By Mark Michael

In a rare show of inter-provincial solidarity, the United Kingdom’s five Anglican archbishops condemned the Brexit-enabling Internal Market Bill before the House of Lords this week. In an October 19 letter to the Financial Times, the archbishops said the bill poses a threat to Britain’s model of devolved policymaking and undermines peace in Northern Ireland. They harshly criticized a provision that empowers a government minister to break international law for the national self-interest as a move that “has enormous moral, as well as political consequences.”

“If carefully negotiated terms are not honored, and laws can be ‘legally’ broken,” the archbishops asked, “on what foundations does our democracy stand?”

The bill, which was approved by the House of Commons on September 29, sets out the terms for trade between England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland after the United Kingdom fully severs its ties with the European Union on January 1, 2021. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government describes it as a “safety net” to protect the UK’s internal market if legal disputes arise between the UK and the European Union over the provisions of the Northern Irish Protocol that the government negotiated with the EU last October.

The Northern Irish Protocol attempts to avoid a “hard border” marked by customs and passports checkpoints along the many highways that link Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, which remains part of the EU. Such checkpoints are a volatile reminder of British “occupation” of the island’s northern third for Northern Ireland’s largely Catholic Republican movement, who support Northern Ireland breaking away from the UK and becoming part of the Republic of Ireland.  The dismantlement of checkpoints was an important part of the Good Friday Agreement that secured peace between Northern Ireland’s Republican and Unionist movements in 1998.

The Northern Irish Protocol requires Northern Ireland to continue to enforce EU customs rules and to follow EU rules on product standards, participating in the EU’s “single market on goods.” This makes the customs checks along the border with the Irish Republic unnecessary. The rest of the UK, however, will cease participating in the single market on goods after December 31, which means that a regulatory and customs border will need to be set up between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The UK and the European Union continue to engage in trade talks, with the goal of eliminating customs tariffs altogether. The Internal Market Bill enables the UK to act in its own self-interest in case these talks fail, giving UK officials the power to “disapply” portions of the Northern Irish Protocol on the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the UK and to boost Northern Irish businesses with previously tabled state subsidies that would make them more competitive in the EU market.  The EU has promised lawsuits if the UK acts on these provisions.

The Johnson government’s Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, admitted to parliament on September 8 that the Internal Markets Bill “does break international law in a very specific and limited way. We’re taking the powers to disapply the EU law concept of direct effect … in a certain very tightly defined circumstance.” The concept of direct effect allows an individual to invoke a provision of certain European Union laws – in this case, Northern Irish Protocol – before a national court.

The Internal Market Bill is also opposed in its current form by the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd, the parliamentary bodies that represent two “nations” under UK’s system of devolved governance. The Northern Irish Assembly passed a resolution opposing the Internal Market Bill’s principles before it was passed in its final form. While the consent of the regional parliamentary bodies is not technically necessary, the Johnson government’s expressed desire to push the legislation through without attending to their expressed concerns is unusual.

The archbishops warned of the potential long-term consequences of such an action, which disproportionately effects trade between Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, writing “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 Internal Markets Bill is due to be taken up in the House of Lords this week, where Johnson’s government lacks a majority. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell, are members of the House. Though a proposed “motion of regret” about the bill has been tabled by the Lord Judge, more than 110 peers have signed up to speak against the bill.  The Lords will not be able to veto the bill, but they can delay its adoption, and strong opposition will weaken the Johnson government’s hand in continued negotiations with the EU.

Former government minister David Jones lashed out at the archbishops’ statement in an interview with The Daily Mail, saying their remarks “betray a lack of understanding of the issues involved.” He added: “This is way beyond the remit of the Church. It is a straightforward question of constitutional propriety. Once again, the archbishops seem to have swallowed every scrap of Remain propaganda unquestioningly and are now regurgitating it. It makes my blood boil.”

The Irish primate, Archbishop John McDowell, who served the Church of Ireland’s border Diocese of Clogher before being chosen as Archbishop of Dublin, defended the archbishops’ decision to speak out against the bill in an interview with BBC’s Radio 4 Today. He described the letter as part of “civic dialogue” at the heart of the democratic process. “Pretty much every political act, and every piece of legislation or social policy, has an ethical element to it,” McDowell added.

The other archbishops who signed the letter are John Davies, Archbishop of Wales; and Mark Strange, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.