CHURCHES in Britain have declined official comment on the Government’s UK Internal Market Bill, which passed its first parliamentary reading on Monday. Senior figures at home and abroad, however, have voiced concern about the measure, amid fears that it could violate international law and damage the country’s international standing.
In a series of messages on Twitter, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, said that the UK was now “in a bad way”, and that he wondered “why any country would ever sign a document with Britain again”. A Roman Catholic Cardinal in Brussels warned against breaking “too much china”.
The proposed law, allowing the Government to override parts of Britain’s Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union, cleared its first reading on Monday night by 340 votes to 263, despite opposition from some Conservative MPs and several former prime ministers, including John Major and Tony Blair.
Ministers insist that it will safeguard Northern Ireland’s links with the UK if negotiations for a British-EU trade deal break down. Critics warn, however, that it risks damaging Britain’s image by breaching international law, and further opposition is likely as the legislation receives scrutiny in the House of Lords.
Bishop Bayes also retweeted harsh criticisms of the Bill by the Labour MP David Lammy and the columnist Peter Oborne, and thanked the Government’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion, Rehman Chishti, for resigning over the issue on Monday.
A spokesman for the Church of Ireland, Peter Cheney, said that the new Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd John McDowell, and other bishops had not made any statement about the Bill’s likely impact in Northern Ireland.
The communications director of the diocese in Europe, Damian Thwaites, said that legal and academic views of the Bill were being provided by EU and international lawyers, but declined to offer an official diocesan perspective.
One of Europe’s most prominent Roman Catholic cardinals criticised the UK Government, however, saying that he felt hurt by the current “messy situation”. Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, president of the Commission of EU Bishops Conferences, COMECE, told the KNA news agency: “I have problems understanding when there’s no longer a will to uphold contracts, since this calls into question the foundations of co-operation.” He said he had discussed the current dispute with the Pope on Thursday of last week.
“I’m not suggesting Prime Minister Johnson is a populist. But his behaviour is populist, and such dangerous tendencies can prove highly damaging to the world order. I hope the citizens of the EU and UK will stay friends, and not break too much china.”
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, was among the many bishops who cautioned a year ago against leaving the EU without a deal, and the Archbishop of Canterbury joined more than 100 bishops in deploring the “unacceptable” language used in Brexit debates in September 2019 (News, 30 August 2019, 4 October 2019).
In a statement last week, the EU Commission said that “timely and full implementation” of the Withdrawal Agreement, including its protocol on Northern Ireland, remained a “legal obligation” for the British Government. Any violation would “break international law, undermine trust, and put at risk the ongoing future relationship negotiations”.
It said that the Northern Ireland Protocol, aimed at protecting peace and stability, formed an “essential part” of the Agreement, and had resulted from “long, detailed, and difficult negotiations between the EU and the UK”.
The UK had already “seriously damaged trust” by putting forward the UK Internal Market Bill, the Commission warned. Its adoption would mark “an extremely serious violation of international law”.