Speech in a debate in the House of Lords on The Queen’s Speech on Wednesday 19 May 2021 – Hansard Report

Lord Alderdice (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, in addressing a few issues of defence and foreign policy, I remind the House of my interests recorded in the register. However, one interest is not registered. Two years ago this month, my godson, Conor McDowell, a 24 year-old first lieutenant in the US Marine Corps, was killed protecting his men in a military vehicle rollover accident at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. He was an only child and about to become engaged to Kathleen, the love of his life. As a result of unrelenting pressure from his parents and some Members of the House and Senate, an independent investigation was initiated by two powerful House committees, exonerating him of any blame but revealing an astonishing death rate of US military personnel in training. A sub-committee of the House is currently conducting a hearing on learning from and preventing future training mishaps. When I asked HMG for their figures, the Written Answer showed that the number of deaths and injuries of our military personnel was also massively greater in training and exercises than in combat duty. Given the US response to its figures and the stated concern of the Minister for the welfare of our service personnel, will Her Majesty’s Government institute an independent study to learn from and prevent future training mishaps for our military?

It was said in this debate that what happened in the pandemic was unexpected, but this is not true. Reports commissioned by the Government warned that a pandemic was inevitable and advised what needed to be done, but the advice was not taken. The same was true for Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine. For years before the onset of the Troubles there were warnings about leaving the situation to fester. It took 30 years of destruction before the Good Friday agreement brought it to an end. There were three strands to the negotiations, addressing three sets of relationships, and three sets of institutions emerged: the Northern Ireland power-sharing Assembly, the north-south bodies, and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

The British and Irish Governments and the European Union repeatedly proclaimed that they supported the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, but the strand 3 British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference did not meet for a decade so, when Brexit appeared on the scene, there was no longer any serious relationship between the two Governments at a senior level. The European Union did not so much neglect as disrupt the relationships. It maintained its support for strand 2—the north-south cross-border work—but stood in the way of strand 3 negotiations, with Monsieur Barnier insisting that he spoke for Ireland. He did not; he spoke for the EU, and when the EU addressed anything, its focus was the interests of the nationalist community, as represented in strand 2 of the agreement, but not the interests of the unionist community, thus disrupting strand 1 of the agreement.

Post Brexit, relationships with the EU are a very contentious foreign policy issue, and I see little recognition by HMG or the EU that they understand the complex and variable geometry of the Good Friday agreement. I plead with Her Majesty’s Government to address this complexity before the United Kingdom itself is pulled apart by London failing to heed the warnings.

Similarly, there is nothing surprising about the mounting violence in Israel/Palestine. My friend Yair Lapid, who is currently trying to put together a new coalition Government in Israel, this week said:

“We are on the edge of the abyss. We knew it was coming. We have seen this disintegration coming”.

The disintegration of which he spoke is what makes this violence different from before, because now Arab Israelis have risen up against their Jewish-Israeli neighbours. It is not just Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. Lapid appealed for the country to

“…..come together: good Israeli citizens, Jews and Arabs, ultra-Orthodox, religious and secular. We all believe in the same thing, that violence cannot win, we will not let it win”.

I remember using such words myself as the Alliance leader in Northern Ireland. I wanted to believe that the silent majority of peace-loving people on all sides could work together and marginalise the men of violence, as we called them. Eventually, we had to negotiate a deal.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, along with President Trump, thought that they could do a deal with the leaders of the front-line Arab states to marginalise the Palestinians. But I remember an Egyptian Minister in Cairo telling me many years ago: “The Government walk on one side of the street, but the people walk on the other side”. Agreements with authoritarian Arab leaders will not carry the Arab street. We who love our brothers and sisters in Israel/Palestine must warn them all as critical friends that marginalisation, discrimination, and the use of force will not solve their problems.

My unionist fellow countrymen would not listen to my warning many years ago and some of them still have their fingers in their ears, even as the union slips away from them. If Israel focuses on the argument of force, it may be in the short-term interests of Mr Netanyahu’s aspirations for government, but it will not be in the interests of his children and grandchildren. Do Her Majesty’s Government accept that decades of occupation of the Palestinian territories have poisoned the well and contributed to the current violence? At what point will Her Majesty’s Government consider that the occupation had become after decades a de facto annexation?

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