1. Government motion for an address

On 27 February 2024, the House of Lords is due to debate the following motion for an address to the crown moved by Lord Caine, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Northern Ireland Office:

That an humble address be presented to His Majesty welcoming the return of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, re-affirming the importance of upholding the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998 in all its strands, acknowledging the foundational importance of the Acts of Union 1800, including the economic provisions under article 6 of those acts, and recognising that, consistent with section 23(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, executive power in Northern Ireland shall continue to be vested in His Majesty, and that joint authority is not provided for in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998 in respect of the UK and Irish governments.

The same motion is due to be debated on 26 February 2024 in the House of Commons.

2. What is an address to the crown?

An ‘address to the crown’ is the ordinary method by which both Houses of Parliament communicate with the sovereign.[1] Addresses may be agreed by both Houses and jointly presented, or agreed separately but presented together, but are more commonly agreed and presented separately. The sovereign’s reply is communicated to the House “on the first convenient occasion”.

The most common form of address occurs at the beginning of every session in reply to the King’s Speech. The House also agreed an humble address to the King to express condolences on the passing of the late Queen Elizabeth II.[2]

3. How does this relate to recent developments in Northern Ireland?

The motion follows a commitment by the government in its command paper ‘Safeguarding the union’, published on 31 January 2024, to “provide a mechanism for Parliament to affirm its commitment to the Acts of Union and that there is no basis in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement for joint authority arrangements with the government of Ireland”.[3]

The command paper was published following negotiations between the government and the DUP over unionist concerns about the Windsor Framework (formerly known as the Northern Ireland Protocol). The command paper set out what the government described as “a new package of proposals that look to fully protect Northern Ireland and its place in the union”.[4] The particular commitment quoted above is contained in annex A of the command paper. In annex A, the government sought to address what it described as “concerns and misconceptions that have arisen around the status of the Acts of Union, including article 6, setting them in their proper historical and constitutional context”.[5] The command paper stated that “it is firmly the government’s position that the Windsor Framework applies entirely consistently with Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the United Kingdom, including as expressed by the Acts of Union in its modern context”.[6]

The Northern Ireland Assembly met on 3 February 2024 and elected a speaker and deputies.[7] Michelle O’Neill from Sinn Féin and Emma Little-Pengelly from the DUP were nominated as first and deputy first minister respectively and assumed office after affirming the pledge of office. The remaining seven ministers in the executive were also nominated and appointed. This marked the end of two years without a fully functioning executive in Northern Ireland, following the collapse of power-sharing in February 2022 over the DUP’s objections to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Parliament has approved two statutory instruments that implement aspects of the deal set out in the ‘Safeguarding the union’ command paper: the Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024 and the Windsor Framework (UK Internal Market and Unfettered Access) Regulations 2024.

During the parliamentary debates on those regulations, there was cross-party support for the restoration of Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions. However, some members in both Houses voiced their ongoing concerns about the impact of the Windsor Framework on Northern Ireland’s place in the union. For instance, Sammy Wilson (DUP MP for East Antrim) suggested that the Acts of Union were “being disrupted” because of the application of EU rules in Northern Ireland.[8] In the House of Lords, Lord Dodds of Duncairn (DUP) stated his view that the statutory instruments did not “remove the Irish Sea border and its cause—the subjugation of Northern Ireland to foreign jurisdiction regarding the production of goods and agrifood”.[9] Similarly, Baroness Hoey (non-affiliated) said that “nothing could be further from the truth” than claims that “the Irish Sea border is removed and the Act of Union restored”.[10]

Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP and MP for Foyle in the House of Commons, said that his party did not support the command paper.[11] He said the SDLP believed it had “moved far beyond the principles set out in the Good Friday Agreement”, and that it “undermines north-south cooperation and has far too much focus on east-west cooperation”. The SDLP forms the official opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly.[12]

4. Read more

4.1 Command paper and new deal announced in January

4.2 Background

Cover image by maddock1238 on Pixabay.