Rumour is the nectar of lobby journalists. MPs, however, prefer to know what’s coming.
On Tuesday morning, MPs awoke to news of a deal struck between the DUP and the UK Government, and a lobby buzzing with rumours about its contents. The way appears paved for Stormont to sit once more, for an election to be avoided and for at least £3.3 billion of UK Government money to flow into NI. This is welcome news indeed.
Yet, as it stands, only members of the UK Government and a few senior members of the DUP know the terms of this deal. Back benchers of all parties, meanwhile, remain in the dark. That is understandable during negotiations but also uncomfortable - educated guesses are that the deal will be significant, impacting as it must on the place of NI within the UK and the functioning of the union.
Of course, we were presented with a similar situation last year with the Windsor Framework. Negotiated and drafted in secrecy, when it came to MPs a single Statutory Instrument (SI) was given just ninety minutes of debating time before a single symbolic vote on the whole Framework. It further transpired that the details of the deal were still being negotiated and agreed elsewhere. This handling compounded for many their concerns that NI would gradually diverge, or be peeled away, from the rest of the UK. And having failed to allay DUP fears, they continued with their boycott of Stormont.
Bismarck once famously compared laws to sausages (it’s best not to see how they’re made), yet our own history suggests that transparency and scrutiny lead to the most sustainable agreements. The endurance of the Belfast (or ‘Good Friday’) Agreement comes from foundations laid by hands across the political spectrum. Its legitimacy and scale were established through the confirmatory public referendum that built upon those foundations. Its survival, a quarter century later, is a testament to broad-based, cross-community buy-in.
These are important lessons that should not be overlooked lightly. Conservatives are used to testing ideas through debate - discarding the weak and the bad, retaining the good and useful. Many of us hope that the deal struck will protect and promote the place of NI within the UK. The public, businesses, journalists, think tanks and MPs must be given a chance to scrutinise it and its impacts to confirm that.
There is much goodwill towards the government and a resolution of the problems in Northern Ireland. But, at the very least, constitutional change must be given time and space on the Commons Order Paper for proper debate. Details must be published to allow timely scrutiny, debate and, if needs be, amendment. Good law is not made in secret.
You can listen to my spoken contributions on this here: Robin Millar MP - YouTube
Robin Millar is the MP for Aberconwy and chairs the CURU, a backbench group of about seventy Conservative MPs committed to strengthening the Union.