Parliament

Northern Ireland

Published date : 26 February, 2024
I have almost lost count of the number of times I have taken to my feet in this Chamber to say that Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally. At last, we can now say that will be the case. No doubt, in terms of the agreement—the settlement that has been reached—there will be imperfections, compromises and asymmetries, and elements that are not for the self-appointed purists. However, there is certainly enough there for the pragmatists to allow for the progress that needs to be made.

Over the course of my time speaking for the Scottish National party on Northern Irish issues, I have had the great pleasure of serving as a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. Understandably, much bandwidth in that organisation has been taken up with Brexit and its aftermath, the resulting fallout—and indeed many of the occasional fallings out that have resulted. However, when my committee met in Edinburgh last week, there was a definite change in the tone of conversations outside the formal business. I hope I am not putting words in any Members’ mouths by saying that there was a pleasure, a realism, certainly an optimism, and definitely a realism about recent developments, but the key thing was that nobody was any longer asking about when might Stormont return; rather, it was what would now be done by Stormont to improve the lot of people in Northern Ireland now that it had returned.

Within the agreement, one of the areas that leaps out—I hope that, in time, Ministers will expand on their vision for it—is the East-West Council to deal with matters of business, education and culture across that east-west axis. Even from the perspective of a hard-bitten Scottish nationalist much like myself, that opens up a great deal of useful space potentially to share and develop all that we have in common, all that we continue to have in common, and all that we will have in common and which will endure regardless of wherever our respective constitutional journeys happen to conclude in future.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Yes, when we put the constitution to one side, there are indeed many issues that can be agreed on or worked on together. That is why I find that the space that that council might offer quite compelling. It is certainly something of great interest. Now that politics in Northern Ireland has indeed moved on, it is perhaps time for me to hop once again on the Loganair flight from Aberdeen and perhaps renew some acquaintances.

In the many words we heard throughout the Brexit debate on where Northern Ireland found itself snagged, we often heard a rather boilerplate expression about a “precious Union”. That struck my ears. Those words were easy—perhaps too easy at times—for many in this place to pay lip service to without actually following through on them in practice. Sometimes it is easy to say things, but it is much harder to reflect. It seemed to us that the desire for a particular form of Brexit—favoured only by a small minority hiding behind a small majority in one part of the Union—was given primacy and priority, and was allowed to prevail over the clear wishes of other constituent parts of the Union. For many, however they voted in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, that reopened that debate and encouraged them to reappraise the position that they might have taken at that time.

I can certainly understand why the Humble Address before us is worded in this manner. The key word that the Minister has, in effect, conceded was implied but left unspoken was consent, where it applies to the executive power being vested in His Majesty. That is interesting to me for a number of reasons. Union by consent is how many of us in Scotland understand our position in the Union to work. But unlike Northern Ireland, we have nothing similar in statute to the wording of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, explaining what happens if a majority of those voting in Scotland were to express a wish to cease to be part of the UK. I would contend that in all parts of the Union there should be a way to demonstrate how consent has been withdrawn by the people, if it is being withdrawn. Following the events of the last few days, just like this Parliament, maintaining that consent will be judged by how the institution of the Union treats its minorities and is seen to act with integrity in all that it does.

In conclusion, we on the SNP Benches wish the people of Northern Ireland and their institutions well. We look forward to seeing their politicians and those institutions playing a full role in those bodies, be they north, south, east or west, and to seeing the Good Friday agreement move forward in all its strands, as we always hoped it would, to allow a peaceful, prosperous Northern Ireland to continue to come to terms with its past and be at ease in building its shared future, whatever its people decide that future ought to look like.

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