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Anglican Primates warn Government over ‘disastrous’ Bill

19 October 2020


Belfast Harbour, at the centre of the debate about where a trade border might be imposed

Belfast Harbour, at the centre of the debate about where a trade border might be imposed

ALL five Anglican Primates of the UK and Ireland have warned the Government that its UK Internal Market Bill will set a “disastrous precedent” and “further undermine trust and goodwill” between the home nations if it is passed unamended.

The Bill was given its second reading in the House of Lords on Monday afternoon and passed on Tuesday as amended by Lord Judge by a cross-party majority. Through it, the Government intends to set up internal arrangements for trading after the Brexit transition period ends. The Bill has been heavily criticised for breaking international law, something that the Government has admitted, and reversing the devolution of power in the UK.

In a joint letter published in The Financial Times on Sunday night, the Archbishops of Canterbury, York, Wales, Armagh, and the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, write: “The Bill represents a profound shift in how trading relationships within the UK will be regulated and governed. This will not be a return to a trade regime that existed before UK joined the EU; it will be an entirely novel system, replacing one that evolved slowly and by careful negotiation over decades.

“The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd have made clear that the Bill’s weakening of both the principles and the effect of devolved policymaking is of constitutional significance. Moreover, if the Bill is made law without consent from devolved legislatures (as will happen if it is not amended to address their concerns), this will further undermine trust and goodwill among those who govern the different parts of the United Kingdom.”

The Primates state that the Bill would also compromise “peace and stability” between the UK and Ireland. “The Bill is, of course, not just concerned with domestic law. It currently asks the country’s highest law-making body to equip a government minister to break international law. This has enormous moral, as well as political and legal, consequences.

“We believe this would create a disastrous precedent. It is particularly disturbing for all of us who feel a sense of duty and responsibility to the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement – that international treaty on which peace and stability within and between the UK and Ireland depends.”

The letter goes on to criticise the Government for breaching agreements and questions in what democracy laws can be “legally” broken.

“The UK negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol with the EU to ‘protect the 1998 Agreement in all its dimensions’. One year on, in this Bill, the UK Government is not only preparing to break the Protocol, but also to breach a fundamental tenet of the Agreement: namely by limiting the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights in Northern Ireland law.

“If carefully negotiated terms are not honoured and laws can be ‘legally’ broken, on what foundations does our democracy stand? We urge lawmakers to consider this Bill in the light of values and principles we would wish to characterise relationships across these islands long after the transition period.”


The EU Commission issued a similar warning against the Bill last month, writing that any violation of the Withdrawal Agreement would “break international law, undermine trust, and put at risk the ongoing future relationship negotiations” (News, 18 September). Church leaders had previously declined to comment.

The Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd John McDowell, told the Today programme on Radio 4: “We felt that we needed to say something, perhaps to get people to pull back a little, not to think about the immediate deadlines, not to think about the necessity of doing something quickly, but of trying to take into account what the relationships were going to be like coming out of this in years to come.”

Anyone entering an agreement had a “moral obligation” to live up to any binding agreement, or mitigate the mistakes made. He expressed particular concern at Government amendments to the Bill “very late on” in the House of Commons that “seemed to undermine the human-rights clauses” in the Good Friday agreement.

“That was a particularly telling moment because . . . there was a bit of a fanfare around the Good Friday agreement, that it was inconsistent, that it would be undermined at the same time as being lauded.”

The Welsh and Scottish governments had their own “grave” reservations. “The consequences of trade bills do effect people,” he said. “There are always people who come off worse when there is a reduction in consumer choice or standards, or when there is a hike in price, as there could well be.”

Churches had a role in maintaining the partnerships of democracy, he said. “Every political act and piece of legislation of social policy has an ethical element to it; I’m afraid it’s not a particularly positive or helpful thing to do to try to censor the people who speak into those ethical areas.”

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