pay close attention to the agricultural community's concerns about the potential for additional burdens and costs. The industry needs early guidance on any adjustments that it will need to make, and consumers too will look to the British Government to make adequate provision for any necessary assistance or mitigations. Brexit will also have significant implications for the work of our Departments, and that will need to be looked at properly.
Junior Ministers Kearney and Lyons will attend a Brexit meeting with the British Government tomorrow. The Minister of Finance, Conor Murphy MLA, will be with the Treasury on Thursday. I and the First Minister will attend the Joint Ministerial Committee on Brexit in Cardiff on 28 January. We will all be taking every opportunity available to us to press strongly the case for funding to help the key sectors of our economy.
Many Members have made important points throughout the debate and raised a number of valid concerns, all of which we will be working hard to address.
One of the most significant things about the debate over the past three years has been the fact that the business community has spoken with one voice and has made its voice heard loud and clear here, in London and in Brussels. It has made sure that its voice was heard and counted. I commend the business community for the work that it has done over that time. That is everybody from the Chamber of Commerce, the CBI, Retail NI, the Retail Consortium, the Freight Transport Association — I am going to get myself in trouble now that I have started naming people
— Manufacturing NI, the Food and Drink Association, the Federation of Small Businesses, Hospitality Ulster, the Institute of Directors, the Ulster Farmers' Union and the Construction Employers Federation. Those and many other organisations were consistent and strong in articulating effectively their shared concerns for the future of industry here. We want to continue to work with them in the time ahead.
There is no doubt that we face significant challenges to ensuring that there are no barriers to trade, either North/South or east-west. As I have said, we do not want to go back to the borders of the past. In my role as deputy First Minister and joint head of the Government, I am committed to working in the interests of everyone. We will be working with our business community and the key sectors of the economy. Our businesses need to be able to benefit from any future free trade agreements, if and when negotiated. We need to guarantee that we, along with the other devolved Administrations, will be consulted on the wider trade policy. I know that that is a concern that Members have articulated today.
We are equally concerned about citizens' rights and will need to engage closely on developments around the establishment of the Independent Monitoring Authority for the Citizens' Rights Agreements. The Executive subcommittee that will consider Brexit issues, which we have agreed and which is written into 'New Decade, New Approach', will be a key structure in the coordination and development of our Executive response.
We therefore have much to do in the next phase, as preparations commence for the negotiations on the future relationship. The protocol affirms that the Good Friday Agreement should be protected in all its parts. We will ensure that the British Government and the EU live up to those commitments and responsibilities throughout the negotiations.
To conclude, we must work together in common cause to overcome the challenges that have been imposed on us by Brexit. Should the vote on the motion pass, we will immediately respond to the British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union to convey to him that the Assembly has not given its consent to the British Government to legislate on our behalf.
Mr Speaker: I thank all Members for the conduct of the debate this afternoon. It has been very respectful.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Assembly notes the request from the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union for the consent of the Assembly for the provisions of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill which affect its competence; and affirms that the Assembly does not agree to give its consent.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that, in order to enable Committees to meet to address urgent business, the next sitting should take place on Monday 27 January 2020. An Order Paper will issue after the Business Committee meets later.