BISHOPS in the House of Lords contributed to a heavy defeat of the Government over the UK Internal Market Bill on Monday evening.
The Lords debated and voted on the Bill during its Committee Stage. A cross-party group of Peers had tabled motions that all the clauses of Part 5 of the Bill, which addressed Northern Ireland, international law, and executive powers, should be removed from the Bill.
Nine bishops were among the 433 peers who voted to remove Clause 42 from the Bill, which would allow ministers to disapply the Northern Ireland protocol with the European Union. Eight bishops were among the 407 peers who voted to remove Clause 44, which would allow ministers to renege on the Withdrawal Agreement and therefore break international law. The combined effect of the two votes was to remove all the clauses which make up Part 5 of the Bill.
In a Lords debate on the Bill on Monday evening, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke in support of an amendment, to which he had added his name, the purpose of which was “simply to put on the record a concern that this Bill in its current form fails to take into account the sensitivities and complexities of Northern Ireland, and could have unintended and serious consequences for peace and reconciliation”.
He continued: “One thing must remain certain in a time of turmoil and uncertainty, and it is the inestimable value of peace. The process of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland did not end with the Belfast Agreement. . . It remains an ongoing process that requires work, and awareness from leaders that almost every decision taken and word spoken in relation to Northern Ireland will have an impact. This Bill must show that it is sensitive to these circumstances.”
The Rt Revd Lord Eames, who was Archbishop of Armagh at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, spoke earlier in the debate to the amendment, also tabled in his name. “This amendment places a duty on the Secretary of State to take account of the effects of any exercise of authority conveyed by the Bill on the peace process and progress of reconciliation in Northern Ireland,” he said. “As the Bill stands, there is potential for unintended consequence on the sensitivities of community peace and harmony in Northern Ireland.
“Brexit is already asking searching questions of that sensitivity. Issues of internal trade arrangements — north-south and east-west in the United Kingdom — are raising questions that have the potential to threaten the hard-earned progress of community understanding and stability in Northern Ireland, but it is still a tender plant.”
Lord Eames concluded: “In the Bill is the potential to threaten the stability of Northern Ireland. That threat, as much as it lies in what the Bill questions of the devolved settlement, raises issues of the Northern Ireland peace process.”
The amendment was not moved. Archbishop Welby also spoke in support, however, of the clauses on Northern Ireland and the breaking of international law.
The “primary function” of the Lords, he said, was “to defend the rule of law and to protect the balances of power and peace in our Union”.
He continued: “I hope that the Government will reflect on the strength of feeling, depth of experience, and wisdom of expertise shown in the debate on these clauses, and will push not for their reinstatement, but for their replacement with others that better guarantee that the rule of law, peace, and the balances of power are upheld within our United Kingdom.”
Archbishop Welby said that he fully accepted “that the decision [to leave the EU] has been taken democratically and [I] am entirely supportive of pursuing it. This is about the fundamental values we stand and live by as a nation, now and in the years to come.”
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said in the debate: “In the last couple of decades, during the Mugabe years, I have had a lot to do with Zimbabwe and latterly with Sudan, including meeting former President Omar al-Bashir. How can we say to people like them that the rule of law is paramount and that one’s word has to be taken in good faith?”
He continued: “This is an ethical and a constitutional issue. How can the Government ask Her Majesty the Queen effectively to give Royal Assent to the acceptability of breaking laws to which we have agreed? Mischievously, I suggest that we might refer to it as King John’s revenge.”
After the Lords votes, a government spokesman said: “We will retable these clauses when the Bill returns to the Commons. We’ve been consistently clear that the clauses represent a legal safety net to protect the integrity of the UK’s internal market and the huge gains of the peace process.
“We expect the House of Lords to recognise that we have an obligation to the people of Northern Ireland to make sure they continue to have unfettered access to the UK under all circumstances.”
Last month, all five Anglican Primates of the UK warned that the Bill would compromise “peace and stability” between the UK and Ireland, and create a “disastrous precedent” by equipping a government minister to break international law (News, 19 October).